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Electric vehicles offer lane change to Nova Scotia

by Zack Metcalfe

Post doctoral fellow of mechanical engineering Nathaniel Pearre (left) and professor of mechanical engineering Lukas Swan stand on either side of a fully electric Nissan Leaf in a Dalhousie University parking lot, just outside the Renewable Energy Storage Lab at which they both work.  Zack Metcalfe photo
Post doctoral fellow of mechanical engineering Nathaniel Pearre (left) and professor of mechanical engineering Lukas Swan stand on either side of a fully electric Nissan Leaf in a Dalhousie University parking lot, just outside the Renewable Energy Storage Lab at which they both work. Zack Metcalfe photo
Professor of mechanical engineering Lukas Swan is shown in front of his fully electric Nissan Leaf, showing off its charging mechanisms. All electric vehicles can plug into your standard outlet, but will charge more slowly than if they are attached to specialized chargers which can be installed at home our found in public locations across the country.  Zack Metcalfe photo
Professor of mechanical engineering Lukas Swan is shown in front of his fully electric Nissan Leaf, showing off its charging mechanisms. All electric vehicles can plug into your standard outlet, but will charge more slowly than if they are attached to specialized chargers which can be installed at home our found in public locations across the country. Zack Metcalfe photo

See an electric vehicle next to you on the road and you might not distinguish it from any other gas guzzler confronting rush hour traffic. But drive one yourself...and you won't soon shake the experience.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are powered entirely by their onboard batteries and therefore have no tailpipe. No combustion engine vibrates under their hood and no gears need shifted, giving these machines an unrivalled smoothness. When faced with stop signs, red lights or drive-thrus, EVs don't expend their power idling - they are incapable of idling.

But for all their blessings, EVs have their drawbacks. Their batteries have limited range, they can't be fuelled at the pump and for the time being, they cost more than your average gasoline vehicle. However, professor of mechanical engineering at Dalhousie University, Lukas Swan, said these drawbacks are being left in the dust.

"It is very practical and very reliable to own an electric vehicle right now," said Swan, who himself drives a fully electric Nissan Leaf.

He said, depending on the vehicle you purchase, an EV can travel 100km-300km on a charge. But instead of filling up the gas tank two or three times a month, EV owners plug in their vehicle every evening. Much like a cell phone, EVs charge within two or three hours using a specialized home charging system and start fresh every morning.

"Some people ask how long it takes to charge an electric car," said Swan. "[I say] it only takes five second. You plug it in and you walk away because you're at home all night anyway."

Although ideal for local driving, EVs fall short when it comes to long distance travel. It's 100km-300km range can be prohibitive when visiting a neighbouring province. EV charging stations on our nation's highways are attempting to fill the void.

"In Nova Scotia right now there's a new electric vehicle charging network that's being established," said Swan. "It already has 50 plus chargers installed. There's probably 15 within a ten minute walk of my office. You'll find them in Sackville, you'll find them at the airport, you'll find them in Truro, you'll find them in Wolfville - they're all over the place."

Many of these are "level two" charging stations, which take one or two hours for a full charge. However, level three chargers, called DC Fast Chargers, are being installed in key locations throughout the province. Swan himself travelled 100km from Halifax to Truro in his EV, connected to a recently installed DC Fast Charger for 15 minutes, then continued on his way.

Although EV drivers currently need to consult online maps to locate charging stations on their route, these stations come with a unique advantage - they're free to use. Nathaniel Pearre, a post-doctoral fellow of mechanical engineering, explained this free power phenomena.

"The value of electricity you're selling is so low, a lot of companies have decided that it is just not worth charging for," said Pearre. To install and maintain a payment mechanism for $2-$3 worth of electricity doesn't make sense, he said, so for the time being, EVs travel long distance free of charge.

Sun Country Highway (SCH), a company dedicated to jumpstarting Canada's EV charging network, already has 1,600 of its stations installed across North America, the vast majority in Canada and several in Nova Scotia. Using their network, it is now possible to drive coast to coast using EVs without spending a dime on electricity.

"Certain stretches of the route [go 200km without a charger] so not just any EV can do the whole route without relying on slower level one plugs," said Stephen Bieda, a regional director with SCH. "We aim to cut the distance between stations to 50-75 km over time so any EV can make the trek."

