a line of electric vehicle chargers in a flat arid landscape
Canada’s need for more and better public electric vehicle chargers is mounting and stakeholders from across the industry are locking horns over how much of this critical infrastructure should be deployed and on what timeline.

Everyone agrees Canada needs more electric vehicle chargers. But competing narratives, conflicting policy motives and incomplete data are clouding the debate about how many are enough and when and how we are going to get there. We try to set the record straight

Canada’s need for more and better public electric vehicle chargers is mounting and stakeholders from across the industry are locking horns over how much of this critical infrastructure should be deployed and on what timeline. And an upcoming government report that set out to identify the answers, rather than soothing concerns, has ignited fierce debate — even before it’s been published.

In 2021, the federal government commissioned Dunsky Energy and Climate Advisors to study how much public charging infrastructure Canada needs, by type. While the report has yet to be released in its entirety, a key number from it was pulled out and first appeared last year in the Liberal Party’s federal election platform: $700 million to install an additional 50,000 government-supported EV chargers in Canada (on top of the 33,000 or so that have already been promised government funding), to be operational by 2026.

The report (which Electric Autonomy has not seen, but has spoken to several connected parties about) “modelled the number of chargers needed in Canada over time” and helped inform the government’s target, confirms Keean Nembhard, press secretary for the Minister of Natural Resources, in an emailed statement to Electric Autonomy Canada.

But that 50,000 pledge — and beyond it, how many EV chargers Canada ultimately needs to install to support a full transition to 100 per cent zero-emission new vehicle sales by 2035 — has become the skirmish line not only about charging needs but the full suite of EV policy tools, such as buyer incentives and a zero-emission vehicle sales mandate, the government might deploy to help the market meet its goals.

At another level, the debate also underscores the importance of providing accurate information and education to the vehicle-buying public about the realities of charging at home and in public and what their specific needs are anticipated to be.

Emissions plan a catalyst

These issues have been in the air for several years, but the intensity of the EV chargers debate really took off this spring, when the federal government unveiled its 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan for Canada.

In the portion of the plan that targets reducing carbon emissions from transportation by promoting the transition to zero-emission vehicles, the government reiterated its pledge to fund the installation of 50,000 new EV chargers — a substantial increase from the 16,573 public EV charging ports in service as of June 2022 (according to Natural Resources Canada data). It also committed $1.7 billion to fund its iZEV purchase incentive program and announced a binding ZEV mandate for light-duty vehicles requiring that ZEVs make up 20 per cent of sales in 2026, 60 per cent in 2030 and 100 per cent in 2035.

While most EV and clean energy advocates and leaders in Canada’s charging sector applauded these announcements, reaction from the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association (CVMA) and the Global Automakers of Canada, which together represent most of the leading automakers selling vehicles in Canada was, at best, lukewarm.

Since then, the opinion gap has widened, with the CMVA and Global Automakers of Canada arguing that for the government to meet its ZEV sales goals, it needs to fund more EV chargers, boost the value and scope of vehicle incentives, and step back from its plan to implement a ZEV mandate.

In May, to strengthen its case, the CVMA issued a list of recommendations to the government in a report entitled “Closing the electric vehicle charging infrastructure gap.” In its assessment, the CVMA said that Canada has “one of the least comprehensive and ambitious” strategies for rolling out charging infrastructure of any jurisdiction.

“For Canada to keep pace with California, an additional 650,000 public chargers (defined by California as public and shared private chargers) need to be built in the next 8 years,” reads the report.

Even further out than that, says the CVMA, “if Canada were to achieve 100 per cent ZEV sales by 2040 (below the current 100 per cent ZEV sales target for 2035), the on-road ZEV stock would reach 39 million vehicles by 2050. To achieve the recommended ratio of one public charger per 10 EVs on the road, Canada would need 3.9 million public chargers by 2050.”

More data in the mix

At least two other studies, one published in February, and the other in June, added more data to the mix.

The first, conducted by the International Council on Clean Transportation, focused solely on Quebec, already a leader in EV charging infrastructure installations. It concluded that the province will need eight times more chargers by 2030 than it had in 2020.

The second, from Pollution Probe, a study conducted on behalf of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada looking at the consumer electric vehicle charging experience in Canada, found that “in countries like Norway and the United States where most people have access to home charging, there are respectively four and six public charging stations per 100 EVs. On the other hand, countries like China or the Netherlands which have limited access to home charging have 18 and 22 charging stations per 100 EVs respectively…As of 2020, Canada had six charging stations per 100 EVs.”

