B.C.’s rollout of charging stations for electric cars has cost about $2.5 million more than projected

Similar issues have plagued other cities. North Vancouver’s charging station is among the most frequently used in BC Hydro’s existing network, with an average of 11 charging sessions per day. But Caroline Jackson, manager of environmental sustainability for the municipality, said there have already been three different equipment installations on the same site due to technical problems.

Tsang, BC Hydro’s electric transportation strategist, said 15 of the chargers initially ordered by the company needed to be replaced because they had charging plugs that were only compatible with Japanese-manufactured vehicles. Another model was discontinued and was no longer supported by the manufacturer, so Hydro had to remove that one from its inventory, too, Tsang said, while another suffered compatibility issues with BC Hydro’s electrical network. To date, BC Hydro has tested chargers from at least five different manufacturers.

Lin Khoo, senior vice-president of strategy for electric-charger software provider Greenlots, said the entire industry has struggled with charger reliability for years. Greenlots provides customer interface software in addition to analytics and power-control capabilities for fast chargers. Khoo said BC Hydro was one of Greenlots’ first customers when the B.C. utility deployed its first fast chargers in 2013.

“Hydro, you know, did a very good thing by evaluating several different manufacturers,” Khoo said.

“You’re dealing with a user base that’s not familiar with the technology. There’s bound to be issues. What matters is how quickly and how responsive you can address those issues.”

BC Hydro is projecting millions in future revenues

Currently, many of BC Hydro’s stations are charging 35 cents per kilowatt hour, roughly equivalent to between 60 and 70 cents per litre of gasoline.

FortisBC, a utility primarily serving the province’s southeast, operates five fast chargers and sells its electricity at $18 per hour of charging time. FortisBC said it intends to fund a 30 fast chargers in its service areas and that it has already issued requests for the next 12. FortisBC director of business innovation and measurement Mark Warren said expansion areas being examined include Kelowna, Beaverdell, Rossland and Nelson.

Meanwhile, the B.C. government itself intends to install eight of its own fast chargers at highway rest areas this fall — five of those stations are now operational and are being offered for free.

Both Hydro and Fortis, however, believe the rates they are charging are too low to recover the substantial cost of building the stations. Of the $8.9 million spent by BC Hydro on DC fast chargers, $6.6 million were paid for by government grants and private contributions, while FortisBC had more than half of its $492,000 cost for its five existing stations paid by community groups.

Both BC Hydro and FortisBC believe capital costs for the chargers will have to continue to be subsidized, even at the expense of general electricity ratepayers, to keep costs down for electric vehicle owners. Without subsidies from grants or general ratepayers, FortisBC calculations show it would cost the average car owner $42 for every hour of fast charging. This means that, without subsidies, the average electric car owner who needs 30 minutes to one hour to fully charge their vehicle may have little financial incentive to go electric instead of gasoline.

A potential windfall could take decades, but revenue is expected to grow significantly. Figures from Hydro show its fast chargers were used 53 per cent more year-over-year in 2017. By fiscal 2028, BC Hydro estimates, its combined electric vehicle charging revenues would rise to $62 million per year, and to continue to grow by more than $10 million per year thereafter.

FortisBC, meanwhile, is betting usage of its five stations would grow by at least 22 per cent each year for the next decade — this would be the minimum amount of growth required to break even on its investment costs, assuming the stations are used at least once per day in 2018.

The high expectations appear reasonable. BC Hydro’s current model holds that a fast-charging station has hit full capacity when it’s in use for 18 per cent of the day, and some of Hydro’s existing fast charging stations are already regularly hitting capacity. In April this year, BC Hydro’s most used station was occupied 31 per cent of the time, with someone waiting for the spot to free up as many as four times daily.

In major cities such as Vancouver, during peak times, the fast charger at Empire Fields stadium was seeing as many as 30 vehicles throughout the day, with typical charge times of just under half an hour.

“On Aug. 9, we had 29 sessions. July 22, there were 35 charging sessions,” said Neville, Vancouver’s climate policy analyst. “Which is basically like a continuous lineup of people.”

Other players joining the fray

Vancouver’s city government is planning to more install fast charging stations, unrelated to Hydro’s or Fortis’s plans.

“By 2021, there will be about two dozen DC fast chargers in the city. We want to make sure there’s a fast charging hub within a 10 minute drive of anywhere in the city,” Neville said.

At least two are slated for the South Hill area on Fraser Street, another for Science World, another for Richards and Smithe in downtown, and more for the stadium. The City of Vancouver intends to charge $16 per charging hour to use its stations.

Even a few independent gas station owners have jumped on board: an Esso in Surrey and a Shell in Jaffray, a village near the Alberta border in southeast B.C.

Barj Dhahan, franchise owner of the Esso at 96 Avenue and 168 Street in Surrey, said his business funded about $100,000 for electrical infrastructure to accommodate his fast charger in addition to BC Hydro footing the costs of the charger itself. His electric charger has been operating 24-7 since June. Despite the upfront costs, Dhahan said the station has been popular.

“One morning, I was only there for 40 to 50 minutes, there were at least three people I saw with my own eyes charging their cars. It takes 20 minutes to do an 80 per cent charge, and I believe you can do two cars at a time,” Dhahan said.

Where BC Hydro has identified its largest private-business partner to date has been with grocers. Eight Real Canadian Superstore locations in the province and a No Frills grocer, part of the Loblaw chain, are now equipped with Hydro’s fast chargers: seven located in the Greater Vancouver region and another two on Vancouver Island.

