Upcoming NRCan ZEVIP RFP will include funding, reporting changes to improve EV charger reliability
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EV Charging
May 9, 2024
Brian Banks

The changes follow an audit calling for greater focus on charger reliability, accessibility and user experience — issues vital to boosting EV adoption and an apt starting point for our new EA Spotlight: Charging Experience series

Changes are coming to the federal ZEVIP EV charger funding program, with a focus on improving reliability and the user experience — issues critical to increasing EV adoption across Canada.

The changes follow an audit calling for NRCan to put greater focus on charger reliability, accessibility and user experience — issues vital to boosting EV adoption and an apt starting point for our new EA Spotlight: Charging Experience series

Dedicated funding for EV charger maintenance and requirements for ongoing charger uptime disclosure are two of the primary new additions coming to Natural Resources Canada’s Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program (ZEVIP) when it opens its next request for proposals in the coming weeks.

EA Spotlight: Charging Experience
Increasing EV adoption in line with Canada’s 2035 goals will only be possible when EV charging is a seamless, stress-free, reliable experience. This ongoing series examines the issues, obstacles and solutions required and charts our progress towards that goal.

These revisions are designed to improve the reliability of new charging infrastructure funded by the program — which, since 2019, has supported installation of more than 27,000 public EV charging ports and more than public 11,000 EV charging stations across Canada.

According to Mike Davis, ZEVIP program manager at Natural Resources Canada, they represent “a bit of a pilot,” and are in response to an audit of the ZEVIP program conducted last year by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

A prominent criticism in that audit’s findings was that “the [ZEVIP] program’s design and processes did not assure Canadians of a reliable and convenient charging infrastructure.”

In response to the audit, NRCan says it is evaluating “methods to best address charger reliability and user experience for public fast charging.” But Davis’s remarks — delivered at Electric Autonomy’s EV & Charging Expo in Toronto last week — are the first concrete details as to how the department plans to respond.

Details of the new provisions

When the RFP opens (in late May or early June), applicants won’t necessarily see a specific category for charger maintenance. Instead, Davis explains, “we’re now allowing pre-paid expenses as part of our program’s parameters” and maintenance program costs would fall under that umbrella.

He says this is a move that stakeholders have been encouraging for some time. There is a belief that ZEVIP funding for prepaid expenses “would likely go a long way to providing better reliability.”

The second change adds a new reporting requirement for successful ZEVIP applicants once their new stations are up and running. For six months from that point, stations operators will have to post uptime performance stats for every charger either on their own platforms or public charging network apps.

NRCan believes that requiring public uptime disclosure puts a greater onus on station operators to ensure charger reliability. The data will also help EV drivers find working chargers while also providing NRCan with additional data on overall charger uptime performance.

Davis says station operators will have to comply with charger reliability reporting or NRCan can withhold their funding.

But the changes may not go far enough for some. And given the importance of the overall EV charging experience to the pace of future EV adoption, ongoing scrutiny of the program’s changes — as well as the entire sector’s response to these issues — is essential.

Charger reliability problems widespread

There is no centralized, public clearinghouse for EV charger performance data in Canada. But generally EV drivers and industry accept that charger reliability is a serious problem.

In a survey conducted by Pollution Probe in 2023, for example, 44 per cent of EV drivers living outside of Quebec reported finding public charging stations often out of service (only 19 per cent of Quebec drivers had the same concern, suggesting chargers as a whole are more reliable there).

North American data gathered by ChargeHub, based on more than 25,000 user comments posted on its EV charging networks mapping and payment app, shows that only six out of 10 charging attempts by EV drivers in 2023 were successful.

When the Canada-only results are broken out, the average 12-month figure for successful sessions was 61 per cent. Of the remaining 39 per cent, ChargeHub divided the results into three categories:

  • Unsuccessful charging attempt: 22 per cent
  • Charge initiated but it was “painful” and/or it ended prematurely: 3 per cent
  • Charged successfully but power or port availability was not as advertised: 13 per cent

ChargeHub CEO Simon Ouellette acknowledges that even though the data is based on user comments rather than a scientific survey, because the results track so consistently month over month, he is confident they are a useful barometer.

