When will electric vehicles run out of power?

Steve Bokor CFA, and certified financial planner Ian David Clark share their thoughts on the volatile growth of electric power as a fossil fuel alternative.

We are seeing a slow but steady paradigm shift in consumer tastes when it comes to transportation choices. Due to economies of scale, gas and diesel still come in cheaper than electric vehicles (EVs). But with an ever-growing tide of automakers switching to electric versions, that differential continues to shrink.

Globally, EVs are exhibiting “hockey stick growth” in terms of sales, thanks to government subsidies (funded in part through carbon taxes on gas and diesel). But the trend remains volatile. Here in North America we may be falling behind the world, with China showing the highest adoption of EVs.

That could change in B.C. in the coming years, notwithstanding a few bumps in the road (like a potential future shortfall in lithium production to make batteries). Energy and maintenance cost reductions, stricter emission controls, government subsidies and the launch of new and affordable models are bringing EVs within reach of the average consumer. We estimate approximately a 75 per cent savings in energy costs.

However, if governments like B.C. push forward to eliminate gas powered vehicles to meet CO2 emission targets, there are some ugly hidden truths that no one is talking about. A report filed with the British Columbia Utilities Commission in 2017 estimates B.C. residents consume 4.6 billion litres of gasoline each year; that equates to 41 terawatt hours of electricity per year — the upcoming Peace River Site C dam will provide about 5 terawatts per year. We are going to need more dams. That’s OK because we can always go with solar panels … except the estimated number of solar panels equivalent to the Site C dam is 21 million. That will require a lot of rooftops.

It Comes at a Cost

The current cost of electricity is making it an obvious choice for people in certain parts of the world, but for others, not so much.

Take B.C. for example. Charging currently costs about 10 cents per kilowatt hour or approximately 3.25 cents per kilometre to charge your vehicle. That makes it extremely cheap to operate an EV. In Ontario and Newfoundland, poor decisions by utility companies means that electricity costs could rise dramatically, making it a less desirable choice.

BC Hydro charges a “Step 1” base rate of $0.093 per kilowatt hour (kWh) on the first 644 kWh consumed, which then jumps to “Step 2” rate of $0.139 per kWh. Factor in the load from an EV, and suddenly you might be using beeswax candles and coconut oil to light your house if you want to maintain “Step 1” rates.

For drivers travelling about 20,000 kilometres a year, factor in about 300k Wh per month for travelling and add that to your electricity bill.

If a motorist runs out of gas in a remote location, it doesn’t take long to find a gallon of gas and get back on the road. With an electric vehicle, it’s either a tow truck or five miles of extension cord in the trunk. Fast charging stations will take approximately 20 minutes for 200 kilometres. Therefore EV makers must rely on governments at all levels to create sufficient infrastructure charging stations before the majority of consumers will be confident to switch.

At the Municipal Level

Fortunately, we are already seeing arising network of EV charging stations deployed in both publicly and privately owned parking lots. This could help entice consumers that travel short distances to make the switch.

But that is only part of the equation.

True, Tesla and a few others are making vehicles with greater range, but they come at a steep price tag that often excludes them from certain subsidies. Believe it or not, Canada’s oil industry —led by Suncor’s Petro-Canada — have installed a transnational network of fast-charging stations every 250 kilometres.

In order for broad acceptance, municipalities with large vehicle fleets cannot be expected to switch without significant price reductions. Provincial and federal tax incentives and subsidized charging stations are a must.

In addition, unlike retail consumers preferring smaller vehicles that developed after the oil price shocks of the 1970s, municipalities must also contend with trucks, vans and buses. To that end, the federal government announced in their 2019 budget $130 million over five years to build out a more integrated network.

Governments at all levels are on board the zero emission train, but we also think they may be missing the bus. We have alluded to some critical drawbacks to the adoption of EVs, which we will explain in a follow-up article; we will compare and contrast EVs to hydrogen fuel cells, a.k.a. the other zero emission solution.

Frankly, we are very concerned that Canada will get left behind the rest of the world in adopting this other mode of transportation.

Steve Bokor CFA is a licensed portfolio manager and Ian David Clark is a portfolio manager and certified financial planner with PI Financial Corp, a member of CIPF.