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Green Wheels

EV charging stations from sea to sea

A new firm will line the TransCanada with 80 charging stations by year-end — with a few gaps.

Published November 2, 2012

It will soon be possible to drive from Halifax to Vancouver in an electric car — as long as you’re driving a Tesla or something with an equally massive battery pack, and price tag.

Sun Country Highway says that by the end of the year it will have lined the TransCanada with 80 charging stations, 100 kilometres apart on average.

If the stations were evenly spaced, any current EV might handle the trip, and that’s the goal, says Kent Rathwell, who heads up Sun Country and is bankrolling it.

For now, though, some are separated by gaps beyond the range of most EVs. The longest gaps, more than 200 kilometres, are in Northern Ontario and in British Columbia’s mountains.

Sun Country is also setting up denser local networks, including one along the Windsor-Quebec City corridor. It has two stations in Toronto and others throughout southern Ontario and up to Sudbury.

Rathwell, who prospered in agriculture-based businesses in Saskatchewan, says he supports EVs and publicly accessible charging is required if they are to succeed. “This is a charitable exercise out of the gate, and figuring out a business model (lies) down the road.”

Rathwell is not alone in aiming to make public charging profitable. At least three others are also building networks. All were at the recent EV 2012 conference in Montreal, organized by the advocacy group Electric Mobility Canada, presenting their visions of recharging at malls, parking lots, restaurants, hotels, service stations or other public locations.

It’s a challenging business proposition. Most EV owners recharge at home, with their workplace the second choice. Nonetheless, public stations are considered essential. However, they are perceived to face a chicken-and-egg problem: People won’t buy EVs without access to public charging but it won’t be installed without enough EVs to create a viable market.

Washington is bankrolling thousands of stations in the U.S., but there’s no federal funding in Canada. Provincially, only British Columbia and Quebec offer support.

“We said we’d do it,” says Sun Country vice-president Chris Misch, who has driven much of the TransCanada route in a Tesla Roadster. “If we wait for government, it will never happen.”

In general, network operators provide charging stations — mainly the 240-volt type, which can recharge most EVs in less than eight hours — to business or government “hosts” and make most of their revenue through service contracts and a percentage of each electricity sale.

Hosts get a cut — unless they decide to offer free charging to attract customers — and utilities are paid for the electricity consumed.

Except for free stations, public charging will cost more than electricity at home. The premium — a fraction of the extra we pay for bottled water — is a small price for peace of mind, advocates say.

The four networks:

Sun Country aims to have 200 stations by the end of 2013. It gave chargers to some hosts or swapped for services, but now sells them for up to $2,200, depending on power output. Hosts cover installation and maintenance and are expected to offer free charging for a year.

Circuit Électrique, which includes Hydro-Québec, charges a flat $2.50 at its 90 stations, all in Quebec. That income goes to the host, which pays a small fee to the network and the cost of the electricity. The group aims to expand into Ontario.

AddÉnergie Technologies, has 200 stations, mainly in Quebec but with two in Toronto, and charges $1 an hour.

The Plug-n-Ride Consortium, with 1,000 U.S. charging stations and 100 in Canada, envisages a “PanCanadian Green Highway” linked to public transit. It also intends to manage billing for other networks through smartphones or chip cards that would add charging fees to drivers’ home utility bills.

Will these networks put more EVs on the road or simply make money? That’s next week.

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