Quebec's New Electric Car Network: Therapy for Range Anxiety

Electric cars have always seemed like a natural for Quebec. Nearly all of the province's electricity comes from hydro, and 40% of its GHG emissions come from transportation. In a jurisdiction where electricity is coal-fired things are less straight forward and you end up debating the merits of running cars on coal. In Quebec electric vehicles (EVs) are a clear win. But the province had been lagging behind other spots like Oregon, California, British Columbia, or New York. 

What sense does it make that a city like Portland (where 44% of the electricity comes from coal) has electric car charging points and Montreal doesn't?  That question had been irking me for years.

But that all changed two weeks ago, when the province announced what will be the largest public electric car charging network in Canada.
Established in collaboration with Hydro Quebec (the provincial power utility) and a variety of other partners, the network will manage 90 charging stations spread around Montreal and Quebec City.  Drivers will be able to start charging their vehicles as of March.

But what is really interesting about the project is the "how" and the "why” of it.  It turns out to be more about psychology and bureaucracy than vehicles and volts.

Range-Anxiety
It's winter. You are still a long way from home and the little battery icon on your dash starts to blink: “Low Charge.” Nightmare.

Statistically, by far the majority of electric car charging will take place at home. The time it takes for a full charge, combined with the considerable range of electric vehicles (EVs), means that you won't often need to charge up while you are out on the road. But the fear of being stranded without enough juice to get home (also known as 'range-anxiety') has been identified as a serious barrier to the growth of the EV market.

According to early coverage, one of the primary goals of Quebec's new charging network is to dispel that fear. Electric motorists can head out knowing that, in a pinch, they will find a charge-point within a reasonable distance. The network also has a special partnership with the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), to bail-out drivers with battery problems.

Beyond delivering power, the network is designed to deliver confidence. It's a perfect example of the mixture of technological and social design involved in transitions to greener ways of living.

St-Hubert BBQ, Yes.  St-Catherine Street, No.
The location of the charge points is also interesting. Along with major public transit hubs, the majority of them will be located on the grounds of the Metro major grocery store chain, St-Hubert BBQ  (a province wide chain of BBQ chicken restaurants) and Rona Hardware stores.

Where they won't be (so far) is on city streets.

Now there's a logic to coupling charging with shopping or eating. And the provincial reach of the partners means that they have many locations available around Quebec's major cities. But look at the network map and you see that there are next to no charge-points within the downtown cores of Montreal or Quebec.  Surely one or two might come in handy? 

The reason, I've been told, is that current municipal regulations can't accommodate the charging stations on public streets. The rules, designed long before EVs were on anyone's mind, simply don't allow for them. I've got few details about this right now (if you know more, get in touch!).  But it seems like another example of something I've written about before:  the barriers that outdated regulations pose to the adoption of new practices and technologies. 

But if Montreal managed to figure out how to integrate BIXI stations onto city streets, I'm guessing it won't be long before they sort out EV chargers as well.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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