Loblaw spokeswoman Satinder Heir said the company was approached by BC Hydro and is currently assessing the benefits of providing charging stations for customers. The fast chargers are all located at the grocery store parking lots, and are only present in the company’s B.C. locations.

B.C.’s current regulations prevent anyone except for utilities such as Fortis and Hydro from selling electricity. So while Dhahan’s Esso station can advertise its electric charger, it can’t collect revenues from it. Generally, the only exceptions to apply to governments and strata corporations.

An inquiry currently before the B.C. Utilities Commission could lead to private electricity sales, but there is no timeline for such a regulatory change. So far, car manufacturer Tesla is the only private business that has created its own substantial network of fast chargers in B.C., though they’re only compatible with Tesla vehicles.

The B.C. government is expected to release a report within the next two months explaining how it determined the province needs 200 stations. The provincial government has also indicated that it would ensure all passenger vehicles are emissions-free by 2050. In September, B.C.’s Ministry of Environment said government intends to require automakers to meet minimum targets for zero-emission vehicle sales starting in 2020. A ban on the sale on new gasoline and diesel light-duty vehicles could come as soon as 2040.

Michael Mui is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @mui24hours

Publicly owned fast charger locations in B.C.

1356 Sumas Way, Abbotsford — $0.35 per kWh

Highway 1 at Fairley Rd., Boston Bar — $0.35 per kWh

401 11th Ave., Campbell River — Free

4925 Burns Ave., Canal Flats — Free

1995 6th Ave., Castlegar — $18 per hour

400 Shuswap Ave., Chase — $0.35 per kWh

45950 Cheam Ave., Chilliwack — $0.35 per kWh

1675 Hwy. 3, Christina Lake — $18 per hour

1102 Cook St., Creston — $18 per hour

1830 Old Island Hwy., Colwood — $0.35 per kWh

3000 Lougheed Hwy., Coquitlam — Free

1301 Lougheed Hwy., Coquitlam — Free

747 Ryan Rd., Courtenay — Free

38 Cranbrook St. N, Cranbrook — Free

2680 James St., Duncan — $0.35 per kWh

810 9th Ave. S, Golden — Free

Exit 228 Coquihalla Lakes Rd., Highway 5 — Free

214 S Copper Ave., Greenwood — $18 per hour

839 4th Ave., Hope — Free

1950 Crowsnest Hwy., Jaffray — Free

910 McGill Rd., Kamloops — Free

702 4th St., Keremeos — $0.35 per kWh

7888 200 St., Langley — $0.35 per kWh

4270 Oxbow Frontage Rd., Malakwa — $0.35 per kWh

7500 BC-3, Manning Park — Free

2202 Voght St., Merritt — $0.35 per kWh

32136 Lougheed Hwy., Mission — Free

125 Front St., Nanaimo — $0.35 per kWh

6435 Metral Dr., Nanaimo — Free

140 East 1st St., North Vancouver — Free

234 Main St., Penticton — Free

3455 Johnston Rd., Port Alberni — Free

114 Tapton Ave., Princeton — $0.35 per kWh

705 Memorial Ave., Qualicum Beach — Free

Highway 97C at Loon Lake Rd., Quilchena — Free

4863 Stanley St., Radium Hot Springs — Free

301 Victoria Rd., Revelstoke — $0.35 per kWh

4641 No. 3 Rd., Richmond — Free

423 Davies Ave., Salmo — $18 per hour

381 Ross St. NE, Salmon Arm — $0.35 per kWh

5755 Cowrie St., Sechelt — Free

2337 Beacon Ave., Sidney — Free

3633 Station St., Spences Bridge — Free

100 Centennial Square, Sparwood — Free

37950 2nd Ave., Squamish — Free

13450 104 Ave., Surrey — Free

12388 88 Ave., Surrey — Free

2332 160th St., Surrey — Free

16811 96th Ave., Surrey — Free

2791 Pacific Rim Hwy., Ucluelet — Free

3335 Webber Ln., Vancouver — Free

555 Homer St., Vancouver — Free

5575 West Blvd., Vancouver — Free

3185 Grandview Hwy., Vancouver — Free

350 SE Marine Dr., Vancouver — Free

2901 E. Hastings St., Vancouver — $16 per hour

3004 32nd Ave., Vernon — Free

3440 Saanich Rd., Victoria — $0.35 per kWh

3678 Brown Rd., West Kelowna — $0.35 per kWh

6400 Bruce St., West Vancouver — Free

4010 Whistler Way, Whistler — Free

Stations being constructed/to come:

1455 Quebec St., Vancouver — Unspecified

Richards St. at Smithe St., Vancouver — Unspecified

646 E 44th Ave., Vancouver — Free

858 Pacific Rim Hwy., Ucluelet — Free

Buckley Bay Rest Area, Highway 19 — Unspecified

114 Crowsnest Hwy., Hope — Free

Anarchist Rest Area, Highway 3 — Unspecified

Highway 5 at Fishtrap Dump Rd., — Unspecified

Highway 5 at Livingstone Rd., — Unspecified

Wire Cache Rest Area, Highway 5 — Unspecified

Highway 3A at Pilot Bay Rd., — Unspecified

Highway 95 at Westside Rd., — Unspecified

Wasa Rest Area, Highway 95 — Unspecified

*Some locations may have additional parking fees

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