Look both ways before buying a car
In a recent column, I talked about Canada’s electrical grid derives 67% 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%.
This is our nation’s single greatest achievement in addressing 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 fuelling our vehicles.
The gasoline and diesel we pump into our various automobiles accounts for 25% 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 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. Here we are almost two centuries later and by golly we’ve done it.
The range of the best EVs, namely Tesla, push 600km per charge and prices have continued to plummet with the increased affordability of lithium-ion batteries, dropping in price 17% in 2018 alone, 85% since 2010. And their lifespans grow with equal vigour.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates 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 fuelling (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 the average Canadian car owner $2,461 annually.
Some say 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 energy efficient than internal combustion engines—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.% coal and 42.2% natural gas, electric cars result in 20% 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%of the province’s electricity, emission reductions are closer to 95%. Now that Canada boasts 82% 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% 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% by 2025, 30% by 2030 and 100% 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% carbon-free electrical grid, stands to benefit enormously from a transition to electric cars, but while P.E.I., Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. have championed this clean statistic, Nova Scotia ranks among the laggards.
We stand alongside Saskatchewan, and Alberta as predominantly fossil fuelled, with 47.9% coal, 14.3% natural gas, and 12.2% petroleum supplying our electricity, with little over 12% coming from solar and wind. Electric cars will 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 B.C. ($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 out.
As we strive toward a 53% reduction in our provincial carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, as Nova Scotia 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; we’re damned if we fail to seize it.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.