I saw a friend’s post on Facebook today grumbling about high gas prices in Greater Victoria Area, which, lately, have floated around $1.50 a litre. In his post, he added his ultimatum: “That’s it. My next car is electric.”
As much as I earnestly share in his enthusiasm, I’d like to lay out a few challenges that currently affect the prospect of the average person owning an electric vehicle.
Cost of Purchase
Chief among which, is cost. The “cheapest” electric cars you can buy right now in Canada are the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt… and by cheap, I mean they *start* at $40,000 (CAD) for a bare-bones base model, nonetheless. That’s a lot of money for not a whole lot of performance, quality or standard features. Now, to be fair, there are ways to get your hands on one without having to necessarily declare bankruptcy. The Canadian Federal government (not sure about States-side) offers incentives for EV, hybrid and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles; ranging anywhere from $4,000 to $14,000, depending on the province. In British Columbia, it’s $2,400 to $6,000, which, for some people, is enough to get a head start on payments.
Don’t get too excited though, because the program runs only until March 31, 2020 or “until available funding is depleted, whichever comes first” but no explanation is offered as to why. Then, in 2016, the Feds approved the expansion of an old and highly-controversial oil pipeline, which still tops national headlines today. This is while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised Canadians deeper EV incentives and added pressure on automakers to find ways to make EV models more accessible to consumers – none of which has happened.
Then, there’s the reality of the current EV infrastructure. Taking time into account, most EVs take around eight hours to charge from zero to full from a typical home outlet or a public charging station. There is the Tesla supercharging system that cuts down that time to 30 minutes to an hour (depending on how much juice you’re comfortable with) however that is not available for personal purchase. What you can buy however is a standard charging station that you can install in your home, which is an added cost to the EV you are buying, ranging anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000, depending on the charge time and who the manufacturer is.
So here’s the question: how many people out there are homeowners? Or live in new or updated condos that have charging stations inside the building? If you are among those blessed with such circumstances, that’s awesome, but if you are like me, and millions of others, who rent and can’t afford a home, you are relying on hilariously-scarce public charging stations. Victoria, to its credit, tries to implement as many charging stations as possible, including PlugShare, a popular app that helps people find EV charging stations in their area. Again, it’s a start, but still far behind on where it should be to reliably support a large community of EVs.
The solution is simple on paper, but massively-complex to execute in practicality: create a vast network of EV charging stations; as big, if not bigger, than the existing network of gas stations. A large network will at least mitigate the #1 fear cautious consumers have about EVs; the range and where to charge it. Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford Sr said to the world, “one day, we will have a network of motor cars, and highways, and gas stations in which they can re-fuel and carry on” – the world’s reaction was that he was crazy. I mean, Ford was crazy, anti-Semitic and a bunch of other things; but he had vision, which, as we can see, came true.
The Battery Problem
Before this seems like I have a downer against EV’s, I just want to say for the record that I really wanted to buy one last fall when I was shopping around for a new car. Nothing of what I test-drove or considered was affordable (even with incentives) and there was no simple way of charging my car up regularly. I either had to drop off the car to charge at a nearby charging station, then walk five kilometers to work or home, or wait in line for others to come pick up their cars from the charging station itself. Neither case worked for me, so I settled on an ol’ fashioned gasoline-powered car that required neither charging nor waiting hours for it to be re-fueled.
Back to batteries though. Biggest benefit for EVs is that they produce no CO2, unlike internal combustion engines. Even static, they burn nothing but electricity, with no emissions whatsoever. But are they as tree-friendly as people think? The sad answer is no, they are not, and that comes from the way we currently manufacture the lithium-ion batteries that power most EVs today.
This issue was highlighted in a 2017 World Economic Forum report, which discussed the key ingredient in lithium-ion batteries – natural graphite – and the horrific environmental and social impact it leaves behind when it’s extracted.
The report also goes on to mention that in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, we need to have at least 100 million EVs on the road by 2030. That’s a LOT of granite needed to power not only all the electric vehicles, but all the in-quantifiable amount of cellphones in the world. Given that battery production produces more environmental damage than carbon emissions alone, we have to do something about it, as the report suggests, by recycling or re-purposing the batteries somehow, or perhaps even look beyond batteries as the main power source. You can read the full report here.
It’s not even the most immediate, concerning issue with lithium-ion batteries, either. They also have a nasty habit of getting too hot, and, in some cases, actually catch fire; a concept even trained fire crews are currently trying to navigate, as lithium battery fires are resilient to conventional fire suppression methods.
What Does the Future Hold for EVs?
I’d like to end this on a more positive note, because it really isn’t just doom and gloom. Electric vehicles have become a lot more efficient, a lot lighter and, relatively-speaking, a lot more affordable. Tesla, for example, is still trying to churn out as many of its cheapest car, the Model 3, as possible, while other major manufacturers, such as GM, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Kia/Hyundai are working on releasing more EVs, or at the very least, hybrid-electrics. That’s a very good thing, because that means the more EVs are out there on the road, the cheaper they’ll get in the long run, and the more added pressure there will be on federal, provincial and municipal governments to implement a wider and more connected EV infrastructure.
And that’s just it. The future is already here. It’s just matter of collectively looking toward it.