Excitement for the Tesla Model 3 part of B.C.'s slow but steady transition to electric cars

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      This morning (March 31) in downtown Vancouver, there was a lineup of people outside the Tesla Motors showroom on Robson Street that stretched around the block.

      The wait was for the Model 3, which went up for grabs at 10 a.m. Nobody will be driving the electric car off the lot today, though. The vehicle won’t be unveiled until 8:30 p.m. (PST), but for $1,000, you can put your name on a wait list for delivery that will come in 2017.

      The big deal about the Tesla Model 3 is that it only costs about CA$50,000, which is more than a Toyota Prius but a lot less than the Tesla Model S, which sold for more than CA$100,000.

      British Columbians are transitioning to electric and hybrid vehicles. That shift, though, is happening at a rate that’s encouragingly steady but depressingly slow.

      In 2015, there were 36,000 hybrid vehicles insured in B.C. and 3,200 electric vehicles, according to statistics supplied by ICBC. That’s up from 33,000 and 1,700 the previous year.

      The total number of electric cars and hybrid vehicles has grown from an estimated 22,160 in 2011 to 26,450 in 2012, 29,970 in 2013, 34,700 in 2014, and then to 39,200 in 2015.

      Although talks about how B.C. can best respond to climate change often focus on the liquefied-natural-gas industry, a shift to electric vehicles could play a major role. According to the “B.C. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report” for 2012, road transportation accounts for 14,581 kilotonnes of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere every year, representing 23.7 percent of B.C.’s total air pollution. Another provincial estimate puts that number even higher, at more than one-third of total emissions.

      Bruce Stout is president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA). He told the Straight that one of the primary factors holding back mainstream adoption is the question of where all those people in line on Robson Street are going to charge their Tesla Model 3s.

      “The concern of any electric-vehicle driver is, ‘I need to go from Point A to Point B, and at Point B, is there a charging station?’” he said. “That is a problem.”

      But it’s one that both private industry and the B.C. government are working on, Stout continued. (He noted that the vast majority of car charging will always happen at a person’s home or workplace, so this hurdle to adoption is largely mental but is, nevertheless, a real issue.)

      Stout explained that the province is slowly beginning to roll out the next generation of charging station, which he described as “a game changer”.

      A DC fast-charging station is the generic name for the new technology; it’s described as a level-three station. A level-one station is the kind that plugs into a regular wall outlet. A level-two charges at 240 volts and uses the sort of larger outlet that a washing machine plugs into. There are already more than 700 public level-two stations in British Columbia. A level two can charge an electric vehicle in three to five hours. The introduction of DC fast-charging stations has people excited because they can deliver an 80-percent charge in 20 minutes or less.

      There is, however, a tradeoff.

      Stout noted that although a level-two station can cost as little as $2,000, a DC fast-charging station costs between $60,000 and $80,000.

      “That is another limiting factor,” he conceded. “There is quite a jump in cost.”

      Christina Ianniciello is director of communities and transportation for the B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines. In a telephone interview, she said the province is increasing investments in next-generation charging infrastructure.

      “By the end of April, there will be 30 DC fast-charging stations installed throughout the Lower Mainland, a bit into the Interior, and then on Vancouver Island,” Ianniciello told the Straight. Another 20 are planned for deployment in the near future.

      She acknowledged that when mainstream adoption of electric vehicles eventually happens, that number will have to be increased exponentially. But Ianniciello said the province is already planning for the long term.

      Last March, she continued, the government contracted the Fraser Basin Council, a nonprofit sustainability group, to conduct a DC fast-charging network gap analysis.

      “That identified what is needed to grow the DC fast-charging network to encourage increased uptake of electric vehicles,” Ianniciello said. “It recognized that the 30 existing and 20 planned will not be able to satisfy electric travel throughout the province. The gap analysis does identify the routes that would need to eventually be electrified to support electric travel.”

      In the meantime, she noted, the province offers a number of incentive programs for would-be owners of electric and hybrid vehicles.

      Earlier this month, for example, the province reinstated an incentive-purchasing program. “Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles get $6,000 off the price, and then battery-electric vehicles get $5,000 off the price,” Ianniciello said.

      In addition, she continued, on March 2 the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure changed the rules for HOV lanes to allow electric and hybrid vehicles to use them.

      (Interestingly, documents related to the HOV-lane policy that were released in response to a freedom-of-information request show that B.C.’s carpool lanes are not sitting empty, as they might look to people stuck in traffic next to them. “Although it is often perceived that HOV lanes are underutilized, they move a larger volume of people per lane than general purpose lanes,” reads an engineering report prepared in advance of the March 2 announcement.)

      The Fraser Basin Council report was prepared by Charlotte Argue, the group’s assistant manager of climate change and air-quality programs. She told the Straight that how the province manages its expansion of DC fast-charging stations will have significant long-term implications for transportation throughout the province.

      “Especially in key corridors,” Argue said. “For example, going up to Whistler. If everyone was driving to Whistler in an electric car and they wanted to stop in Squamish, you’re going to start having line ups at those charging stations….That hasn’t been an issue yet. But it is an issue we want to have. But how is it going to be managed?”