Even when charging at home, EVs offer substantial cost savings compared to your average vehicle. Swan said EVs are four times more energy efficient than combustion engines, meaning they use one quarter the energy traveling the same distance as equivalent gasoline vehicles.

"It's turns out in Nova Scotia the price of gasoline and the price of electricity are essentially on par...energy wise," said Swan. "Buying one unit of [gasoline] or one unit of [electricity] is approximately the same price, except my EV is four times as efficient. I bet you can do the math, but that means I spend about one quarter the [money] to travel the same distance as the gas car does. It's very cheap."

Although considered an environmentally conscious way to drive, Swan said EVs are not emissions free. Although they have no tailpipe, the electricity running their motors still needs to be generated. In the case of Nova Scotia, much of that power comes from coal, a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions, even compared to gasoline. So, while using one quarter the power of a gasoline vehicle, EVs don't necessarily produce one quarter the emissions.

Swan said the "emission intensity" of your EV depends entirely on where you live. In the case of Nova Scotia, Swan estimates his Nissan Leaf produces three quarters the emissions of a gasoline vehicle, a reduction of approximately 25 per cent. This is hardly emissions free, but Swan points out that Nova Scotia's grid is shifting toward renewable energy sources...and his EV along with it.

"We've added a lot of hydro, we've added a whole lot of wind in the last decade and we have more coming," said Swan. "Every day that goes by, we connect another wind turbine or something similar to the grid and the emission intensity of my car goes down."

Swan said gasoline vehicles are going the opposite direction, becoming more emission intensive as oil becomes increasingly difficult to produce.

"My car already produces vastly less emissions than a gasoline car in Nova Scotia and it does so using energy produced here with the wind flowing by," said Swan.

In a statement, Nova Scotia's Department of Energy said 22 per cent of the province was powered by renewable energy in 2013 and they're on track for 28 per cent in 2015. Nova Scotia has committed to reaching 40 per cent by 2020.

Both Swan and Pearre have studied the rate at which EVs are penetrating the Nova Scotia market...and it appears to be happening slowly. Swan estimates there are 50-75 EVs on the road in Nova Scotia and the price tag might be to blame.

"There are four well established plug-in electric vehicles on the market," said Pearre. "There's the Nissan Leaf, which has a Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of about $32,000, the Mitsubishi I MIEV which also has an MSRP of around $32,000, the Toyota Prius and the Chevy Volt which are plug-in hybrids...and those are both $35,000-$40,000."

Compared to other vehicles in the same class, Nova Scotians can expect to spend between $5,000-$10,000 more for an EV than a gasoline vehicle. This, Swan said, is the nature of new technologies. He said these prices will drop as the EV market grows.

Provinces like Ontario and Quebec offer purchase incentives to citizens buying EVs; in the case of Ontario the incentive can be as high as $8,500.

"While Nova Scotia does not have a direct consumer incentive program for the purchase of electric vehicles, the government continues to monitor this topic, both in terms of infrastructure and consumer incentives," said the Department of Energy.

Swan applauds the province's support for renewable power generation and their work in establishing EV charging stations, but he feels they should extend their support to the EV market. He said exempting Nova Scotians from the tax premium on EVs, which is in the order of $1,000, would be a start.

"We're in a bad [situation] right now because all our oil is imported and we just closed our refinery," said Swan. "We're doing none of the creation of gasoline right here right now. So we benefit from transitioning to renewable electricity and running that through our electric vehicles. It maintains things a little closer to Nova Scotia."

Even without purchase incentives, Swan recommends buying EVs now because they offer savings which pay off over the lifetime of the vehicle. Pearre said EVs make sense for people with their own parking area who live in a multi-vehicle household.

Pearre said EV technology is fast improving, closing the performance gap between EVs and standard vehicles. He said EV battery capacity is increasing on average seven per cent each year, meaning EVs can travel roughly seven per cent farther with each new model. Charging stations are likewise improving; the latest chargers being produced by the American company Tesla can charge 1,000km worth of electricity per hour.

"A 2013 [Nissan] Leaf costs approximately $5,000 less than a 2012 Leaf, so the prices are going down and they continue to go down," said Swan. "A 2013 Leaf charges twice as fast as a 2012 Leaf, so the charge rate is going up."

"Is this an industry that has arrived, or is this an industry that's up-and-coming?" posed Pearre. "The answer is yes and yes."


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