Curious about electric cars? This expert has the answers

The Canadian government has introduced an Electric Vehicle (EV) Availability Standard. The Weather Network's Nathan Coleman sat down with an expert to get answers to all of his (and possibly your) EV questions.

The Canadian government has introduced an Electric Vehicle (EV) Availability Standard, which will ensure that at least 20 per cent of new vehicles sold by 2026 are zero-emission, increasing to 60 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035.

The Ecology Action Centre, a member-based environmental charity in Nova Scotia, says the  regulation is “an essential policy tool to reduce wait times for EVs in Canada by enabling a predictable supply,” noting that “the standards also create investor certainty and a utility business case to deploy charging infrastructure, driving EV adoption and providing transportation options for Canadians searching for relief from spiking gas prices."

The Weather Network recently sat down with Nat Pearre, an EV expert at the Dalhousie Renewable Energy Storage Laboratory, for a Q&A about all things EV.

Nathan Coleman: Photo showing Nathan Coleman and Nat Pearre sitting down for an interview in Halifax

The Weather Network's Nathan Coleman (left) and Nat Pearre discuss EVs in Canada and how the new Electric Vehicle (EV) Availability Standard policy may impact Canadian drivers. (The Weather Network)

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Weather Network: Given how expensive EVs currently are, do you think the price will come down by 2035 once the policy calls for 100 per cent of vehicles being sold to be zero-emission?

Nat Pearre: Yes...well, maybe no. There are a number of issues that are going to impact this one.

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Around the world, there are tens of thousands of research groups trying to find more efficient, less expensive ways to build better batteries and better EVs. EVs, conceptually, are a rapidly evolving technology. And while there are upfront costs now, everybody, including capitalism, is trying to find a better way to produce the components necessary.

So, that will drive costs down.

Tesla—specifically, we can't do an interview like this without talking about Tesla; they're the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

As controversial as their cars are, within the manufacturing engineering sphere, there is no controversy. They are revolutionizing auto manufacturing.

Other companies are slowly beginning to adopt some of their manufacturing techniques, and they are bringing costs down at large volumes. They're making bigger castings with fewer parts to assemble. Which makes for a lower cost, more structurally durable, and stiffer assembly.

On the other hand, specifically with regard to the policy, if you have a very aggressive ramp-up scheduled by the government, as you are ramping things up, the ramp itself and the establishment of supply chains are costs. So that will be a cost that must be passed on to consumers, unless the government wants to foot the bill, which I wouldn't necessarily endorse.

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So there are a lot of moving parts. The cost of manufacturing a vehicle in and of itself should be falling. But building supply chains and in a period of rapidly expanding infrastructure... there are other costs that must ultimately be borne by consumers.

Very useful, right? It could go either way. Can I add one more thing as well? So you talk about a high upfront cost in Canada last year. In 2023, the average price of a private vehicle was $66,000.

SEE ALSO: What’s needed to get EVs into rural Canada?

The average price paid for a privately owned vehicle was $66,000. So, in that context, if you have a $55,000 EV that's getting a couple thousand bucks of rebate, it's not really a very expensive vehicle. And especially in that context, it is well known and well documented by anybody who drives an EV that the operating costs are much lower. In addition to electricity being less expensive and cleaner, you're saving maybe 10 to 15 cents per kilometre driven.

In addition, you're deleting oil changes because there are no oil changes. There are vastly fewer moving parts. There's much less in terms of complex systems that can fail within the driver and the vehicle itself. So, if you look at studies that evaluate the total cost of ownership over periods, like five years, EVs are right there with the lowest-cost vehicles in various classes.

Certainly, you can spend less if you buy a five-year-old Sentra and, you know, drive it into the ground, but in terms of a new vehicle, similar classes, and new vehicle costs of ownership over a period, EVs are very competitive at the moment.

The Weather Network: Are there any concerns or special considerations for how you'd be going up against the worst weather? Do below-freezing temperatures impact battery life?

Nat Pearre: It's not the life of the battery that's affected by very cold weather; it's the available energy while the battery is cold. So this is a little bit complicated. I can get super nerdy for you here. When it’s cold, in effect, part of the energy in it is hidden.

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And in addition, when the battery is very cold, if it is cold, such as below freezing, you don't want to charge it fast because it could damage the battery by charging, even at moderate speeds when the battery itself is very cold.

That being said, all modern EVs have battery heating systems so they can keep their batteries at a suitable temperature.

But, because of this disappearance and the apparent disappearance of energy in very cold weather, the range of the EV will suffer in cold weather, and in the most extreme cases, it might be as much as half—that would be like a negative 44 Celsius. 

In sort of normal cold weather in the negative 10 to 20 Celsius range, it’s again going to vary by vehicle make and model, but it might be 20 or 30% of range loss.

RELATED: How will we charge all these new electric vehicles?

So, in those conditions, if you have a particular range vehicle, you might be down to 300 kilometres of range. But again, if you have a charger at home, you can pre-warm your battery before you leave in the morning, and when you warm the battery, that hidden energy reappears.