“The fact that it is so consistent over time tells us that we can use this [data] to see over [time] is the industry as a whole going in the right direction,” says Ouellette.

It also shines a glaring spotlight on the scale of the problem.

“Just imagine if 40 per cent of the time someone drove to a gas station and it wasn’t a good experience,” says Ouellette. “There’s going to be riots all over the country.”

The riddles of uptime

Critics of the NRCan ZEVIP program’s previous lack of attention to charger reliability, including the commissioner who conducted last year’s audit, point to strings attached to federal charger funding in other countries as an example of stricter measures that could further alleviate the problem.

Programs introduced in the past couple of years in the United Kingdom and United States, for example, have ongoing station uptime requirements of 99 per cent and 97 per cent, respectively.

But according to Davis, there’s no authority within ZEVIP’s mandate to impose similar conditions. Nor does it have the personnel, funding or administrative structure needed to monitor long-term compliance.

NRCan provided a broader response to Electric Autonomy in reply to an earlier request for information about how it might act on the auditor’s report. “Once projects are completed and operational,” a spokesperson wrote in an email reply, “the ongoing maintenance is the responsibility of the site host, equipment owner, or network provider.”

Charger reliability in other jurisdictions

To be fair, the meaning of uptime targets also needs some unpacking.

While 99 per cent and 97 per cent requirements in the UK and U.S. sound like nirvana for EV drivers, even when charging stations hit those levels, it doesn’t mean drivers successfully complete a charge 99 or 97 per cent of the time.

“It [only] means the station is available,” says Frank Menchaca, Pennsylvania-based president of sustainable mobility solutions at the standard-setting body SAE International. “A lot of other things could have interceded to make that an unsuccessful charge — payment didn’t go through, plug was disengaged, there was a problem between the vehicle and the charger.”

So, again, the problem is not unique to Canada, but it would appear high-level efforts to address it are more robust in the U.S. Case in point: Menchaca is also a member of the ChargeX Consortium, a federally led team of research labs, EV charging industry experts, consumer advocates and other stakeholders created last year with a two-year mandate to improve public EV charging and reliability.

Data sharing is key

ChargeX has divided its task into three areas: defining and publishing key performance indicators that measure charging experience; cataloguing the root causes and identifying solutions to problems that prevent successful charging; and developing new diagnostics and testing tools that can be deployed across the industry to ensure more reliable charging experience.

According to Menchaca, one of the biggest hurdles in the latter area is sharing and standardization of data, with regard to things like error codes, across the different charging service providers. Some of the issues are technical. Others are due to some companies’ unwillingness to share data.

SAE is working with ChargeX on some of these matters as well as doing its own work with industry. In both cases, Menchaca says, it’s “very much still a work in progress. It’s very fragmented. Companies are doing lots of different things.”

In NRCan’s response to last year’s audit, it also emphasized that it, too, is working with industry and other stakeholders, through the ZEV Council, to collect and monitoring reliability data.

It’s also clear the government is talking to its counterparts in the U.S.

Crossborder reliability

Last month, representatives from NRCan and Transport Canada took part in the most recent meeting of the U.S.-Canada ZEV Task Force, a partnership struck at a summit held in 2021 between Prime Minister Trudeau and then newly-elected U.S. President Biden.

According to a U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson, agenda items at this most recent meeting featured presentations by the DOT on its National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) formula and standards, including development of charger uptime requirements in that program.

While it’s now clear that not all of these learnings will result in near-term fixes to ZEVIP, they may yet show up in future iterations of the program that will be needed to support the federal government’s long-term zero-emission vehicle goals.

As Cedric Smith, Pollution Probe’s director of transportation, notes: “The government has done a really fantastic job [so far] at building out this network. One way to building on that strength is to find ways to improve on those reliability metrics.”

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