In 2017, Rob and Kim Nelson, both professors at the University of Windsor, bought their first electric car, a Chevrolet Bolt. To charge its battery, they ran a charging cable from a standard socket in their garage to the driveway where they parked the Bolt.
Last September, in the dead of night, someone cut the cable and made off with it, likely to sell the copper that was inside. To replace it would cost at least $800, so the Nelsons decided to upgrade to a Level 2 charger, which was only a couple of hundred dollars more and much faster (30 km of range per hour of charging on average).
Level 2 chargers are quite common, but installing one wasn’t as easy as the Nelsons had thought. Level 2s have about the same electrical needs as a dryer or stove—240 volts/30 amps—and the Nelsons’ house, like most older Canadian homes, was only wired for 100 amps. They also have a pool and air conditioning, and in the middle of summer, with both the pool pump and the AC running, charging the Bolt could overload their electrical panel. They needed to upgrade to 200 amps, meaning several thousand more dollars and digging up their yard to lay in the proper electrical service.
Then the Nelsons’ contractor gave them worse news. If three or four houses on the block all did the same upgrade, he said, pointing to a nearby transformer, the system would blow. “Basically, he said that hasn’t changed,” Rob Nelson recalled. “This whole infrastructure would need to be changed if all these houses go to 200 amps.”
This was just one house on one block in one Canadian city. But it’s representative of one of the big challenges facing widespread electric vehicle (EV) adoption in this country. EV owners plugging their cars in at home are going to add unprecedented stress to a power grid that is, in many instances, not prepared. Meanwhile, the number of people charging at public stations may soon outgrow the number of spots available—and increasing that number will, obviously, tax the grid even more. Claude El-Bayeh, a researcher at Concordia University who’s developing algorithms for EV charging to optimize their energy use, argues that current, uncoordinated charging could lead to “blackouts” if millions of EVs charge simultaneously.
Between 2011 and 2020, the total number of EVs sold in Canada jumped from 460 a year to over 53,000. According to StatsCan, new zero-emission vehicle registrations (which include plug-in hybrids and battery EVs) increased to 4.9 per cent of total vehicle registrations in the second quarter of 2021, an 89.2 per cent increase over the previous period in 2020.
That number is expected to balloon as gas prices are spiking again; the Trudeau government has mandated that all new car sales must be electric by 2035; and the price of EVs is gradually dropping, thanks to improved technology, increased demand and various hefty government incentives. There’s also automakers—most of them, anyway—vowing to only build electric cars by 2030 or 2035.
There are 200,000 EVs on Canadian roads at the moment, but it’s estimated that there will be half a million in Ontario and 635,000 in B.C. by 2030. Hydro One, Ontario’s largest electricity transmission and distribution service provider, expects electricity demand to grow around 15 per cent annually between 2022 and 2040—the equivalent of six months of output from a nuclear reactor.
How exactly this will affect the grid, however, is far from certain. “The answer is like a good lawyer’s answer,” says Cara Clairman. “It depends.”
Clairman is the president and CEO of Plug’n Drive, a non-profit promoting the use of EVs. The impact will hinge on how quickly adoption of EVs accelerates and, Clairman argues, where those EVs are being driven and charged. This in turn will be shaped by new regulations—in Vancouver, for example, by June 2022, 45 per cent of all parking spots in new non-residential buildings must have charging stations. In newer suburbs, the amperage problem the Nelsons face isn’t an issue—almost all homes have sufficient panels. But in places with older homes—Toronto, say, or Winnipeg—it can be. “The good thing is, this isn’t happening overnight,” Clairman says. As well, “EVs tend to cluster in neighbourhoods right now. The utilities can plan.”
At the moment, that planning involves an array of pilot projects scattered across the country, with various levels of provincial and industry investment. Nova Scotia Power is currently testing bidirectional charging, in which EVs can discharge power from their batteries, feeding it back into the grid—but that technology is still years away from market. A pilot program to install 16 fast-charging stations at various Co-op locations across the Prairies will be complete by next spring—a start, but a number not likely to quicken the pulse of Tesla owners in those provinces.
So-called smart charging—efficient, coordinated charging that employs AI-powered algorithms, data analytics, smartphone apps and sensors—could head off the apocalyptic scenario that Concordia’s El-Bayeh warns of. Alectra, a utility that serves Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe, implemented a number of such projects in anticipation of the EV boom.
“We started work five years ago,” says Neetika Sathe, the vice-president of the company’s Green Energy and Technology Centre, “knowing the tsunami is going to hit us at some point.” One of its recent projects, called GridExchange, lets customers who have EVs, solar panels or backup battery storage exchange energy with Alectra for cash and points redeemable at local businesses. If a neighbourhood is experiencing unusual energy events—several EVs charging at once, say, or a bad storm—Alectra can request that customers divert, ramp up or throttle their energy.
Eighty per cent of EV owners charge their vehicles at home, so it makes sense that utilities are targeting that market. But what if you live in a house or condo that doesn’t have anywhere to charge? Chris Wray, a Tesla owner in Toronto, bought his Model 3 in early 2020, planning to charge it using the fast chargers installed at his office. Then the pandemic hit, and he no longer went there. Lacking a garage or even a proper driveway to park in, he was compelled to use public chargers at a mall 15 minutes away. On at least one occasion, when his battery was close to zero, he had to run an extension cord from his house across the sidewalk, giving his car what Tesla calls a “trickle” charge because of how slow the process is—about 11 km of range per hour. On urban streets, this MacGyver setup is becoming a not uncommon scene.
Wray is understandably excited about yet another pilot project—over the last year, the city of Toronto and Toronto Hydro installed 17 curbside Level 2 chargers for residents unable to charge in their own homes. But that pilot only highlighted how much more quickly the city needs to move. At the moment, Toronto has just 864 chargers, while its own EV strategy aims to have 10,000 chargers installed by 2030—an increase of more than 1,000 per cent. Recent modelling by the B.C. government shows that province, too, is way behind in building a sufficient network.
A more extensive public network would make Rob Nelson’s life easier too. He’s cleaned out his garage and now parks the Bolt inside. He never made the electrical upgrade. Maybe one day, though, he’ll put solar panels on the roof that could exclusively power, emissions-free, a Level 2 charger. Or maybe one day there’ll be a charging hub at the top of his street. For now, the Nelsons continue to squeeze what they can out of their lower voltage plug and drive just a little bit less. “We’ll see how it goes,” he says.
This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The electric car crash.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.