Electrifying BC’s transportation system, debunking the myths: Part II night charging of vehicles

In my last post I started the process of debunking some of the fallacies being put forward by the electric vehicle (EV) community as part of their program to encourage people to convert to EVs while simultaneously maintaining their NIMBY attitudes towards energy generation and grid strengthening activities. As I wrote in that post, my desire is not to pooh-pooh the transition to an electric-powered transportation system or slow the transition to electric vehicles, both of which I believe are imperative. Rather, my intention is to demonstrate why the transition will need to be accompanied by a ramping up of our electrical grid and electricity supply. In my last post I debunked a widely cited number used to minimize concerns about how much electricity it will take to electrify our transportation system. Today I want to address two more of their talking points. The ones I plan on addressing are:

  • that the median commute is only around 7 kilometers, and
  • a favourite trope that electric vehicles will not have an effect on the electric grid as all the vehicles can be re-charged during off-hours.

These two points are closely linked as one feeds into the other. Specifically, the argument goes that since the median commute is only 7 kilometers EV owners will not need to charge their vehicles during the day. This will theoretically leave all the re-charging to the overnight hours when electricity demand is low and in doing so avoid the need to build up electrical capacity in the system.

Commuting distances

When the attack on me by the EV community began the proponents of EVs were particularly quick to send me to a report  “Electrifying the BC Vehicle Fleet” by the Pacific Institute for Climate (PIC). It is a useful document that make a number of useful points but also makes a number of interesting choices in how it presents data. The biggest weakness (in my mind) is its reliance on a median number for all its subsequent assertions about energy use etc…. As they point out:

In a recent report of BC driving statistics (Norton, 2008), 79% of commuters used a vehicle to get to work. The median one-way travel distance for all commuters in B.C in 2006 was only 6.5 km. This data also shows that a large portion of commuters (40.5%) travel less than 5 km to work, and that only 8% of commuters are travelling more than 30 km one way (Statistics Canada, 2006).

Now anyone who knows math and statistics knows that the median is a useful indicator, but not one upon which you will want to do statistics. When you rely on a median you inadvertently make a lot of assumptions about the underlying population. You assume the population is statistically normal and that the population is not heavily skewed. Since the median is literally the middle value it tells us nothing of interest about the population it is describing. To take an inane example, since females make up 50.4% of the Canadian population the median Canadian would be female. Using that knowledge would anyone seriously suggest that we abandon all services for men? Of course not.

When looking at the commuting population what we want to consider is whether there is a large percentage of that population that commutes a distance substantially greater than the median. As the PIC report points out, 8% of commuters travel more than 30 kilometers, one way to work. Now this might sound like an insignificant number until you realize what that that 8% represents. According to Stats Canada almost 80,000 British Columbians commute more that 35 km to work and another 28,000 commute between 30 and 35 kms to work. This means that in winter time over 100,000 electric vehicles commute greater than 30 kms to work. Given the range limitations on electric vehicles (presented in my previous blog post) that could mean more than 100,000 vehicles that will need to be plugged in during the day.  That reads a bit differently than saying that the median commute is only 6.5 km doesn’t it.

Night-time-only charging of vehicles will not be as prevalent as claimed

One of the biggest selling points by the supporters of EVs is their claim that most of the vehicles will be charged overnight and therefore we don’t need to add electrical capacity. That is frankly one of the big the take-away messages from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions study. That, as I will demonstrate below, is likely not going to be the case. As I present above, a significant constituency of commuters are going to exceed the threshold where they will feel comfortable only charging overnight. Much like a driver who doesn’t want to get caught with an empty tank, most commuters are not going to want to get caught with a dead battery in the middle of the road. That means if they even come close to using half their charge on the way to work they are going to want to top up their batteries while at work because if you only have a few kilowatts leeway you are not going to want to risk running out of charge on a cold evening if there is an accident on the Trans-Canada.

Moreover, as a family man I can assure you that our car doesn’t just get parked when the commute to work is done. Rather there are activities to go to: soccer, piano, basketball, shopping, these are the things we do every night and if I have used my entire battery charge commuting to and from work then what will I have in reserve to drive the kids to their activities? Because most EV users have a second, non-EV car  (80% of British households with an EV have a non-electric car as back-up. I’m still looking for Canadian stats) this is not currently much of an issue. They just use the gas guzzler for chores while using the EV for the work commute. But what happens when all the cars are electric? Then you will need to have a charged car available for you after school/work and if the drive to the soccer pitch is more than just a few kilometers that will mean having to charge your car during the day.

