Electric Cars

July 2, 2010



I’ve seen the automotive future, and it’s quiet. Very quiet. Perhaps the most striking thing about the Nissan Leaf—the first mass-produced, highway-capable electric vehicle, or EV—is that it has the comfortably muffled feel of a luxury car. Its motor, with only one moving part, produces smooth, linear power and acceleration. The usual gas-guzzling rumble of internal combustion is replaced, I discovered on a test drive, by a faint electric whine that’s quickly absorbed by gentle road noise. The Leaf will start turning up in local showrooms at the end of next year, as Vancouver becomes the centre of the EV revolution in North America.

“Vancouver and the province of B.C. were on this thing fast,” says Mark McDade, Nissan’s electric vehicle project manager, who was in town not long ago. “They were the first knocking on our door, coming to us with their plan for cutting emissions and building an infrastructure. We’re working with them, and they’ll be the first to receive vehicles to better develop the system.”

The mix of year-round mild weather, environmentally conscious consumers, and relatively clean power makes Vancouver an ideal proving ground. Factor in the provincial government’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 33 percent by 2020, and of reducing the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 10 percent. Add the city’s goal of becoming the world’s greenest city, and you see why we’ve taken the lead in creating an EV infrastructure. Vancouver will get the Leaf four months before the global rollout begins.

The Leaf is not the only electrified vehicle on its way. The next generation in hybrid technology—plug-in, range-extending hybrids like the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius—will soon be here as well. Lots of electricity-hungry vehicles will soon be suckling from our grid. Are we ready for them?

The first issue is whether our power grid can handle a sudden influx of EVs. According to the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, BC Hydro is now capable of supporting up to 2.4 million EVs—provided charging takes place during off-peak hours. At the moment, BC Hydro sells off-peak hydro power across our borders, buying cheaper coal-produced power from Alberta at these times, severely reducing the eco-benefits of an EV. Hydro is, however, moving to produce 100 percent clean, home-grown energy by 2020.

In preparation for EVs, the city amended its building code last year to require dedicated circuits for EV charging in single-family dwellings. In multi-family dwellings, 20 percent of parking spaces must provide charging capacity (the first such bylaw in North America). Bylaws have also been passed to make slow-moving neighbourhood EVs street legal. And the city is studying the viability of public charging stations.

Meanwhile, in cooperation with the automakers and the Society of Automotive Engineers, BC Hydro has developed infrastructure guidelines. Three levels of charging will be made available. Level 1 is a standard electrical cord connecting to a 110-volt outlet. Level 2 requires a professionally installed charger connected to a 220-volt outlet. And Level 3 specifies dedicated 440-volt charging stations in public areas for quick charging in the field. Each level requires a different connector, and standard connectors have been agreed upon. Other guidelines (such as building and safety codes, charging-station locations, signage, and the licensing of technicians) have also been established. Ideas still at the exploration stage include vehicle-to-grid technology, by which the electricity stored in EVs might be used to power the grid, or even one’s home, in the event of emergency.

I’ve test-driven just about every gas/electric hybrid out there—from the Prius to the Ford Fusion—and although they get more efficient by the year, they still produce harmful emissions. The Leaf, by contrast, is powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries. You can plug the car into an electrical outlet in your garage at night, and by morning have 160 kilometres of driving on tap, a range that meets the demands of 90 percent of Vancouverites.

While EVs are zero-emission vehicles, they do pollute, indirectly, when you consider the energy required to charge them. In the U.S., more than 50 percent of electricity is produced from coal, so loading the grid there with EVs would not be as environmentally efficient as it might appear. As B.C. works to be the first region in North America to achieve 100 percent clean energy, EVs charged here will actually produce zero emissions.

In May, Mayor Gregor Robertson announced a city partnership with the Rocky Mountain Institute and BCIT. Project Get Ready, as it’s called, is aimed at making Vancouver EV-ready within five years. As part of the “world’s greenest city” initiative, he hopes 15 percent of all new vehicles will be electric within 10 years.

My test drive in the Nissan? One small step for Van, one giant Leaf for Vankind. VM

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