Petro-Canada’s EV fast chargers herald a new era
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Jun 26, 2019
Peter Vella

It’s just 50 stations to start, but this year’s rollout underscores the palpable potential for petroleum suppliers in Canada to rethink their mission

It’s just 50 stations to start, but this year’s rollout underscores the palpable potential for petroleum suppliers in Canada to rethink their mission

The announcement earlier this year that Petro-Canada will be equipping 50 retail outlets along the Trans-Canada Highway with electric vehicle fast chargers is nothing short of monumental. This bold move represents an awareness on the part of a large company that specializes in refining and selling gasoline that electrically powered mobility is the way of the future. Petro-Can has chosen to merge into this traffic flow and I am sure their actions will pay dividends beyond public relations kudos.

Studebaker electric car advertisement
An advertisement for the “quiet running” electric Studebaker

Other modern examples of an “industrial evolution” might be seen in newspapers going online to reach their audience or soft drink companies selling real fruit juice. Historically, in the automotive world, the story of the Studebaker company stands out in my mind. In the late 1800s, Studebaker was one of the largest manufacturers of horse drawn wagons in the world. On the urging of a junior executive it started producing electric cars. A shift to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines followed and in a span of 17 years the transition from wagons to gasoline-powered cars was complete.

Strong detractors

As with EVs today, at the dawn of the horseless carriage automobiles had very strong detractors. The day that a company with the might of Studebaker began dabbling in cars must have been a blow for the naysayers. Yet it went on to become, at one point, the third-largest automaker in the world.

Photographer: David Falconer

Petro-Canada’s evolution is equally illustrative. The Oil Crisis of 1973 was a pivotal time in transportation history. Prices spiked, there were long lineups for gasoline and even the Big Three quickly (and woefully) got into the small car market with models such as the Pinto, Vega and Cricket. The Trudeau Liberal government of the time decided to support a local economy and got into the oil business. In 1975, it merged existing smaller players in the extracting and refining industries and created the Crown corporation known as Petro-Canada. Soon after, Petro-Can added a major retail component.

Privatized, then merged

While the company prospered, the concept was not popular with other oil companies in Alberta or the federal Conservative party. After Brian Mulroney’s re-election in 1988, the government set about privatizing Petro-Can. By 2004 there were no ties between the oil firm and the Canadian government. Five years later, Suncor Energy bought Petro-Can. It merged operations but maintained the Petro-Canada brand for all of its gas stations.

Today, the fact that Suncor specializes in the production of synthetic crude from oil sands makes it an enormous target for the watch dogs of the environment, and there are signs that the firm is looking to present a very different environmental image. Suncor’s “Sustainability Program” includes factors such as water stewardship, Aboriginal relations and climate change mitigation. Suncor has committed to lowering its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 and it operates wind farms to offset CO2 production.

Retail chargers key

An important part of Suncor’s commitment to the environment will be highlighted by its retail branch installing those EV chargers. The introduction to the Petro-Can website is called “Pump Talk.” Ironically, a recent edition of Pump Talk is not about pumps but about EV chargers. It mentions that there are 90,000 EVs (of a sort) on Canadian roads and 4,000 more are added each year. The article shows that Petro-Can has done its research in terms of the specifications of the chargers it will be providing. There will be two units per station and they will have both CHAdeMo (100 kilowatt) and CCS (200 kilowatt) plugs and have a future potential for 350-kilowatt charging.

The many benefits for the consumer include:

  • When automobile manufacturers make statements like, “Seventy percent of our product line will plugged-in by 2022,” they are including plug-in hybrid and range extender vehicles in that claim. PHEVs and REX cars need two types of fuel and Petro-Can will have both in each location.
  • Petro-Can closed its own fast-food sections and has started an alliance with A&W. So, human fuel will be available, too. Order the Beyond Meat Burger or Beyond Meat Breakfast Sandwich and be part of A&W’s transition into the future as well.
  • Gas stations have facilities that include air pumps, water, window washing apparatus and washrooms. There is also an attendant. Said attendant could remove snow from charging access, remove charged vehicles from charging access, and make the whole process seem a little safer.
  • Because of the nature of even the fastest electric charging units, patrons will be spending more time at Petro-Can stations. There is opportunity here. Petro-Can need only to look across the border to the Wawa fuel-food chain to see how it is done. I saw one Wawa “facility” in Florida that had a line up for specialty donuts on a Sunday morning. They also sold gasoline and electricity. In a transparent and innovative business model, the new Petro-Can could look even further ahead. It could inform customers as to the source of the electricity at each station. It could strive to supply electricity from renewable sources. Solar panels could be installed on their expansive roof areas.
  • Petro-Can’s program blends in well with the federal government’s $5,000 incentive for the purchase of an electric vehicle. That program ensures electric vehicle sales will be distributed more evenly across the country, instead of just in the few provinces that promoted them in the past. With cross-country sales will come the need for a cross-country charging network. Other petroleum suppliers have subsequently seen the sense in Petro-Can’s endeavour. EV charging firm Swtch has partnered with Air-serv (the company that supplies tire pressure air pumps to gas stations) and will provide fast-charging services at sites across Canada. Also, Shell Oil has purchased the Greenlots charging system.

There is a palpable potential for petroleum suppliers in Canada to rethink their mission. Petro-Can could become “Energy-Can” in the next decade. Admittedly, 50 stations out of 1,500 is an evolutionary pace, but with Husky and Shell following suit, that is evolutionary with a capitol EV. I like to think that the “battery is half-full” when a major distributor of petroleum products recognizes the inevitability of the switch to electric personal mobility. Check it out this summer in your province.

Peter Vella photo

Peter Vella calls himself a car nut with a conscience, and has found his enthusiasm for things mobile revitalized by the electric vehicle movement. He travels extensively to most any electric vehicle symposium, international car show or car museum he can get to.

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