In winter electric vehicles need to be plugged in to keep engine (and cabin) warm

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the big downsides of EVs in winter is the power needed to keep the engine and the cabin warm. Without an internal combustion engine pumping out excess heat, all heat will need to be electric, which will drain your batteries, that is why many sources suggest “preconditioning” your auto.  Preconditioning your auto is a nice way of saying turn on the heat a half-hour early to get the engine and the cabin warm enough for use. The funny part of the article I cite is where they recommend you plug your car in at work to keep it warm. That pretty much rules out the idea that the car will not draw power from the grid during the day. Rather the car will be drawing power during the daily peak, and thus will put added strain on the electrical grid. Moreover, can you imagine the spike around 4 pm on winter workday when all the employees are  preconditioning their cars in preparation for the commute home, right at the start of the evening peak in power use?

Off-hour charging and its effect on our energy supply

Finally, I want to address one of the most-misunderstood arguments about electric vehicles: that by charging them overnight we can reduce demands on our energy system. While that will be true in some cases, it ignores some pretty important points about British Columbia’s energy picture. As everyone who talks energy in BC knows the vast majority of our electricity comes from hydro-electric sources (mostly large reservoir dams). Now the good thing about a dam is that the energy is readily dispatchable, that is energy parlance for energy sources that can be immediately turned on when demand is high and readily turned off when demand slows down. In a dam if you want to get more power you just let water through the generator. Want to reduce the amount of power? Close a water supply. There are limitations, however, you can only generate as much power as you have water behind your dam.

This issue came to a head in California during their recent drought when, due to an absence of water behind the dams, hydroelectric generation dropped by 50%.  To bring it closer to home, in 2015 during our West Coast drought 12 of BC Hydro’s 31 hydroelectric facilities had to be shut down due to lack of water. Now consider the idea of off-peak electricity. Under current conditions, during the off-peak hours, like in the middle of the night, BC Hydro just keeps the sluice gates closed and imports cheap power from outside of the province. Were demand to ramp up overnight (due to charging of EVs) in BC, Alberta and Washington (remember we are in a fossil fuel-free world) then the excess flow from out-of-province would become less available and we would be forced to use our hydro to meet the demand. Ramp up enough demand overnight and we would start putting excess stress on the system, essentially we would use up all the available water behind the dams. Given a multi-year drought we could have a scenario where we simply did not have enough water to generate power. As such, absolute demand for power is an important consideration in the equation. Adding extra reservoirs and more run-of-the-river (as well as geothermal) would provide the cushion necessary to get us through the dry years.

This brings us right back to where I started. Electric cars are a good thing but contrary to what the EV activists claim their mass implementation will have a significant effect on our electricity demand in BC. We will not be able to get away with charging only overnight, the increase in EV numbers will result in increased demand spikes that will require us to increase capacity, even if we could stick to charging overnight the result will draw down the levels of our existing reservoirs and leave us vulnerable to drought.

To conclude, when EV enthusiasts claim on one hand that we need to all move to EVs and on the other hand that we don’t need to build new dams or other power generating facilities you can explain to them why those are two mutually exclusive positions. In order to achieve a fossil fuel-free BC we need to ramp up the production of electricity in BC and we need to expand and strengthen our transmission system.The movement away from fossil fuels will need to be accompanied by a massive upgrade to our electrical grid and a substantial increase in electricity supply. Any activist who tells you otherwise is simply sharing their pipe dream.

This entry was posted in Canadian Politics, Fossil Fuel Free Future, General Politics, Renewable Energy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Electrifying BC’s transportation system, debunking the myths: Part II night charging of vehicles

  1. ace says:

    One of the other factors to consider when analyzing BC driving province-wide is that those who live in rural areas generally drive a lot further than those in urban areas. Ask the farmers in the Peace River how much driving they put on their pickups and you’ll get a much bigger number.

    Also, if the average commute were 5.0 Km, it would behoove people to walk and help their overall fitness, rather than driving.

    BC is a special case, given that we have a lot of hydro (actual and potential), but it is finite. We will all have to face up to the fact that eventually an alternative might have to be considered. Imagine the ruckus if someone suggested that a nuclear power facility in the Fraser Valley was just the ticket …


  2. Climate Otter says:

    ‘if you only have a few kilowatts leeway ‘

    The more I read here, the more Expensive this looks. How does electricity usage for an EV compare to usage in one’s home over the course of a year? What effect will it have on the consumer’s hydro bill? A 5% increase? 25%? 75%?