At least in the Maritimes, the coldest weather is a pretty limited fraction of the time you drive. But if you're obliged to drive long distances in the coldest depths of winter, then you may face challenges in an EV.

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The Weather Network: Are hybrids the better choice for certain regions? 

Nat Pearre: So the use of the term hybrid is a little bit of a complicated term because hybrid, etymologically, just means a combination of different things. 

Plug-in hybrids have a large battery, usually in the range of 10 to 30 kilowatt hours, that you plug in just like you would an EV at home and use that for local travel. So you travel your first 50 kilometres in a day on electric, and then if you have a longer trip, you can carry on with the gasoline engine and plug in hybrids—the sort of Prius model if you will.

They are just a more efficient gasoline vehicle. So are they more appropriate in some regions? Well, if you are a single vehicle household and most households are not single vehicle households, and if you are in a region of Canada where there is not adequate DC fast charging infrastructure so you can stop and charge on the highway for half an hour or something and grab a coffee and be on your way, if those two conditions are met, the absence of DC fast charging and the absence of a second vehicle in the family in the household, then, yeah, hybrid can be a great choice, probably a sensible choice.

SEE ALSO: The distance an electric vehicle can travel significantly increased in 2020

The Weather Network: Could you discuss exactly how environmentally friendly EVs actually are when all things are fully considered? Will a shift to EVs move the needle on improving our environment?

Nat Pearre: As EV skeptics will point out, 9 times out of 10, battery manufacturing has its own environmental footprint, and that footprint is greater than that of the corresponding manufacturer of an internal combustion engine.

However, over the lifetime of a conventional gasoline vehicle, the vast majority of the environmental footprint is associated with the extraction, refining, transport, delivery, and combustion of fossil fuels. The vast majority.

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So even in a dirty grid, even if your grid is highly reliant on coal, as we are here in Nova Scotia, I believe Saskatchewan is also a pretty heavily coal-dependent province. Even in that case, you still have a lower carbon footprint in an EV.

If you are 100% coal, it might be a 25% reduction. And this is over the average lifetime of a vehicle. This is not when it rolls off the dealer lot.

And then, as your grid gets greener and greener, broadly in Canada, we have one of the greenest grids in the world, with BC and Quebec being nearly 100% hydro and Ontario having lots of nuclear, a very low carbon intensity grid. So, in the national context, the climate change impacts of EV ownership are actually very low.

We’re still in a state of rapidly evolving technology, and there are groups all over the world with very smart people, much smarter than me, trying to figure out how to make batteries at lower cost, more durable, and with a lower environmental impact. 

It is not a one-to-one correlation, but by and large, if you're making a battery less expensive, you are probably using less raw energy through the process.

There are a number of battery recycling plants in Canada and elsewhere in the world. Obviously, one of the cofounders of Tesla decided that the real big next problem was battery recycling, and he started a facility in the US; there's a couple in Ontario; there's one in BC; and these are evolving industries, and they are evolving 10 or 15 years after the EV industry is evolving. Of course, if you're recycling EV batteries, you need to have waste EV batteries to recycle. And even though EVs have been around for 15 years, the supply of waste EV batteries is miniscule because EVs actually last a really long time and you don't replace the battery every three years, despite what you sometimes read online.

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And so, those industries at the moment are not economically self-sustaining.

But again, it's a rapidly evolving field where the technology is improving, the supply chains are improving, and the processes and efficiencies are going to be improving. And at the present moment, the most recycled thing in the world is 12-volt lead-acid batteries from cars.

Why is that? Because there's a core charge. So you pay an extra $30 or $50, or whatever the number is, when you buy your battery, and you get that sum back when you return it to be recycled. So there are mechanisms that exist that incentivize recycling. 

The idea of having all these valuable minerals dumped into a landfill where it's going to be hundreds of dollars worth of minerals—why would you dump that in a landfill if there is a process that exists to recover it?

The Weather Network: On a broader scale, is this mandate kind of putting the burden on consumers for climate change?

Nat Pearre: So you can absolutely make the argument that of global or Canadian CO2 emissions, private vehicles make up a relatively small fraction, something like 20 or 25%. I don't remember the number off the top of my head. And so, is this something that is worth doing? Well, if you look at any one segment of the economy, its relative contribution to global emissions, to CO2 emissions, and to greenhouse gas emissions is small. There is no one thing that makes up 90% of the emissions. There's no one silver bullet where you say we'll solve that problem and it'll be fixed.

So EVs are a component and one element of that solution. Other elements, of course, would be the greening of the electric system. so replacing coal fire. The trajectory would be from coal and natural gas to wind, solar, and hydro.

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That impacts not only EVs... EVs get cleaner every year as the grid gets greener, but it impacts everybody else. That would include replacing resistive heaters with heat pumps. That would include new, more efficient fluid pumps, circulating pumps, and other things that are less sexy.

Privately owned vehicles are sexy as a topic. You might argue that such and such EVs don't float your boat. OK, but people are very passionate about private vehicles. And so, as a thing on which to focus, it has the political will behind it that some other interventions may not.

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