Cars, trucks, and buses account for about 25% of emissions fueling climate change. One of the biggest barriers to persuading drivers to dump gas-guzzling cars, pickups, and SUVs for an electric vehicle is what’s called “range anxiety.” That’s a fancy term for the fear that grips a driver afraid you’ll run out of juice on the highway before finding a charging station. This is especially important during winter when, aside from keeping you rolling, the battery is called upon to power the heater, defroster, and wipers.
Earlier this month, Nova Scotians were told $1.7 million in government money is now available to expand the network of charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) across the province. Businesses, including Irving, Nova Scotia Power, and Heritage Gas, municipalities, and community organizations will receive funding for at least 50% of the cost for buying and installing charging stations through a new program called EV Boost, administered by Clean Foundation (formerly known as Clean NS). The non-profit organization applied for the money last spring and received $1.2 million under the federal Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program. Then last week, the province decided to top that up with another $500,000.
What’s not to like, I thought. Surely expanding the locations where the driver of an electric vehicle can find a charging station should encourage sales and lower carbon emissions.
Will that be a slow charge or a quickie?
Then I talked to three EV owners. That’s when I learned all chargers — and all EVs — are not created equal. Two of the three car owners were disappointed a lot of public money is going to be spent on “slow” chargers when there is a growing demand — and opportunity — to supply “fast” chargers.
At the risk of oversimplifying, plugging into a “slow” — or Level 2 — charging station takes about three hours to give an EV enough juice to go another 100 kilometers. “Fast” — or (Level 3) — chargers take less than 30 minutes to deliver the same amount of power. The difference in price is as significant as the speed: the Level 3 ”fast” charger” costs $50,000. That’s about 10 times more than the “slow” Level 2.
There is one Level 3 fast-charging station between Halifax and Tatamagouche, where contractor David Baxter lives. In the summer, the power he gets from plugging in his used Chevy Bolt at home overnight means he can make the roundtrip without needing a boost.
“But if you’re doing a return trip from Tatamagouche to Halifax during the winter, you don’t want to pull into Stewiacke and sit there for three hours at the PetroCan to get enough charge to get home. That’s ridiculous,” said Baxter. “You want to pull into a Level 3 charge station as if you were getting gas and spend 20 to 25 minutes getting an extra 80 kilometres so you can get back home.”
David Swan had one of the first EVs in Nova Scotia. Swan, a retired engineer who spent part of his career at NASA, has been a longtime advocate for the benefits of switching from gas to electric.
“If they don’t install the higher power chargers — not the 32 amp but the 80 amp — they won’t be very useful to the coming trucks and larger vehicles that are now being electrified. So Level 3 is a good idea.”
Estimates provided by Nova Scotia Power suggest there are only 800 electric vehicles in the province — more drivers choose to buy plug-in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, which have a combustion engine as back up to the battery. Interestingly, Nova Scotia Power, which has a fleet of more than 400 company vehicles, purchased only four EVs last year. This year it intends to replace 10 pickup trucks with EVs.
Perhaps this suggests the charging station network isn’t robust enough for widescale adoption by a corporation mandated to provide customers with a critical service. In other words, they wouldn’t want an electric truck to have its own personal power outage on the way to deal with an outage.
My kingdom for a charge
Nova Scotia has approximately 150 charging stations in public places, such as grocery stores, gas stations, hotels, and libraries. You can find an up-to-date list here.
Across the province there are only 14 “fast” charging stations and 12 were installed by Emera, assisted by $600,000 from Natural Resources Canada about four years ago. There are only two fast charging stations on all of Cape Breton, which is not enough to let residents or tourists get around the Cabot Trail without waiting for a boost from a “slow” charging station. Here’s a map for those 14 “fast” charging stations.
Level 2 chargers have been installed at IKEA, Volkswagen dealerships, and Sobeys stores, where parking is available, and businesses benefit from drivers who shop while their vehicle gets boosted. But if you aren’t having a leisurely shop for Scandinavian furniture, a new VW, or groceries, the waits can be frustrating.
Baxter doubts $1.7 million to install 250 more slow chargers across the province is going to “boost” sales of EVs. “If governments want to make owning an EV something feasible, especially in the winter, then we need Level 3 fast chargers all over the province,” Baxter said. “For $500,000 you could have added 10 Level 3 chargers, which would make it a dream to drive around.”
Why Nova Scotia chose to go slow
Ottawa’s Zero-Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program has been around since 2019. A group such as Clean Foundation or a company or a government department or municipality can apply for funding to cover 50% of the cost of installing EITHER Level 2 or Level 3 charging stations, up to a total of $2 million.
Last spring, Clean Foundation applied for funding to install Level 2 or “slow” chargers. According to Erin Burbidge, the policy and programs director of the foundation, it received $1.2 million, which will add approximately 250 locations.
Burbidge also said going slow was a conscious choice. “We agree there needs to be more highway charging infrastructure to support longer trips. No question,” said Burbidge, “and we hear from EV owners who have homes that allow them to charge there. But we are hearing increasingly from people living in apartments and multi-unit residential buildings who don’t have driveways and the ability to charge at home.”
“That’s a barrier for them to get an EV for their daily commute to work and daycare. So, there’s also very much a need for public Level 2 infrastructure to support people who can’t plug in at home so they can feel comfortable considering that transition from gas to electric.”