    • Randy says:

      To give you an idea to fully charge a Tesla P85+ with a range of 450 KMS it’ll cost you $7. The saving are massive.


      • Climate Otter says:

        And the car itself costs four times as much (after government, ie taxpayer- paid rebates!) as the 2014 Jeep Cherokee we just bought Cash, which will last us for 10 years. So, how long will it take to recoup the cost of that P85 in terms of gas money saved?


      • Climate Otter says:

        Say Randy, another question: could you link me to where that $7 claim is made? And, could you link me to other sites which disagree and give other numbers?

        Thanks in advance!


  3. Lloyd Nolan says:

    You’ve got to get an interview with the REBEL.media


  4. Gord James says:

    Electric Vehicles will be predominantly charged at night because, in most cases, they will have sufficient daily range to not require daytime charging. Charging fees and infrastructure costs will also result in nighttime charging.

    The 2009 Pacific Institute for Climate Study source of a 6.5 km commute distance is suspect. It appears to be a typical individual trip distance measurement that would come from a transportation origin-destination study (OD). The 35 km distance that you used is more representative but perhaps high for the commute portion in BC. According to Statistics Canada in the last year they gathered comprehensive transportation data for BC (2009), the average daily driving distance for BC vehicles less than 4.5 tonnes was 35 km. This includes both commute and non-work related travel.

    So with a 70 km round trip and a 30% range loss in the winter, an EV would require 100 km range. With current (non Tesla) EVs having a range of 150 km, 100 km is not a problem and allows for other trips such as taking the kids to school or soccer practice. Nighttime charging is feasible for current EV owners with one-way commute distances of up to 50 km.

    However, second generation (200 mile) affordable EVs are entering the market and will predominate as EVs enter the mainstream. With daily ranges of 360 km, commute distances (in winter) of up to 125 km will be possible which is well beyond the typical BC car commute and over 3 times the average daily BC vehicle mileage. Typical overnight charge (top up) times would be less than 2 hours at 240 volts based on average daily use. If and when needed, a full charge would be accomplished overnight in 8 to 9 hours. All EVS have computer-controlled charging capability so there is no need to wake up in the middle of the night to plug-in.

    Nighttime charging will, and should be the norm and will happen for economic and practical reasons. To discourage daytime charging and avoid excessive infrastructure costs and queuing, there should be fees for daytime charging that are higher than the residential rates. In some cases these are already in place at some government-owned locations and will be apply as the number of EVs increase and businesses are allowed to charge for charging (currently prohibited). Another option to encourage nighttime charging is Time of Use (TOU) fees where there is a lower rate for hydro use between midnight and 6 am (as used in some jurisdictions).

    Daytime charging for employees at the workplace will not be necessary and should be discouraged as EV owners will have sufficient range from home base. If it is offered for employees with excessive commute distances or range needs, fees should apply or it should be a taxable employee benefit to discourage unnecessary daytime charging.

    Duplication of EV infrastructure at the workplace is unnecessary, would have undesirable impacts on the grid and would incur unnecessary expenditures. It is unnecessary to have an EV plugged in to pre heat or cool (precondition) the interior and there is no requirement to manually precondition the motor or the battery. In excessive heat or cold conditions EVs automatically manage battery temperature. Daytime fees should discourage grid preconditioning and workplaces will not have plugs for all employee EVs anyway. With instant heat available in an EV, there is not much need to use this feature, particularly in BC’s temperate climate.

    The assertion that BC would not have sufficient nighttime charging capacity to handle EVs because of the risk of droughts affecting hydro dam water levels is highly speculative. It is worthy of study but, as I recall, the climate change scenario that is upon us result in higher rainfalls in the Pacific North West meaning long range water levels may never be an issue.

    In short, EVs will be charged at night for economic and practical reasons, there will be plenty of range in the “200 mile” EVs to accomplish most daily driving needs including commutes and family activities and considerations of increases in power generation capacity for EVs are not necessary at this time.


    • Blair says:

      I’m sure the good people of Prince George, Fort St John and Smithers will appreciate your knowledge of BC and its “temperate climate” so they can pretend those -20 degrees Celsius days they got last week didn’t happen? According to the Prince George web site 326,000 people live in and around Prince George (in the trading area as they call it) and under a fossil fuel-free scenario they will all be driving in electric vehicles that will need to be plugged in to start on a winter morning. As for your suggestion that cars won’t need “preconditioning” I will believe the references rather than an unknown/pseudonymous commenter on my blog.

