75% of B.C. drivers interested in going electric: poll

Image of a Tesla Model S charging in Germany
Rave reviews for the Tesla Model S, shown here at a charging station in Nuremberg, Germany, have stoked interest in electric vehicles across the world. But price and the range between charges remain key considerations for prospective electric vehicle buyers.

There's lots of buzz, and a shortage of basic knowledge, about EVs

British Columbia is a great place to own an electric vehicle (EV). And a new poll conducted by BC Hydro indicates that drivers in the province generally agree.

In the month of April, members of BC Hydro's Team Power Smart were asked if they would consider buying a plug-in electric vehicle in the next five years. Fully 75% of respondents indicated they'd either "absolutely" consider buying one (32%) or would "maybe" consider it (43%).

While the numbers aren't scientific, they do suggest that interest in electric vehicles is increasing. A lot of that probably has to do with the buzz around Tesla's Model S and the recently unveiled Model 3, but even drivers of less sexy plug-in vehicles are spreading the word about the benefits of going electric. At the same time, research conducted at SFU [PDF, 3.4 MB] indicates that while interest in so-called "EVs" is high, people have lots of questions about what it's like to own them.

In particular, people want to know what types of plug-in vehicles are available, how difficult it is to charge them, and how far they can travel. Here are a few of the basics.

See also: What it's like to drive an electrical vehicle in B.C.

Types of electric vehicles available today

There are three different types of electric vehicles available in B.C.:

  • Hybrid: A hybrid vehicle runs using both gasoline and electricity, but you only have to put gasoline into it. You don't plug in.
  • Plug-in hybrid: These hybrids also run using both gasoline and electricity, but you need to "fill them" with both gasoline and electricity.
  • Battery electric: With only rechargeable batteries on board, these vehicles need to be charged via a plug-in source of electricity.

How to choose between a hybrid or a full-on electric

If you're interested in an electric vehicle, then choosing the right type depends on four factors: the range of the vehicle, the geography in which you live, your personal philosophy, and your budget.

The most often asked question about electrics is always, "How far can they travel before you need to charge them up?" The truth is, it varies. It depends on the size of the battery in the vehicle.

Tesla's Model S has the farthest range. The 90D version of the Model S can travel up to 473 km. On the lower end of the scale is the Ford Fusion Energi, which has an electric-only range of 32 km.

The most popular battery electric in B.C., the Nissan Leaf, gets between 135 and 172 km (depending on the specific model).

But how far do you need to travel? For those living in the Lower Mainland, the distance from home to work is usually less than 50 km. And where you live also factors in. Plug-In Richmond's John Roston thinks his city is ideal for EVs because the weather is rarely below freezing and the terrain is flat. "Everything is in your favour," he said.

If you're living in Fort St. John and spend a few months of the year watching kids play hockey on outdoor rinks, though, an electric vehicle probably isn't a good option for you. Cold temperatures reduce the capacity of today's batteries.

There are also different motivations for buying an EV. Is it because it can be so much cheaper to operate while also reducing your personal contribution to carbon emissions? Fred Wissemann, the president of the Victoria EV Club, prefers battery electrics because, as he said, "zero emission is the only solution for our planet".

Finally, there's the matter of budget. While electric vehicle fans will argue that drastically reduced fuel and maintenance costs (no oil changes, far longer brake life) add up to long-term savings, electric vehicles are still more expensive to purchase than most comparably-sized gas-fuelled vehicles. And in an age when SUVs are popular, the only options for full-electric SUVs are out of the price range of most car buyers.

But the gap in price is shrinking, and some predict the lower-priced, long-range-capable Tesla Model 3 and Chevy Bolt will lead to a dramatic increase in electric vehicle sales in the years following their release.

More charging stations planned

Finding a place to charge an electric vehicle is another consideration. The existing infrastructure for fueling internal combustion engines has been developed over 100 years, and while there may not be a gas station on every corner anymore, they are virtually everywhere.

BC Hydro's Alec Tsang said the focus in B.C. is on getting enogh public fast charging stations installed to lead the market, but not get ahead of it. "If electric vehicles are tethered to the home, they will remain a niche market," he says.

DC fast charge stations can get a typical electric vehicle battery up to 80% in about 20 minutes. The 26th new station was just opened at Empire Fields in Vancouver, said Tsang, and another four will be added by the end of June. "That's only the first wave," he said, adding that stations will also be installed throughout the Fraser valley.

A partnership with BMW will see 10 existing public charging stations upgraded so they can be used by people driving electric vehicles with a different standard of plug.

A priority for charging stations, said Tsang, is condos and apartment buildings, as over 60% of residents in metro Vancouver live in places with shared parking spaces. A City of Vancouver bylaw requires that any new residential dwelling be constructed with EV charging infrastructure, but there are hundreds of buildings that would need to be retrofitted.

That's why the province is putting $1 million into the installation of charging stations in these multi-user dwellings.