Stories & Features

Kootenays to go big on support for electric vehicles

Map of plans for Accelerate Kootenays electric vehicle charging network
The Accelerate Kootenays initiative plans to add 13 new DC fast-charging stations (DCFC) and 40 Level 2 charging stations to southeast B.C. by the end of 2018. Map shows existing and planned DCFC and Level 2 stations in the region.

13 DC fast charge stations included in rollout through December 2018

In recent years, there's been a smattering of electric vehicle and hybrid-electric cars showing up in the southeast corner of B.C. A Chevy Volt in Kimberley, a couple more in Fernie. Four Nissan Leafs and a couple Volts in Nelson, and a few Teslas in Rossland.

And for the most part, they've been bought and driven by true believers like Nelson's Andrew Chewter, a Leaf owner who says: "I feel bad enough being in a car and commuting everyday – I didn't want to feel worse by putting over six tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions into the air each year."

But Chewter's days as a local curiosity – that EV guy driving around town with a canoe and three mountain bikes on an electric car – could be numbered. The Accelerate Kootenays initiative is about to deliver another 13 DC fast charging stations and 40 Level 2 chargers to the Kootenays by December 2018.

Billed as Canada's first regional and community-driven strategy to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, Accelerate Kootenays kicked off the big push with the opening of a DC fast charge station in Cranbrook. Gone will be the days when longer electric vehicle trips in the region were marathon "making the most of it" affairs that might involve going on a local hike while your car "trickle-charged" for hours at a local campground.

One woman in Nelson has already ordered a Chevy Bolt, which offers a whopping 383 km between charges, and word is that there's a waitlist for the Bolt at the Chevy dealer in Castlegar. Meanwhile, existing electric vehicle drivers are excited about the trips they'll be able to make by the end of 2018.

"I'll be able to do weekend trips I couldn't do before," says Chewter. "I'll be able to drive to Castlegar, go up to the Paulson Summit to go cross-country skiing and then come back. Last winter, there wasn't even a Level 2 in Castlegar."

By the numbers: Driving a Leaf in the Kootenays

'We expect the project to attract new visitors to the region'

Castlegar is on the list of 13 communities that will get a DC fast charger, which is fast enough to provide an 80% charge to most EVs in a half hour (even though drivers rarely need to charge their car from empty or near empty).

Other proposed sites on the list for DC fast chargers are: Sparwood, Jaffray, Creston, Salmo, Castlegar, Christina Lake and Greenwood along Highway 3; Canal Flats, Radium Hot Springs and Golden along Highway 95; Field and Rogers Pass on Highway 1.

But even the addition of 40 Level 2 chargers – which charge anywhere from three to six times faster than the basic 120-volt outlet found in your home or at a campground – should make a huge difference in the region.

"We've really harnessed local knowledge and regional assets in this project to create a charging network that addresses the driving challenges we face here in the Kootenays: mountain ranges, extreme weather, and long distances between communities," says Lawrence Chernoff, the Castlegar mayor who chairs the Highway 3 Mayors' and Chairs' Coalition that worked with energy planners from local communities to inspire what became Accelerate Kootenays. "It is an opportunity for our communities to show off what's great about the region, and to draw attention to the innovation that exists here at the community level.

"We expect the project to attract new visitors to the region, benefitting our communities in a variety of ways."

Accelerate Kootenays is a team effort in a big way. The project's more than $1.5 million in funding includes:

As experts in charging infrastructure, BC Hydro's role is to provide long-term, in-kind, support for ownership and operation of DC Fast Charging stations in BC Hydro-served communities.

Andrew Chewter loads up four bikes (one is in the hatch) and a canoe for a trip in his 2014 Nissan Leaf electric car. Show caption
Plug-in charging at campgrounds in the Kootenays allows Andrew Chewter to drive the Leaf on longer trips, but the time needed for charging on Level 1 chargers slows the trips down considerably. Show caption
Andrew Chewter's Leaf climbs the big hill out of Osoyoos, where several Level 2 charging stations are already available.  Show caption
The Leaf is plugged in at one of B.C.'s most unusual Level 2 chargers, a retrofitted vintage gas pump operated by the Kettle River Museum Society at Midway, a town located between Osoyoos and Grand Forks. Show caption

EV owner in the Kootenays already sold on practicality of driving electric

For Andrew Chewter, the excitement created by the new stations and Accelerate Kootenays' marketing experts will only serve to spread what he's been saying for years: even though they're more expensive in terms of original purchase price, when you consider all costs of ownership, electric cars are a practical, affordable option for many drivers in more rural areas of B.C.

Chewter bought the Leaf in 2014 as soon as he started a daily 144-km round-trip commute between Nelson and Trail, where he works as an environmental engineer at the Teck smelter. Over the past year, he drove the Leaf 34,000 km (including some weekend trips) and used the family's other car – a Subaru Forester – for longer trips that added up to less than 10,000 km for the year.

From the day Chewter bought his 2014 Leaf – which delivers an EPA-rated range of 135 km on a single charge – he has spread the EV gospel via his Kootenay EV Family blog that regularly details his costs down to the dollar. And his numbers are powerful:

  • $120: Total cost of maintenance after 112,600 km of driving, thanks to no oil changes, brake work or tune-ups required.
  • $3,432: Operational savings (fuel costs, maintenance) over a gas-powered vehicle in the first nine months of 2016.
  • 75% or more: The amount of wear remaining on his brakes, which are seldom used in electric cars that use "regenerative breaking" that actually helps recharge the vehicle and which should delay brake replacement until after 200,000 to 300,000 km.
  • 2: The number of days in which he chose to drive the higher-clearance, all-wheel-drive Subaru for the drive to Whitewater Ski Resort because the snow was so deep. On dozens of other days, the front-wheel-drive Leaf was the vehicle of choice for skiing, and he says it performs really well in the snow.
  • -25°C: The coldest day in which he drove the Leaf. "The nice thing about it is it warms up right away – it pumps out heat within a minute," he says.

Chewter missed out on B.C.'s up-to-$5,000 rebate for purchase of an electric vehicle, as the rebate was unavailable for a year between 2014 and 2015. He says that if he factors in what the Leaf would have cost him with the rebate in place, he would have been ahead on costs for a similar-sized gas-powered after just one year.

"The up-front cost of an electric vehicle can be a big number, and that scares some people off," he says. "But when you compare the costs over five years, even to a fuel-efficient car like a Prius, my car will still come out ahead."

Once the more robust DC fast charge and Level 2 charging network in southeast B.C. is in place, expect that Chewter's 22% use of his Subaru will decline considerably. Road trip vacations that would take a week to complete with the Leaf and the existing charging network will now be feasible over a long weekend.

For example, a current trip from Nelson to Kelowna takes Chewter about 12 hours because he needs to stop for Level 2 charging sessions in Castlegar, Grand Forks, Greenwood and Osoyoos before hitting the first DC fast charge station in Penticton. While he says the newest Leaf probably has enough range to take the shortcut route to Kelowna – from Rock Creek through Beaverdell to East Kelowna on Highway 33 – his Leaf has to go the longer route.

By the end of 2018, he'll be able to use DC fast chargers in Christina Lake and Greenwood, then make a longer stop at a Level 2 charger at the Red Rock Garage in Beaverdell , to get to Kelowna in around eight hours.

In the end, every day spent driving the Leaf rather than a gas-powered car is a small victory to Chewter.

"I don't really want to have my dollars going to support oil and all of the social, environmental and health issues that go with that," he says. "That's everything from foreign wars over oil, to local air quality. And all that money leaves our community."