Some might argue people in urban areas have more transportation choices such as public transit, car sharing, and taxis, than those living in rural communities where the commute to work is often much longer. And it’s worth noting the largest landlord in Atlantic Canada, Killam Properties, just received $731,000 to add 150 slow chargers at its apartment buildings in Nova Scotia and 300 more for its properties across Canada.
Burbidge said another factor in Clean Foundation’s decision was “the complexity” around installing the faster chargers, which new model vehicles such as the Silverado truck will require. These chargers are much too fast for earlier EV models such as the Leaf.
“You can put a Level 2 almost anywhere you have a plug,” said Burbidge. “You might need to upgrade your panel, but that’s pretty typical work. When you want to put in a DC fast charger, you need to make sure the grid can handle that installation, which increases the permitting time [from Nova Scotia Power] and makes the planning more difficult. Again, we recognize the need and would love to see other organizations which might feel more comfortable apply through Ottawa’s Zero Emission funding.”
But there’s no sign of that happening. The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewables said the reason it is spending $500,000 to support more Level 2s is because Level 3s cost 10 times more. This seems an insufficient reason when you consider the province’s target to see EVs account for 30% of all vehicle sales by 2030.
And even though Emera installed the first 12 fast chargers in the province and power companies might seem like a logical choice to champion the move to greener vehicles, Nova Scotia Power spokesperson Jacqueline Foster said, “We do not currently have any plans to expand our network of fast charging stations, but we look forward to collaborative opportunities with partners to potentially expand in the future.”
So it’s status quo for now.
Pack a shovel if you want a charge
Ernie Wilson loves his Bolt. The retiree has no plans to switch back to gasoline, even though he had a bad experience last month driving from Sydney, where he visits his mother-in-law regularly, to his home in Elmsdale north of Halifax. Wilson knew he would need a boost to get back, but winter conditions made that challenging.
“The Level 3 FLO charger at the Petro-Canada station in Monastery was not working,” Wilson said. “Ironically, it’s usually the hardest one to access because of drifting snow, but on that day, it was plowed out. On that trip I stopped at fast-charging stations in Baddeck, North Sydney, and Stellarton. I have to say the snow removal at all three left a lot to be desired.”
FLO is the brand name of the Level 3 chargers supplied by a Quebec company. Emera installed them in 2018. Other Level 2 or Level 3 chargers are supplied by companies with brand names such as ChargePoint and Juicebox. Maintaining public access to the charging stations is the responsibility of the company or organization that installs them. In the future, municipalities or community organizations that apply for funding from Clean Foundation will also be responsible to keep the devices accessible year-round.
The wild east show
Owners of the critical infrastructure (the chargers) to support the transition to Electric Vehicles also set the price for the energy. I was surprised to discover there are currently NO rules or regulations concerning how much they can charge drivers for a boost.
“Measurement Canada is in the midst of defining what unit you are allowed to use to price electricity at charging stations,” Burbidge said. “But they are not in any way involved in saying it has to be this many cents per kilowatt hour or length of time. It’s a free market phenomenon. And there’s not any kind of provincial or utility regulation like there is for gasoline.”
The FLO Level 3 stations owned and installed by Emera charge drivers $3.75 for 15 minutes. At Petro-Canada’s fast-charging station in Spryfield, the price is 26 cents per kilowatt hour and that price is set by Petro-Canada. The Old Orchard Inn near Wolfville has a Level 2 slow charger supplied by ChargePoint. Drivers pay $2 an hour there.
Minutes per kilowatt hour? Cents per kilowatt hour? Dollars per quarter hour? Making valid cost comparisons is impossible. Drivers buy EVs to do their bit to mitigate climate change, but also because they save money on fuel; electricity is much cheaper than gasoline or diesel. That advantage noted, EV owner David Baxter questions why power (per kwh of electricity) at a charging station seems to cost him twice as much as the residential rate he pays at home.
“I wouldn’t mind as much if my money was going back into maintaining the roads,” Baxter said. “But I suspect its going directly into the pocket of whomever is supplying the charger.”
At 12 of the 14 fast chargers around the province, that’s Emera.
Why, Baxter wants to know, are drivers being charged by the minute instead of the price for the commodity (electricity) measured by the kilowatt hour?
Burbidge acknowledges this is a hot topic across the country.
“If you are charging based on the length of time you are plugged in, there’s a concern for people driving older EVs and some of the used models,” she said. “They take longer to charge. So if you are paying by the minute, which is typical, there’s a bit of unfairness there for people who have the 2015 Leaf versus the 2022 Kona. That’s what Measurement Canada is looking at now because that is a concern many EV owners have identified.”
Electric Vehicles and charging technology are both evolving quickly. Keeping up is a tall order. Especially when you consider Clean Foundation is a non-profit organization with a small staff. Why isn’t the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables applying under the Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure program? Or Emera?
Burbidge hopes this latest round of federal and provincial funding will encourage more government leaders, businesses, and community organizations to share the heavy lifting. Ottawa said another round of funding will open for applications this spring. That could offer another chance for a municipal government or corporations to install more fast charging stations around the province.
“I would love to see more people talking about infrastructure and flagging the gaps,” Burbidge said, “More collective thought around how we can work to address them because I think there are probably more efficient ways to do this in terms of understanding the overall provincial need, instead of making applications to a federal funding pool and seeing what comes back.”
In the meantime, confusion over arbitrary costs for a boost and gaps in the necessary infrastructure is putting the brakes on any momentum to clean up carbon emissions from vehicles.