Two of Canada’s territories are speeding up their efforts to make electric vehicle charging infrastructure more accessible for EV drivers as adoption rates creep up
Editor’s Note: this story has been updated to include updated comments from Nunavut and Northwest Territories, which were received after publication.
Though electric vehicles in Canada’s northern communities are a rare sighting today, the governments of two of Canada’s three territories are preparing for the electric wave to hit by investing in charging infrastructure.
This month, Natural Resources Canada and the Yukon government announced funds to boost the territory’s EV transition by committing a total of $1.8 million towards building 200 public EV charging stations. In Northwest Territories, meanwhile, a plan is in the making to build out a charging corridor that would bring up to 21 chargers at 100-kilometre intervals along two of the territory’s major highways.
“We want folks to start seeing on the landscape these chargers popping up because once they see that and once it becomes part of our normal, everyday life, then the whole idea of making your next car electric car seems a lot more plausible,” says Matthew Ooms, acting director of the energy branch for the Government of Yukon in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.
But even as progress towards greater equity and access in the electrification of transportation takes place across Canada, the Yukon and N.W.T. examples make clear that there are specific challenges to navigate when it comes to remote and rural EV charging.
A representative from Nunavut confirmed there are no public EV charging stations currently in the territory saying, “Based on Nunavut’s existing infrastructure, the electricity needed to power electric vehicle charging stations would need to come from a local power plant, which currently all operate on fossil fuels such as diesel. Due to the inefficiency of this process, the Government of Nunavut is unable to consider the creation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure at this time.”
Yukon’s successful funding
To date, Yukon has secured approval for the most ambitious funding and charger project in any of the territories.
The Yukon government’s commitment to increasing the number of EVs and charging infrastructure in the territory is part of its climate change strategy outlined in the Our Clean Future report.
There are currently 130 registered EVs in Yukon. The government wants to bring that number up to 4,800 by 2030 and set a target in the Our Clean Future report to have 10 per cent of all new light-duty vehicle sales be zero-emissions by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030.
By 2027, the territorial government is also planning to install enough public fast-charging stations to make it possible to travel in EVs between all road-accessible communities.
The federal government, through the NRCan Zero-Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program (ZEVIP), is committing $1 million to Yukon’s future network of EV chargers, while the Yukon government is providing $800,000. The public money will help finance Level 2 chargers in public places, on streets, at multi-unit residential buildings and workplaces throughout the territory.
The territorial funding is part of Yukon’s Good Energy rebate program for charging infrastructure. Previously, the program covered 50 per cent of the costs or up to a maximum of $4,000 per public charger. But now, with the additional investments, businesses will be reimbursed 75 per cent of their costs and First Nations governments and municipalities will see up to 90 per cent return.
“Sixty-one per cent of our territory’s emissions come from the transportation sector,” says Ooms. “So [the report] is really the guiding document that influences most of the work that we’re doing right now and there are several actions identified there within transportation.”
As part of the Our Clean Future report, the Yukon government also has a target to generate 93 to 97 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, some of which would supply the EV chargers.
“We want to maintain our current high levels of renewables even as we electrify more and more sectors. So that’s an important mandate for utilities to continue to develop renewable resources to meet the rising electrical demand too,” says Ooms.
Currently, there are a total of five DC fast-charging stations in Yukon, located in Carcross, Haines Junction, Marsh Lake and two in Whitehorse, says Ooms.
There are also fast-charger stations in progress in Dawson, Mayo, Stewart Crossing, Pelly Crossing, Carmacks, Teslin and Watson Lake, and five more scheduled for Beaver Creek, Burwash Landing, Mendalhall, Faro and Ross River in the next two years.
N.W.T. network stymied by cost, distance
The blueprint for the rollout of a similar network in Northwest Territories is contained in a 2020 report, The Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Needs Assessment and Forecast, commissioned by the N.W.T. government to study the feasibility of developing a network of DC fast chargers between Yellowknife and the Alberta border.
