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Electric cars hindered by utilities

Ontario's overabundance of utility firms may pose a major roadblock to the province's plan to boost electric car ownership, some experts say.

The experts say Ontario's 75 independently operated utilities often overlap their efforts and breed inefficiency, holding back upgrades needed so the grid can support what the province expects will be an influx of electric cars in the next few years.

"A lot of work needs to be done (…) if Ontario is going to move toward infrastructure to support electrification of vehicles," said Hossam Gaber, an energy professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

"Having co-ordination is important to avoid waste of time, waste of resources and also, making sure we are not lacking or losing something important."

Plug'n Drive, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the move to electric cars, said about 2,500 of the province's approximately seven million cars are electric — less than half a per cent.

The province said in 2009 it aims for one in 20 cars to be electric by 2020 — at least 380,000, based on current figures.

Thomas Timmins, head of the global renewable energy practice at the law firm Gowlings, said grid upgrades are needed as demand for power grows exponentially with charging speed. Fast charging — under an hour — uses up to 10 times the power a household usually consumes.

"Everyone's going to be like, 'I need to charge in an hour. I need to charge in 15 minutes. No, no, I need to charge in five minutes,'" he said.

Some small-scale utilities have as few as three employees and are unequipped to handle the necessary changes, he said.

Horizon Utilities' vice-president of business development, Neil Freeman, said one way to better integrate electric cars would be to merge some of the utilities.

"It would be easier to implement those innovations and it would be of lower cost," he said. "There would be less administrative cost for larger utilities than 70 different implementations."

Provincial boards proposed some forms of merger in 1996 and again in 2012, but officials never acted on those recommendations. Some firms, however, did merge of their own volition after 1996, dropping the number of utilities — 393 at its peak in 1932 — to close to current levels.

Ministry of Energy spokeswoman Andrea Arbuthnot said the province will not force mergers, but expects firms themselves to form "innovative partnerships."

She said the government has pumped $50 million into research on smart grids — systems that provide feedback so utilities can identify high-demand areas — which should help ensure electric car owners get the power they need without overwhelming the grid.

About $14 million of the funds have been doled out so far but Arbuthnot said the province will announce where the rest will go in the "near future."

Meanwhile, some are taking steps to ensure the existing electric cars are integrating well into the grid in certain areas.

Plug'n Drive is providing lists of those who buy home chargers to 14 major utilities in the province to monitor usage, said outreach manager Ron Groves.

"The idea there is that if they see a cluster happening — of five, six, 10 electric vehicles in a neighbourhood — they can make a decision as to whether the infrastructure there can handle the load."

The Canadian Press

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