Provinces lack power grids necessary to meet Ottawa’s EV mandate

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Appeared in the Montreal Gazette, March 20, 2024
Provinces lack power grids necessary to meet Ottawa’s EV mandate

As part of its plan to decarbonize the transportation sector, the Trudeau government has mandated that 60 per cent of all new cars and passenger trucks sold in Canada be “zero-emission” by 2030, with the goal of reaching 100 per cent by 2035. However, according to recent evidence, to fulfill Ottawa's electric vehicle (EV) targets the provinces must substantially increase their electricity power generation within a tight timeline, raising doubts about the feasibility of this mandate.

EVs remain a relatively small share of Canada’s vehicle market, growing from less than 1 per cent of total vehicle sales in 2017 to 10.8 per cent in 2023 (the latest year of available data). In 2023, out of 1.7 million new vehicles sold in Canada, only 185,000 were electric. While current provincial power grids appear to have adequately managed EV charging demands, EV sales must reach one million by 2030 and 1.7 million by 2035 (assuming no growth in the total amount of vehicles sold) to meet the government’s mandate. This rapid increase in EVs will escalate the demand for electricity to recharge their batteries, prompting the question: is Canada's electricity infrastructure prepared for this looming influx of EVs?

A new study published by the Fraser Institute analyzes data on battery efficiency, capacity and range for 299 EV models to assess the additional electricity required in Canada and three major provinces—Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec—to meet the rising demand from EVs once the federal mandate takes effect.

The findings paint a sobering picture. Meeting the Trudeau government’s EV mandate could escalate electricity demand by up to 15.3 per cent nationwide. The impact on provinces varies, ranging from a whopping 26.2 per cent potential increase in electricity demand in Ontario, to 13.8 per cent in British Columbia and 9.6 per cent in Quebec.

Accommodating this surge in demand would require significant investments in new electricity generation capacity. Specifically, Canada would need to construct 10 new mega hydroelectric dams, comparable to B.C.’s Site C, or alternatively, 13 new gas plants of 500-megawatt (MW) capacity. However, the timelines and costs associated with such projects are daunting. Drawing from recent experience with B.C.’s Site C dam, which has a capacity of 1,100 MW and is expected to generate sufficient power for 450,000 homes, it took more than a decade to plan and comply with environmental regulations and approximately another decade to construct. To date, Site C, which is still under construction, is expected to cost $16 billion.

Moreover, several Canadian jurisdictions are already grappling with electricity demand challenges. For instance, Albertans were recently warned by the provincial government to conserve their electricity use to avoid potential blackouts, as the province had faced unprecedented electricity demand due to extreme cold temperatures. Additionally, B.C. and Manitoba were recently forced to import electricity from other jurisdictions to meet electricity demand due to severe drought in western Canada. A recent report on the grid reliability in North America identified Ontario at an “elevated risk” for power outages. And last week, Quebec Energy Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon said the province doesn’t have enough electricity to satisfy all the companies wanting to carry out industrial projects.

The upcoming EV influx, without sufficient increases in electricity generation capacity, is bound to exacerbate grid reliability issues.

Adding to the complexity are the federal government’s new Clean Electricity Regulations, which push provinces to transition away from using fossil fuels (such as natural gas and oil) in electricity generation. These regulations compel provinces such as Ontario and Alberta, which do not heavily rely on hydropower, to turn to renewable energy sources (e.g. wind and solar) to meet the increased demand for electricity. However, wind and solar are intermittent sources of power, meaning they’re not always available and require backup capacity, driving up the cost of electricity generation.

Overall, it seems unfeasible for provinces and indeed the country to meet the Trudeau government’s EV mandates given the government’s current timelines and the time required for infrastructure development. Ottawa should more fully and transparently assess the impact of its EV mandate on electricity reliability and affordability and share its findings with Canadians before moving forward with its climate mitigation policies.

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