As an electric vehicle owner, there is no doubt in my mind that pure-battery models are close to the mass adoption tipping point, except for one major barrier. The lack of charging infrastructure. It’s not just the sparsity of where to charge, it’s the plug-in type that’s problematic too.
EVs work well. Compared to combustion engine vehicles, the driving performance and acceleration are superior. Pricewise, the mainstream luxury segment has reached comparable economics with the petroleum powered peer group. It’s true that compact electric cars are still expensive, however, rising gasoline prices, government subsidies and the climate imperative is narrowing the gap in this segment too.
Charging times can be reasonably fast. While not all manufacturers have achieved high charging rates, under the right conditions some models can gain over 200 kilometres of range in just 15 minutes. Fast charging stations have the capability of delivering electrons to the battery at a rate of more than 200 times the average consumption of a home (200 kW). Moving this much electricity safely through a garden hose sized cable is a technical wonder.
Everything works well until the new EV driver goes on their first long-distance road trip. Their enthusiasm is crushed when they witness the state of the charging infrastructure in Canada. To drive a long distance, you pretty much have to stick to the Trans-Canada Highway. Even then, the gaps between stations on Highway 1 can be uncomfortably far, especially in cold weather when the range of a battery electric vehicle can be diminished by more than 25 per cent.
The lack of charging infrastructure is not just a barrier for long-distance travel, it’s also a roadblock for adoption in crowded urban centers. People living in apartments or other types of high-density housing may not have the luxury of a garage for home charging. Just like they visit their local gasoline station today, they will need to stop at their local electricity charging points to juice up in the future. Rapid adoption will not be possible without a dense network of fast chargers in widely accessible parking spaces throughout cities.
The charging problem is made worse by different plug-in types. Unlike Europe and China that mandate one uniform electric plug, North America has three styles of fast charging plugs. The competitors are battling it out until eventually one plug wins enough market share to become the standard. Considering the urgency of decarbonization, wasting time waiting for the outcome of plug-in supremacy is an unnecessary barrier.
And it’s not as simple as just needing the right adapter. Adapters can cost nearly a thousand dollars each and they throttle back the flow of electrons from a charger. You never know what you’re going to get when you pull up to a gas station. Imagine a gas pump that filled your tank as slow as a drinking straw or as fast as a fire hose.
To illustrate the issues created by the various plug types, imagine that you are traveling west starting from Golden, British Columbia. You have just climbed over the steep Rogers Pass that has taxed your reserves of electrons. You arrive in Revelstoke badly needing more power. If you are in a Tesla, you are in luck. You pull into the fast charger made specifically for the Tesla plug-in and you are back on the road in 20 minutes. If you are in another manufacturer’s model, get ready for a longer wait. The only fast charger in town that works for your plug-in type takes about one hour to achieve the same level of charge. While this is inconvenient, you feel lucky that you made it to Revelstoke, B.C. Most towns in Canada don’t have fast charging stops at all.
It seems simple. One type of plug-in and a clear set of standards for charging would ease confusion and help overcome this part of the range anxiety problem. In this case, all cars could easily and seamlessly use the Tesla network which is Canada’s most extensive system by far. Tesla’s founder Elon Musk says that he intends to open up his company’s fast chargers to other types of cars, but unless Tesla retrofits their network to accept other plug types, the issue of limited access will persist.
Tesla drivers would also win from a standard plug type since they can immediately access more charge points. This optionality would have been helpful for the Tesla drivers who were queued up for charging this past summer. One type of plug should also create more investment in new stations. When every car on the road can be your customer your business case for adding capacity is stronger.
Driving more cars to the non-Tesla chargers should also help with the chronic problem of stations that are out-of-order because they are barely used. It is beyond frustrating to arrive at a charge point only to find a “system reboot” notice on the screen or that it cannot accept your payment information.
Standard plugs are also important when you consider that governments in Canada will have to invest many billions of dollars in charging infrastructure. Not all parts of Canada have enough population to attract private capital for building charging stations, let alone redundant systems to support multiple plug types. To facilitate adoption in a cold country, the charging density needs to be tight. For example, Europe is now targeting charging points using standard plugs be placed ever 60 kilometres with one charger for every 10 cars. To achieve this density in Canada, a significant amount of government subsidized chargers would be needed. Subsidized charge points should be available for every Canadian, not just a subset of cars with the right plug.
The newly re-elected Liberal federal government has set mandatory targets for all cars to be zero emission by 2035. While goals are important, it is going to take more than simple targets to accelerate Canada’s EV sales from less than 4 per cent of new cars today to 100 per cent in 14 years. Canada must invest and build an extensive cross-country charging network if such adoption is to be realized. It will be a huge undertaking, but that’s not all. Just like all our electrical appliances, the plug has to be standardized too.