As pressure from EV drivers grows, and other jurisdictions move to mandate uptime, we look at the ways Canada’s charging networks are honing their maintenance and performance standards
Jonathan Côté, a spokesperson for the Electric Circuit, has a telling story about how the 10-year-old Quebec-based EV charging network makes maintenance decisions on the fly.
Say the company, which is owned by Hydro Québec, discovers it has three malfunctioning chargers, he explains. One, which is partially functioning, is at a sleepy location with a single module, and the other two are at a busy site with six devices. The crews have to choose which to fix first.
The answer: the location with one half-working charger.
“We’re going to look at the real impact for our users and decide to go and fix them where we feel there’s the most impact,” Côté says, noting that customers will be more irritated if the single-module station they were expecting to use is out of commission than if they have to wait a bit longer.
Reliability in the spotlight
With the question of how charging networks uphold reliability in the spotlight like never before — due to the flood of public and private investment in this sector, the growing number of EV drivers, and the volume of complaints about out-of-service chargers rising in step — Côté’s scenario offers an important insight. It shows that reliability is less about big moves, like the choice of equipment, and more about all the little nitty-gritty details that keep those devices up and working as consistently as possible, particularly in cold winter months when EV chargers are more prone to breakdown.
“They’ve really prioritized this,” says Jeff Turner, mobility director at Dunsky, a clean energy consultancy. “[The Electric Circuit] is credited with the quote that a broken charger [is] worse than no charger at all because you make your plans around it. Then you get to a charger and it’s not working, and your weekend is ruined.”
While the Electric Circuit is a regional provider, its 3,500 chargers, including 700 fast chargers, make it one of Canada’s largest public networks. Only Tesla’s proprietary national network has more fast chargers.
In Turner’s experience as an EV owner and driver in both Canada and the U.S., the Electric Circuit and the network operated by B.C. Hydro are among the best performers.
“Their networks appear to be top tier, maybe only behind Tesla’s own infrastructure,” he says.
Market pressures growing
Pressure is growing on other charging networks to prioritize reliability.
As Electric Autonomy reported last month, governments in the U.S. and the U.K. have pressed ahead with legislation to more closely regulate charging networks to ensure minimum uptime requirements. At this point, there’s little evidence of parallel activity in Canada. But it’s clear more charging networks are consciously honing their own maintenance, reliability and performance standards.
In August, Electrify Canada, which is based in Ajax, Ont., and is a subsidiary of Electrify America, issued a press release outlining its efforts. The company says it has built a real time monitoring network and also sends out a roaming EV test fleet to check the equipment. Launched in January 2021, the inspection teams visit stations every two months. The company also does testing with automakers and with new hardware and software at its Centre of Excellence lab and runs “a 24/7 customer contact centre that can help troubleshoot with customers in real time,” it said in an email statement to Electric Autonomy.
Petro-Canada, which launched its national Electric Highway in late 2019, did not respond to a request for an interview. But in October, it published a statement to the EV community pledging to refine the reliability of its chargers and improve communications with EV drivers as it moves forward with network expansion.
ATCO, the Calgary-based engineering and utility giant which operates a network of chargers in 20 cities in Alberta through a partnership with FLO, says it had to establish a dedicated repair crew and a specialized spare parts depot to service its network.
According to Will York, ATCO’s senior engineer for electric mobility, the company uses PlugShare to monitor chargers and respond to customer feedback sent through its mobile app. (Plugshare offers a charger guide for EV drivers but also monitors uptime and provides other data services for business.) He adds that the company’s service technicians specifically asked to be set up with EVs — Hyundai Konas — so they can test the chargers when they’re out on the road, performing a maintenance call. “When they report the status, they physically confirm that it’s working,” he says. “They can only get home if they do their job right.”
York says the most recent uptime statistics put ATCO’s network at above 99 per cent. That is also the benchmark the Electric Circuit aims for. “Our goal is to have less than one per cent [of chargers] that are unavailable,” says Côté. “I would say it’s working pretty well. Based on comments from users, people see us as one of the most reliable networks in Canada.”
Electric Circuit, like Tesla, has deep pockets, and operates in a jurisdiction where EVs and EV charger networks are heavily promoted by policy makers.
But Dunsky’s Turner says that in the absence of prescriptive regulations in other parts of Canada, network operators must be prepared to invest not just in new equipment but also in their systems in order to boost reliability. It’s a business with a “steep learning curve,” he says. “The more important factor is that they’ve got the resources set aside.”