Does BC Hydro Need Help Clearing City Air?

There’s been a flurry of announcements lately around zero-emission electric vehicles (ZEVs). It’s like car manufacturers have suddenly had a road to Damascus conversion about going electric. At the same time, the list of countries and cities that plan to ban fossil fuelled engines in the near future seems to grow by the day.

Paris gave everyone a jolt with its announcement last month that it will ban combustion engines by 2030 (and diesel before that by 2024).

Vancouver, where I currently live, is one of the C40 cities that is following Paris’s lead with a pledge to reduce emissions significantly by 2030 by

  1. procuring, with our partners, only zero-emission buses from 2025
  2. “ensuring a major area of our city is zero emission by 2030.

I posted the news release in full at the end of this blog post.

It’s encouraging to see a desire to move in the right direction. Greenhouse gas emissions aside, the current situation is intolerable. Having gridlocked traffic on busy arterial roads fumigating adjacent city schools is akin to having parents smoking in the kids’ bedroom.

How do we clean the air in our cities?

ZEV adoption in BC is the strongest provincially in Canada, but even this “greenest” of provinces still has a long way to go to reduce range anxiety for ZEV drivers.

A recent question in the legislature by Andrew Weaver to the new BC Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, Michelle Mungall highlighted one of the biggest problems: infrastructure shortcomings.

There are only 30 DC fast chargers throughout BC that allow ZEV owners to top up their car in minutes rather than the hours typically required of level 2 public chargers. The fast charger network is run by BC Hydro, a publicly funded Crown corporation.

As Netherlands and Britain start to see fast charging in the forecourts of gas stations and elsewhere, Weaver argues that BC’s current regulatory situation is stifling its potential. For Weaver, “the single biggest barrier in BC” to building more fast charge stations "is BC Hydro itself".

Says Weaver:

In British Columbia, if you want to install a charging station, you simply cannot charge for power. BC Hydro and other utilities are the sole organizations that are able to charge a consumer for power. If you go to a gas station and you fill up with gas, you pay the gas station for the amount you wish to fill up.

We don’t need a public subsidy for the introduction of electric-vehicle-charging stations if malls, individuals and companies were actually allowed to install, in partnership with companies, and charge users for the ability to consume the power they do. That’s not possible in British Columbia, and that is the single biggest barrier for our introduction of electric-vehicle-charging stations.

In the exchange, the minister points out that the government has earmarked $7 million in this year’s budget for BC Hydro to expand its provincial fast charger network by 29 stations.

The list includes many in Vancouver - BC Hydro’s HQ at Homer Street, Science World, the President’s Choice Superstores at Grandview Highway and SouthEast Marine Drive, and the UBC student Union building.

The shortage of stations is only part of the problem.

The other part is that they don’t always work.

Weaver (who drives a Nissan Leaf) continues:

“My next question is: to what extent is B.C. Hydro planning to actually ensure that these high-voltage DC charging stations are in operation and are not going to go down on an ongoing basis? For example, Duncan was down for a couple of weeks. We also have one in the Interior where the executive director of the New Car Dealers Association was trapped with a Bolt that could not charge because the HVDC was down. Nobody told anyone about it.”

In her response, the minister acknowledges the problem, suggesting that these are learning days for BC Hydro.

I appreciate that being out of a charging station for two weeks is excessive, and I’m sorry to hear that that happened. But moving forward, we’re definitely looking to learn from those lessons and ensure that we’re doing a better job.

Commenters on Weaver’s blog suggest that Kamloops fast-charger was down for almost six months between late September and March this year and Revelstoke’s DC fast charger “hardly ever worked”. Revelstoke is one of two stations that may be replaced by BC Hydro, if funding allows it. The other station is in Saanich on Southern Vancouver island.

Funnily enough, prior to the exchange in the legislature, I had noticed that Vancouver’s sole fast charger, by Empire fields, looked partially broken (my son and I bike past the station every week en route to soccer practice). Cars were charging up, but one of the two charging connectors was slung over a signpost rather than slotted away (see photo above).

I alerted the City of Vancouver about it, who said they’d pass on the information to BC Hydro.

After hearing Weaver’s comments in the legislature - and the charger still not being fixed - I checked with BC Hydro media office to see whether they could provide data and information on the outages on its fast charger network.

Are they all fully functional right now, I asked, mentioning Duncan and Kamloops and including photographs of the Vancouver fast charging station.

I got a short email back informing me that, apparently, all systems are go:

“The Vancouver fast charger is one of the most frequently used stations, so it experiences more wear and tear than some of the others. Currently, both connectors on the charger are fully functioning; however, one has a broken plug holster. We’re working on repairing that.

As for the Duncan and Kamloops stations, these are also now in full working order. The fast charging industry is still very new and BC Hydro is in the process of transitioning to a more robust operating model, which will improve reliability on the network of fast chargers in B.C.

Up until now an outside operator was responsible for the maintenance of BC Hydro’s fast charger stations.

BC Hydro expects to complete deployment of all its new fast charge stations by March 31, 2018 and will maintain its stations itself.

With this Phase 2 roll-out of the fast charger network, BC Hydro has a second chance to show it’s up to the job.

If it doesn’t, more questions are going to be asked about the shortcomings of the centralised, publicly-funded model that is being used to build a network that is so urgently needed.

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Here's the text of the fossil fuel free streets declaration.

C40 Cities: Our Commitment to Green and Healthy Streets C40 Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets Declaration

Our Commitment to Green and Healthy Streets C40 Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets Declaration As mayors of some of the world’s great cities, we are committed to transforming them into greener, healthier, and more prosperous places to live. Our streets must be safe and accessible for everybody and our air must be clean and free from harmful emissions. This will improve the quality of life for all citizens, and help tackle the global threat of climate change.

We envision a future where walking, cycling, and shared transport are how the majority of citizens move around our cities. This shift towards zero emission mobility will result in less congestion and less pollution, while making our roads quieter and the air we breathe cleaner.

One third of greenhouse gas emissions from C40 cities come from transport and traffic is the biggest source of air pollution, globally responsible for up to one quarter of particulate matter in the air. As cities continue to grow they are becoming more congested, with people spending more time in traffic. A study across the US, UK, France and Germany showed that congestion on our roads is costing the economy on average almost one percent of GDP. This is not only holding back our economies through lost time and productivity, but also harming our health and the environment through worsening air pollution. Recent data shows that dirty air leads to almost 4.5 million premature deaths a year and afflicts many more, particularly children, with illnesses such as asthma.

We are already delivering our vision of greener, healthier and more prosperous cities but we recognise the urgent need for ambitious climate action to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. We also recognise the need for a comprehensive, holistic approach to transform the way people travel around our cities that builds on pledges made as part of the C40 Clean Bus Declaration and supports those articulated in the Global MacroRoadmap: An Actionable Vision for Transport Decarbonization.

We pledge to transition to Fossil-Fuel-Free Streets by:

1) procuring, with our partners, only zero-emission buses from 2025


2) ensuring a major area of our city is zero emission by 2030.

To meet this commitment, we will:

• Transform our cities through people-friendly planning policies.
• Increase the rates of walking, cycling and the use of public and shared transport that is accessible to all citizens.
• Reduce the number of polluting vehicles on our streets and transition away from vehicles powered by fossil fuels.
• Lead by example by procuring zero emission vehicles for our city fleets as quickly as possible.
• Collaborate with suppliers, fleet operators and businesses to accelerate the shift to zero emissions vehicles and reduce vehicle miles in our cities.
• Publicly report every two years on the progress the cities are making towards these goals