      Just a quick follow-up question on that topic, how do “EVs automatically manage battery temperature” without using any of their charge? Are they plugged in?

      Similarly, your understanding of how climate change will affect our rainfall regime demonstrates a knowledge-base that is a mile wide and an inch thick. Under GCMs rainfall amounts are expected to peak on the coast and drop precipitously in the interior, with much-reduced winter snow-packs. Hey I wonder where our biggest dams’ and reservoirs are located? If you guessed “not on the coast” you’d be right. So night-time charging will still diminish reservoirs and result in supply issues. Charge at day or at night the water doesn’t care it can only flow through the generator once be it during the day or at night and once it is gone come summer it is not going to be replenished until the rains return. Just ask California how that turned out for them?

      As for your comments about commuting distances, take a quick look at how far Abbotsford or Langley is from Vancouver and how many vehicles are on Highway 1 at 7:30 am. My numbers are not high, I would suggest that with the increases in housing prices in Vancouver/Burnaby/New West my numbers will end up being low and will actually get a lot higher.

      As for that suggestion that a driver would take a chance going out doing errands after using most of their daily charge commuting, you appear to be unaware of simple human psychology and risk tolerance if you actually believe that. People will be plugging in as soon as they get home so they have some safety margin and that will increase the height of the neck and head of the duck curve.

      In a similar vein your suggestion that BCHydro will be able to de-link electricity to operate houses from the electricity to charge vehicle is a very interesting one. Absent that technology the ability to differentiate residential from charging rates goes out the window with your suggestion to differ the rate charged for that electricity.


    • Chester Draws says:

      So, Gord, how, precisely, do we distinguish between electricity used for cars and that used for other things? What happens in practice is that we have to put up all rates during the daytime to ensure people will charge their cars at night.

      That will have real world consequences to industry and consumers that will not be popular. By which I mean they will be electoral suicide if pursued to the extent that people actually stop charging their cars during the day.

      People want cars that run, and they will pay quite large sums of money to ensure they have this, so prices will have to rise considerably before daytime charging cars is affected (its very cheapness works against it in this regard). There is no way electricity prices are going to be quadrupled to prevent daytime charging, except in Green dreams.


  5. Canman says:

    The most interesting piece I’ve read on electric vehicles lately is this one by Rud Istvan:


    Besides explaining two new technologies that may bring new life to range extended electric vehicles (successors to the disappointing Chevy Volt), It provides a good summary of the current state of hybrids, full electrics and range extended electrics.


  6. What percentage of car owners have a driveway/garage versus those that have street parking. I can imagine the sidewalks criss-crossed with thick extension cords charging the vehicles.


  7. I’m your worst nightmare Blair. I have a home office, plug in my fully electric EV overnight about 98% of the time and our building has PV solar to reduce our energy consumption by feeding back to the grid! I’m an “activist” by leaving the parkade as I enthusiastically drive without the need of a tailpipe or an inefficient internal combustion engine.
    We do NOT need more electricity on our grid to cover the consumption required to supply the transportation needs of our province and we live in the most urban province in Canada, so your preference to BCers outside the Lower Mainland and Southern VI are a far-fetched and make up less than 20% of the total population (also least likely to adopt to EVs for the time being, so not relevant to any policy indicators).
    Your blog post should read “A Lobbyist in Langley” for more accuracy and I’d like to know your chemistry credentials. Even if you are indeed a chemist, shouldn’t you be focussed on the chemical composition of tailpipe emissions and their impact to human health, costs associated and how removing those tailpipe emissions would greatly reduce our climate emissions (of which transportation make up a very large portion in this province), so please use your intelligence in a more useful manner if you please. The hot air is a bit overwhelming…


  8. Blair says:

    Why would that be my nightmare? Have you not read my blog? I probably have a lower carbon footprint than you. I walk to work as does my wife. I have not flown in a decade and can walk to buy my groceries. I have been an active environmental activist for probably longer than you and my website doesn’t direct to an empty location.

    I love the way you assure me that we don’t need more electricity to cover our needs without providing a single number. Even more amusing considering that you say so at the end of a blog post where I go through the numbers in detail. Were you to provide an iota of data supporting your supposition that would be entertaining but like many you talk the talk without any supporting info.

    As for my professional designation, it is amusing that you challenge me when I am a public figure well-known in the community with a prominent electronic footprint. Anyone with a whit of knowledge could confirm my bone fides, but go on and insult away, you only make yourself look foolish.


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