The report’s key findings show that a corridor of five charging stations could be set up on Highways 1 and 3 between Yellowknife and the hamlet of Enterprise. Locations for an additional three stations were proposed along Highways 2 and 5 from Enterprise to Fort Smith, while another station location was proposed farther south on Highway 1, near the Alberta border. This plan would cover approximately 69 per cent of the population.
Currently, according to Darren Campbell, spokesperson for the N.W.T.’s department of infrastructure, there are six public Level 2 chargers in the N.W.T. and no DC fast chargers. As of Q3 2021 there were 10 battery electric vehicles registered in N.W.T. (and an additional 12 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles).
In 2021, through ZEVIP, NRCan approved funding to install a mix of 22 Level 2 and DC fast chargers in N.W.T., but the project, which would have supported the 2020 report plan recommendations, didn’t materialize.
“Unfortunately during negotiations, the Proponent informed NRCan that they had decided to not move forward with the project at this time,” said a spokesperson from NRCan in an email statement to Electric Autonomy. NRCan did not identify the “proponent.”
Campbell told Electric Autonomy in an email exchange that the N.W.T. government is currently “considering” the recommendations from the 2020 study as it “defines next steps regarding the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the N.W.T.”
But one of the major hurdles to that plan is it will cost the N.W.T. government an estimated $905,000 to purchase and install the network of chargers. That number is expected to increase once construction and connection costs are factored in, said Campbell. As a result, the government is in discussions with the federal government for possible funding and support.
Currently, under ZEVIP, applicants are only eligible to receive up to 50 per cent of total project costs, to a maximum of $5 million per project. Campbell says these defined funding limits “would be challenging in [our] northern context. The maximum funding provided by the government of Canada under ZEVIP for one fast-charging station is $50,000, which represents a small fraction of the overall costs.”
But if the network of chargers in N.W.T. along the Yellowknife-to-Alberta border highway corridor can be built and the existing rebate program for vehicles and residential chargers is maintained, the Territory study predicts that sales of EVs could represent up to 11.3 per cent of all vehicles sold in N.W.T. by 2030.
The government of N.W.T. is also working with utilities to look into the viability of purchasing and installing DC fast-charging stations along highways and has launched a program to support fast EV charging infrastructure under its GHG Grant Program.
Other challenges in the North
When it comes to setting up EV chargers, all of the territories face challenges including harsh climates, ageing power distribution infrastructure, isolated power grids or fly-in communities that rely on diesel generators.
“Our main hydro grid, which is about 90 per cent renewable, covers most of the territory, but it’s on its own — it’s not connected to Alaska or B.C. or Alberta or the Northwest Territories — so that poses some challenges of having to make sure we have the supply year-round to meet the demand,” says Ooms.
“As we introduce larger residential loads through Level 2 chargers and adding more DC fast chargers, a lot of these things will stretch the grid in new ways so we’re working with utilities quite regularly to try to map that out a little bit more explicitly.”
In the Northwest Territories, some communities are located over 100 kilometres from any existing hydroelectricity grid, making it both logistically and financially taxing to connect these communities to those grids.
“Before you can implement or install [DC fast] charging stations, you have to have the electrical infrastructure underlying that to be able to support that kind of electrical demand,” explains Mark Heyck, executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, an organization that promotes renewable energy in the Northwest Territories, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.
“We have large stretches of the highway where there’s simply no power infrastructure, and then there are other parts where there might be single-phase power line, which would not be able to support the draw from one or multiple DC fast-charging stations.”
Nunavut, too, is plagued with many of these obstacles that have made installing charging stations difficult in its neighbouring territories. Nunavut relies on independent power plants that generate electricity from fossil fuels to power communities. According to NRCan, the territory currently has no EV chargers or incentive programs and the number of EVs on Nunavut roads is unknown.
But the lower adoption rates don’t indicate a lack of enthusiasm, necessarily, and stakeholders believe it’s rather more a case of: if you build it they will come.
“I would say there’s a growing list of EV enthusiasts here,” says Heyck. “It’s great to see because the more people who have the actual real-life experience of using an electric vehicle in this kind of climate, that’s more people that can kind of speak to the benefits. So it’s been really good to see and I expect that [the numbers] will just continue to grow over the coming years.”