At the onset of the automobile era in the early 1900s, gas stations were few and far between. General stores and pharmacies often had a bucket of gasoline on standby, but drivers would funnel the gas into their own vehicle. And they typically had to plan a route based on these locations—without, of course, the assistance of smartphones and mobile apps.
Entrepreneurs started to buy gas from wholesalers and set up pumps with nozzles that fit Ford’s Model T, the first widely available automobile. This eventually led to the standardization of tanks and nozzles. Canada’s first “official” gas station opened in 1907, at a local Imperial Oil office in Vancouver. This station sported a pump created from a kitchen hot-water tank, and a length of garden hose in an open-sided corrugated tin shed. Eventually, large oil companies got involved and started building out national chains of gas stations that we still have in place today.
The history of gas stations in Canada holds a few lessons for the creation of a public electric vehicle (EV) charging network — though there are some key differences.
“Despite all the excitement around electrification, the fact is only four per cent of new vehicle sales are zero-emission vehicles right now, which is a long way off from the 100 per cent we’re trying to get to by 2035,” said Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association.
The Canadian government has committed to spending $880 million for an additional 65,000 charging stations over the next four years.
“We would argue you’re going to need a lot more than that,” said Kingston.
To meet its EV objectives, California estimates a ratio of one charger for every seven EVs on the road. In the European Union, that ratio is one to 10.
“We’re anticipating a total light duty vehicle (sedans, SUVs, pickups) fleet of nearly 40 million vehicles by 2050,” said Kingston. “If you take the ratio that the European Union is recommending, you would need approximately four million chargers (in Canada) by 2050.”
Today’s EV charging infrastructure is, in some ways, like the early days of gas stations. Charging stations are scattered about, and if you’re travelling over long distances, you need to map your route to ensure you can recharge your car (albeit with the use of mobile apps rather than paper maps). And while recharging doesn’t involve tinkering with funnels, it’s still an inconvenient, time-consuming process.
Building out a network of public EV chargers will require input from infrastructure planners to strategically locate stations based on demand, said Carolyn Kim, transportation director with the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank.
“It does make sense that there are key nodes along highway routes where charging stations can be built out, but there’s a need for on-street charging, as well as charging at public or private parking lots and certain mobility nodes or destination points,” she said.
In the early 1900s, when shop owners offered buckets of gasoline to passing vehicles, there was no such thing as standardization. That came later, with the involvement of oil companies.
With EVs, there’s also need for standardization of hardware, “so these charging stations can benefit a wide range of users and we’re not creating a patchy network that can only be used by certain users,” said Kim. Tesla, for example, has built out a network of Supercharger stations on well-travelled routes, but they’re only compatible with Tesla EVs.
“Right now, you have to overbuild and that’s the role of government,” said Kingston. “Then, in time, there will be a very, very strong private sector.” Overbuilding could help to gain the confidence of consumers who are on the fence about EVs because of charging concerns. And once we’re at a tipping point, things could get interesting, “which I think will result in a very different landscape of charging as opposed to gas,” he said.
Gas stations are starting to offer EV chargers alongside their gas pumps – including Petro-Canada’s Electric Highway and Canadian Tire’s charging network — in partnership with FLO, Electrify Canada and Natural Resources Canada.
However, it’s not just a matter of converting the current footprint of gas stations in Canada. “We’re going to require a much bigger network than that because you’ve got the time associated with charging,” said Kingston. Charging times will get faster, but at this point the average person typically waits 30 to 45 minutes for a charge.
Rather than general stores and pharmacies providing buckets of gasoline, we could eventually find EV chargers at shops, restaurants, coffee chains, shopping malls and hospitality-based businesses—where charging is offered alongside amenities. This is already happening: IKEA, for example, has started offering EV chargers in its retail parking lots.
In the early 1900s, a national network of gas stations was needed to grow the automobile industry. Today, a national network of standardized EV charging stations could help incentivize EV ownership to meet Canada’s net-zero goals by 2035.