Quebec charging ahead with $4.5M electric vehicle trial

Hydro-Québec plans to launch the largest electric-vehicle trial in the country later this fall, a $4.5 million project over three years that will put 50 electric cars on the streets of Boucherville.

  • i-MiEV electric cars

Hydro-Québec plans to launch the largest electric-vehicle trial in the country later this fall, a $4.5 million project over three years that will put 50 electric cars on the streets of Boucherville.

The utility has partnered with Mitsubishi Motors, which will supply its i-MiEV electric cars for the trial.

“This is a major step for us,” said Stacey Masson, a spokeswoman for Hydro-Québec. “We want to make sure we can support this kind of transition (to electric vehicles) with the necessary infrastructure.”

Nothing big has been announced in Ontario, but at least one major project appears to be in the works. That would make sense, given Premier Dalton McGuinty’s eagerness to demonstrate how “we are a truly electric-car friendly jurisdiction.”

Tanya Bruckmueller-Wilson, a spokeswoman for Toronto Hydro, said the utility is involved with a project of similar scale and criteria to that being deployed in Quebec. “There’s nothing in writing yet, but we’ll be close to having an answer within the next month or so,” she said. “Realistically, we’d be doing something at the same time as Hydro-Québec.”

There are many who think plug-in vehicles are just a fad that will pass. I’m not so quick to prejudge. Sure, there are still challenges related to battery life, vehicle cost and reliability, and it will likely take two or three product generations before the market expands beyond early adopters.

But utilities are gearing up, and at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week it was clear that electric vehicles are just one piece of a larger puzzle that’s starting to come together.

Nissan, for example, announced that it has teamed up with AeroVironment for the supply of 220-volt home charging stations that would support the automaker’s Leaf electric car. The all-electric Leaf will go on sale in the United States in December and buyers will want a safe way to charge at home.

They’ll also want a way to charge when on the road. Ricardo LLC unveiled its PEP Station, the equivalent of your typical gas-station fuel pump. The PEP Station has a 220V power supply and when its system is plugged into the car an LCD screen lights up and gives the driver kilowatt-hour pricing information. The driver can then swipe an access card or credit card to activate the charging.

Coulomb Technologies announced it had installed six charging stations in Michigan, a month after touting the first of several charging stations installed in Vancouver – a first in Canada – in time for the Winter Olympics. This company has dozens of its stations in California and is aggressively expanding across the United States.

Together, they represent Coulomb’s ChargePoint Network, no different really than a chain of Esso or Petro-Canada stations but potentially much more ubiquitous because they can be placed pretty much anywhere, including street curbs. And they truly are networked. For example, you could use your BlackBerry, iPhone or any mobile device to locate the closest station and determine whether it’s unoccupied or not.

If you leave the car charging for a few hours – for example, when at work or shopping or at some kind of event – the station will text message or email you status updates and let you know when the battery is fully charged. Coulomb also gives you the option of becoming a member of the network, similar to signing up for a mobile phone plan that gives you free roaming and so many minutes, or in this case kilowatt-hours, per month. If you’re not a member, you simply pay by credit card on an as-needed basis at non-member prices.

The problem, skeptics correctly point out, is the “few hours” component of this. Having to stop and charge your car for a few hours while on the go is a non-starter. This is the reason Coulomb and others are embracing fast-charge technologies. At the Detroit show, Coulomb announced a deal with Aker Wade Power Technologies to integrate its so-called Level III technology into Coulomb’s product line, allowing most electric vehicles to fully charge in less than one hour.

“Field studies in Tokyo have shown that deploying fast chargers increases vehicle usage by more than 50 per cent,” said Aker Wade chief executive Bret Aker in a statement. “With coming improvements in lithium-ion technology, charge times will be reduced to as little as 15 minutes. This is the point where consumers will abandon gasoline for electricity. This is the tipping point for electric vehicles.”

It would be a mistake to underestimate the challenges. Faster charging means higher voltage or higher currents, which create risks for both the car battery, which can heat up, or the grid, which could be overwhelmed if too many cars decide to fast-charge at the same time.

All the more reason why utilities need to start studying the interaction between electric vehicles and the grid.

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