In the opinion survey portion of its research, Pollution Probe also found that the majority of current Canadian EV owners said that the existing number of public charging stations is insufficient.

While reconciling the different studies’ findings may be a challenge, that majority opinion is a concern and a sentiment nearly everyone shares.

“We need the volume to increase significantly. It impacts EV sales and EV awareness if the charging infrastructure is not there,” says François Lefevre, senior manager of corporate planning and market intelligence for Nissan Canada. “Is it 15,000? Is it 50,000? It is challenging to forecast. We need more research done to understand the needs and these needs will change.”

A complex topic

As director of clean mobility at Dunsky and one of the authors of the government’s “50,000 chargers” report, Jeff Turner has a clearer viewpoint than many on this topic.

“No matter what, charging infrastructure in Canada is very complex. We’ve got such a big country and very different needs, from coast-to-coast,” says Turner, in an interview with Electric Autonomy. Sorting out all the different opinions and forecasts is further complicated by the fact that each different group is talking about something slightly different and each has its own agenda to push.

While comfortable with their finding that 50,000 new public chargers by 2026 is an acceptable starting point, Turner stresses that it is far from the end goal. Looking out as far as 2050, on the other hand, “our analysis suggests that four million chargers is probably about the right number,” he says.

But that number also comes with a big if.

“That number makes sense if we’re including charging infrastructure in multi-unit residential buildings,” says Turner. It also includes home charging.

“In our report, we made it pretty clear where we’re talking about public chargers and where we’re talking about private buildings and condo chargers. Once you start including residential charging you start to have more of a one-to-one rate ratio.”

Benchmarks and transparency

For its part, the CVMA report relied on the infrastructure ratios and public charger definitions used by several different groups, but most notably the European Union and California.

“Our number one recommendation to the federal government has been ‘Let’s establish a consistent and transparent process for analyzing EV uptake across Canada and where the gaps are on charging infrastructure,'” says Brian Kingston, in an interview with Electric Autonomy. “Another reason for our report was to just try and put some clarity around all of these different ratios and types of measurements and definitions around charging. Let’s pick some nomenclature that we can all agree on.”

California bases its vehicle-to-charger ratio on both public and shared private chargers. A public charger is, “located at parking space(s) designated by a property owner or lessee to be available to and accessible by the public,” while a shared private charger is, “located at parking space(s) designated by a property owner or lessee to be available to, and accessibly by, employees, tenants, visitors, and residents. Examples include workplaces and shared parking at a multifamily residence,” reads the California Energy Commission’s glossary.

California is trying to target a ratio of 7-1 (EVs to public and private shared chargers) by 2030.

The European Union bases its vehicle-to-charger ratio on public chargers. A public charger is, “a charging point accessible to the public,” per the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive’s (AFID) definition.

The AFID recommends the “appropriate average” ratio of 10-1 (EVs to public chargers).

For an estimated 4.6 million fleet of EVs (based on Transport Canada projections) in Canada and using California math, Canada will need 657,142 public and private shared EV chargers by 2030.

If the fleet reaches 39 million vehicles by 2050 as projected by CVMA (Transport Canada estimates reach only to 2035, for which they say there will be 12.4 million ZEVs on the road, or, 40 per cent of all vehicles on the road) that number becomes 5.5 million public and private shared EV chargers.

For an estimated 4.6 million fleet of EVs in Canada and using EU math, Canada will need 460,000 public EV chargers by 2030 and, if the fleet reaches 39 million EVs by CVMA’s estimate 3.9 million chargers by 2050.

Private sector involvement

Another critical factor not always factored into the policy debate, says Turner, is how much more government support will be needed to fund charger installation before private investment can carry the load.

“While we’ve quantified roughly how much charging infrastructure is needed, we certainly haven’t assessed to what extent that infrastructure needs to be supported by the federal government versus other stakeholders in the ecosystem that are increasingly stepping up,” he says.

Of all the private companies either considering independently or being compelled to install infrastructure, utilities have a unique advantage, currently.

At this time, the business case for installing EV chargers is not a strong one for most private companies. The revenue generated from public chargers is not high enough (due to low EV adoption numbers) to make it compelling to invest in the high upfront cost of installing EV chargers. There are also demand charges — energy rates charged to customers (in the case of EV chargers, the host for the site and not the driver would be the utility’s customer) based on peak usage instead of overall energy consumption — which are an ongoing headache for charging station operators or owners.

