Look Both Ways Before Buying a Car

In a recent column I expounded on the encouraging fact that Canada’s electrical grid derives 67 per cent of its juice from renewable sources, chiefly hydroelectric, wind and solar in descending order. If you include nuclear, which is carbon free though not renewable, the number jumps to 82 per cent.

This is our nation’s single greatest achievement in address climate change, driven largely by the phasing out of coal, but of course it’s not enough. While the electricity flooding into our homes is increasingly clean, the majority of Canada’s energy consumption comes in the form of oil and gas, for warming our homes, heating our water, and perhaps most notably, fueling our vehicles.

The gasoline and diesel we pump into our various automobiles accounts for 25 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, the most cited and most visible culprit in our climatic conundrum. It may, however, be our next great milestone, following on the heels of our low carbon electrical grid.

The very first electric vehicle (EV) was prototyped in 1828, and since that day engineers and mechanics have puzzled over how to mature this technology into something lightweight, affordable and with the electrical capacity necessary to compete with an internal combustion empire. Well, here we are almost two centuries later, and by golly we’ve done it.

The range of our very best EVs, namely Tesla, push 600km per charge, and prices have continued to plummet with the increased affordability of lithium-ion batteries, themselves dropping in price 17 per cent last year alone, 85 per cent since 2010, and their lifespans grow with equal vigour. It’s been estimated by Bloomberg New Energy Finance that EVs will achieve price parity with standard gasoline vehicles by 2024, and from 2025 on will be cheaper. Not only that, the cost of fueling (charging) and maintaining electric vehicles is a fraction that of their gasoline and diesel counterparts, given dramatic reductions in moving parts and additives like engine oil and coolants. The 2° Institute estimates that switching to an EV will save your average Canadian $2,461 annually.

It has been said that electric cars are only as clean as the grid from which they draw electricity, which is a touch oversimplified. Yes, if your grid is powered by coal, then so is your electric vehicle, but even so, electric vehicles are significantly more efficient in their use of energy than internal combustion engines, in fact three times more efficient. So while EVs may use coal power in some districts, they use it very effectively and still achieve overall reductions in carbon emissions. Even in Alberta, the most fossil fueled provincial grid in Canada consisting of 44.9 per cent coal and 42.2 per cent natural gas, electric cars result in 20 per cent less carbon than equivalent gasoline vehicles. If the grid is powered primarily with renewables, as on Prince Edward Island where wind supplies a staggering 97.9 per cent of the province’s electricity, emission reductions are closer to 95 per cent. Now that Canada boasts 82 per cent carbon free electricity, EVs make a whole lot of sense.

Thanks to these realities and others, electric vehicles have begun a slow conquest of the market, one which will run its course in a few short decades. At the moment electric cars account for 2.5 per cent of all vehicles sold in Canada. It’s the expectation of industry, and the express goal of the Canadian federal government, that they will climb to 10 per cent by 2025, 30 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2040, the consequence of sheer economics.

My final mark against standard gasoline vehicles doesn’t concern climate, but instead health. The most recently published Lancet Countdown Report, which annually examines the consequences of climate change on human health, found that an estimated 1,063 Canadians died in 2015 as a result of air pollution from land-based transportation, and also that Canada reported the highest pediatric asthma rate among high income economies, in part due to our tailpipes. This report urges our federal government to hasten the widespread adoption of non-emitting vehicles and complimentary energy sources, for the sake of people and planet.

So what does this mean for Nova Scotia? Canada as a whole, with an 82 per cent carbon free electrical grid, stands to benefit enormously from a transition to electric cars, but while Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, Ontario and BC have championed this clean statistic, Nova Scotia ranks among the laggards. We stand alongside Saskatchewan and Alberta as predominantly fossil fueled, with 47.9 per cent coal, 14.3 per cent natural gas and 12.2 per cent petroleum supplying our electricity, with little over 12 per cent coming from solar and wind. Yes, electric cars would still cut our carbon emissions, but not as significantly as elsewhere. Also, EVs still cost more than gasoline vehicles, and will do so until 2024. In the meantime, a federal rebate of up to $5,000 will help bridge the gap, but unlike BC ($5,000) and Quebec ($8,000), we don’t offer our citizens a stackable rebate to speed up purchases still further. In both categories – renewable power and support for electric vehicles – we’re missing the train.

As we strive toward a 53 per cent reduction in our provincial carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, as we committed to with the passing of our Sustainable Development Goals Act this fall, we will need to join the rest of Canada in growing the percentage of renewables charging our electrical grid, and make it possible for citizens to purchase EVs to match. As someone who is dependent on the used market for vehicles, I understand completely that it will take time for EVs to be within the reach of many Canadians, but we must start somewhere, and today’s new cars will be tomorrow’s used. There’s enormously beneficial change on the horizon; damned if we fail to seize it.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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