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Companies that don’t contact their local electrical utility before transitioning to ZEVs risk being blindsided by long delays should they require a new electrical connection or more power from the grid for charging.

Across Canada, utilities are warning commercial fleet customers to plan ahead in the face of wait times of up to a year or more for electrical upgrades to power on-site charging

It’s no secret that commercial fleet operators looking to add zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) are struggling with wait times. But what many don’t realize — until it’s too late — is that they might wait longer for electrical service upgrades than for new vehicles.

The message is clear: companies that don’t contact their local electrical utility before transitioning to ZEVs risk being blindsided by long delays should they require a new electrical connection or more power from the grid for charging.

Jason Scultety Headshot
Jason Scultety, senior key account manager, fleet electrification at British Columbia’s BC Hydro. Photo: LinkedIn

“It’s not like a faucet you turn on and off,” says Jason Scultety, senior key account manager, fleet electrification at British Columbia’s BC Hydro. “Fleet owners and managers embark down this path thinking: ‘I’m just going to go buy some electric trucks and put in some charging equipment and I should be fine.’”

But it’s not so simple. The reality is, it could take a while to get connected depending on the complexity of the site, how much power you’re bringing in and the existing services at the facility where you want to install your chargers. It can also be very costly and time consuming, he adds.

Utility workloads up significantly

While none of the utilities Electric Autonomy contacted could give us a definitive timeline to complete new connection requests for commercial electric vehicle charger hookups, Shayna Rector Bleeker, vice-president strategic partnerships at 7Gen, a Vancouver-based start-up that simplifies this transition through its EV-as-a-service model, advises her clients that it could take “anywhere between three to 12 months.”

In Quebec, the provincial utility Hydro-Québec began publishing estimated lead times for all new connection requests on its website last fall in an effort to manage customer expectations. For a new connection on the island of Montreal requiring more than 800 Amps, it can take as long as 18 months to carry out the work. Electrical Autonomy plugged several variables into the utility’s tool and found that for any scenario requiring an extension of the power system on the island, lead times were between 12 and 18 months. Elsewhere in the province, such as Abitibi-Temiscamingue for instance, this number drops to between six and 12 months.

“There has been a significant increase in requests for connections to our network over the past two years… The workload that we currently have in our files is 50% higher than the average workload that we normally have to process. This context is currently causing delays in the processing of connection requests of all types, including for electric vehicle infrastructure,” Hydro-Québec spokesperson Jonathan Côté wrote in an email, adding that the utility recommends vehicle fleet operators who want to install charging infrastructure make their connection requests as soon as possible to avoid delays in commissioning their equipment.

Hydro-Québec’s online tool for fleets to calculate electrical service wait times. Image: Hydro-Québec

Many factors in play

Alectra spokesperson John Friesen says the situation in the company’s service area, which includes Brampton, Hamilton, Mississauga and Vaughan, is similar to that of its Quebec neighbour.

“Increased customer demand and growth are adding significant pressures across the electricity sector…. While Alectra makes every effort to meet the customer timelines for service capacity upgrades, the global supply chain issues impact the availability of specific equipment (such as larger transformers and switches), which may delay new service or service upgrades for customers,” he wrote in an email to Electric Autonomy, though did not specify the specific impact on lead times, only that the utility was working with suppliers to improve delivery dates.

For other utilities in Canada, like NB Power in New Brunswick, long lead times for new connections are so far “not an issue,” according to a spokesperson for the organization.

In general, it’s difficult for a utility to give clients an exact timeline for new connection requests. It depends on many factors including location or region, current load capacity in the area, whether the power lines are above ground or below ground, and so on.

Fleet owner-utility engagement

Scultety says he doesn’t fault fleet owners for not knowing to contact the utility and involve them early on — in many cases they have little to no experience with them. That’s why he and his team focus on engaging this clientele early on in the ZEV transition process, partnering with dealerships in the province, putting on webinars and doing other outreach activities to ensure operators have a sound electrification plan from the get-go.

While B.C. is one of the leaders in vehicle electrification in Canada, not all utilities have the same experience, says Rector Bleeker. “Some utilities haven’t done this before and are less agile at adding capacity.”

Fleet size is also a factor, she adds. “If clients are deploying two or five vehicles, they are usually safe within their existing grid capacity. When you want to electrify vehicles at scale, this is where you can run into issues.”

Grid capacity can also be problematic for smaller fleets in leased buildings where there might be lots of activity on the property. “Do you know what the electric load is?” Rector Bleeker says. In such cases, she suggests businesses approach the building owner to discuss pooling all the tenants together to upgrade the grid if necessary.

Expect electrical upgrade demand to rise

Fleet operators should also recognize that these issues may get worse before they get better. Right now, the transition from gas- or diesel-powered vehicles to electric for last-mile delivery and short-haul transportation is still in its relative infancy. With improved vehicle availability, government rebate programs and low-carbon fuel credits, demand is certain to rise. In the last year alone, “engagement has ramped up significantly,” says Scultety.

“Some of the conversations I’m having now I wouldn’t have had a year ago with some trucking operators. Suddenly they’re seeing all these economic benefits.”

That increased demand, coupled with demand from residential customers switching over to EVs, means understanding the charging needs of your commercial operation — whether you have the right infrastructure in place and forecasting your electricity needs as your grow — will continue to be crucial.

“We’re asking a lot from fleet managers who are new to EVs. It takes time,” says Rector Bleeker. The main ask though: get thinking ahead.

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