But utilities investing in fast chargers are seen by those pushing for more private sector investment in charging infrastructure as a way of boosting EV sales. This business model works for the utility because more EVs on the roads means the number of people charging at home goes up, too.

Even though utilities face the same challenges as private companies when installing charging infrastructure, their business case is improved by a simple fact: whether an EV driver plugs in on the road, at the office or at home the utility is getting paid.

“There’s always going to be a fundamental paradox when it comes to fast charging infrastructure, in particular,” says Turner. “Fast charging stations need to be there to enable EV adoption, but, ultimately, drivers do most of their charging at home. Utilities can look past that paradox. Utilities are in a unique position to actually get revenue, regardless of where people charge.”

Leading the way

With this clear advantage, utilities have shouldered the purchase and installation costs of a large number of public charging infrastructure units in Canada’s existing network, and are likely to continue doing so.

Already Hydro-Québec, BC Hydro and Ivy Charging Network (half-owned by Hydro One in Ontario) are rolling out large-scale EV charging networks. Hydro-Québec’s Electric Circuit is the largest utility-owned-and-operated EV charging network in Canada, followed by BC Hydro and Hydro One.

“[Utilities] are getting really good at maintaining that infrastructure and ensuring that it’s working really well,” says Turner. “A lot of our clients are utilities that are wrapping their head around the economic upside. There’s obviously the complex part about the grid impact and the increased load, but if they are smart about it, EV adoption can turn into an overall net benefit. They can justify the significant investment to unlock barriers to adoption of EVs.”

In Electric Autonomy‘s annual charging network roundup for 2021, several utilities indicated significant growth is planned for their respective charging networks in 2022. Many are placing an emphasis on DC fast chargers and the various rounds of government funding have helped to direct infrastructure to various different types of communities (such as non-urban, remote and Indigenous) in a bid to establish equitable access.

“The government should be able to get some good statistics to build the right infrastructure in every single city in Canada. To manage Quebec will be different than Saskatchewan and in between the highways will be very different from any city in the GTA,” says Lefevre.

“It’s a lot of work, but it can be done and it can be done strategically. We also need to ensure there are funds for service and maintenance.”

Findings vs. reality

The CVMA’s report rightly points out there is a vast chasm between what exists now with the 16,573 public charging ports available today (17,238 if private government-funded chargers are also included) and the several hundred thousand pure public chargers needed if Canada is to align with California or the EU standards.

Where the CVMA’s report is on shakier ground, says Turner, is its assumption that Canada is only going to have 66,154 public chargers to support a 4.6 million strong electric fleet by 2030. The 66,154 number in the CVMA’s report is a combination of the promised 50,000 chargers by 2026 and Canada’s already existing roughly 16,000 public chargers.

But it may not — perhaps even likely does not — capture the whole picture because it doesn’t factor in private players that are coming into the market and funding their own public charging networks.

“I don’t think NRCan is going to be funding every single charger that we need from here until 2050,” says Turner. “It’s important to be realistic about how much is going to happen at the federal level versus more locally.”

On the government side, NRCan press secretary Nembhard leaves the door open for future announcements about industry support and in what form that may come in based on who else enters the arena. “We are committed to funding the 50,000 chargers target while consulting with industry and stakeholders to determine the future support required. As the business case improves for EVs and charging infrastructure, we expect the private sector to have a larger role to play in funding the capital costs as they move into the market.”

But, for today, the actual calculations around how many EV chargers are coming, how many are needed and who is funding what are, clearly, still vague and the impetus for the CVMA’s report remains a valid ask from industry to the government.

“We see survey after survey that identifies charging concerns as the main reason that people are worried about or hesitate to buy an electric vehicle,” says Kingston.

“We need more transparency in the actual analysis that’s been done by the federal government and a commitment to an annual report and looks at where the funding has gone.”

Three Canadian utilities announce plans for a spate of public EV chargers

2 comments
  1. In both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador, regulators have argued that utilities providing charging stations crowds out private sector investment. Given the utility advantages you outlined above, finding a way to make sure it makes sense for other players to continue to invest (without slowing utility investment!) would seem an important policy goal.

  2. I wonder if we’re jumping too quickly. Seems too much like a political bandwagon. The research and development of other options (NH3 for gas and diesel engines, more powerful and longer lasting batteries, etc.) may lead to completely different and better solutions.
    Government incentives are paid for by the taxpayer. I would prefer to see those incentives used to further R & D, that seriously considers cradle to grave pollution on each development.

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