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Motor Mouth: Why the Freedom Convoy spells trouble for electric vehicles

Our distrust in public institutions is going to make it difficult to roll out our much-needed EV-charging infrastructure

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People's trust in their public institutions depends on their government getting results.

Martin O’Malley, former governor of Maryland

I turned 64 recently, ancient by any standard. And aging is anything but kind. Joints ache, memories fail and, take it from me, the promise of wealth and wisdom is much exaggerated. There’s more than a little truth to the maxim that the only good thing about growing old is experience.

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Sadly, that experience is now telling me that our fine nation has not seen divisions as profound as the Freedom Convoy has exposed since the FLQ Crisis of 1970 (and ain’t it funny that a Trudeau has presided over both). I will voice no opinion on this latest cris de coeur, other than to say that, from this (in)expert’s point of view, both sides showed a remarkable, nay ‘arresting,’ lack of judgement.

Nonetheless, the one long-term consequence I can see — at least in the arena in which I am an expert — is that the motivations behind the recent invasion of Ottawa is going to make our conversion to electric vehicles more difficult. Perhaps much more difficult.

A leap of logic too far, you say, there being absolutely no possible connection between vaccine-hating freedom fighters and tailpipe emissions reduction. How, you ask, could a bunch of Freightliner-driving loons possibly affect how we drive the electric vehicles of our future?

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Good question. It all comes down to how politics and technology intersect. Or, more accurately, how our hatred of the former might affect our acceptance of the latter.

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    Motor Mouth: How many EV charging stations will we really need?

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    Motor Mouth: Why are Europeans buying more EVs than North Americans?

As Motor Mouth detailed recently in “How many EV charging stations will we really need?” the challenge in this transformation to electrification — beyond just convincing consumers to trade in their fossil-fueled cars for battery-powered versions — is building infrastructure that can support them. If personal and anecdotal experience is anything to judge by — one frigid winter trip in an EV between Montreal and Toronto was enough to convince me — we here in the Great White Frozen North are woefully unprepared for an EV revolution.

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Nor is it just Canada that is underserved. In Europe, where BEV adoption is ramping up quite quickly, there’s a sense of panic lest a poorly-developed infrastructure lead to rejection of the electric vehicle as inconvenient. And one of the biggest questions — beyond whether there will be enough public charging points to serve all these new converts — is whether the electricity-generating grids are up to the task of “fueling” millions of electric cars (up to 130 million EVs in Europe by 2035, for instance).

A huge gathering of electric cars parked in the street Kongens gate near Akershus festning in Oslo, Norway, on Monday, Nov 21, 2016.
A huge gathering of electric cars parked in the street Kongens gate near Akershus festning in Oslo, Norway, on Monday, Nov 21, 2016. Photo by Fredrik Bjerknes /Bloomberg

Exactly how much more electricity we’ll need to accommodate all these new EVs is cause for an incredible diversity of opinion, estimations of our ability to produce all the extra power required ranging from “no problem” to “holy shit!” One study, for instance, says that the average daily load across all of the European Union will only increase by 10 per cent by 2030; while another more localized analysis forecasts a 90-per-cent increase in peak-hour demand. Like I said, from “no probs” to “holy smoke!”

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On closer inspection, though, even the optimistic predictions would seem daunting. That 10-per-cent “average” increase in the E.U., for instance, amounts to a whopping 200 terawatt-hours, the equivalent of what hydro-rich Quebec produces in a year, and one-third of what Canada — the world’s most prolific consumer of electricity on a per capita basis — uses for both consumer and industrial needs. With nuclear power off the table in much of Europe, and hydro power not an environmental favourite anywhere, meeting even that baseline demand will not be easy.

As for that 90-per-cent jump in use, that’s the increase in demand estimated during peak hours in highway corridors once the long-haul trucking industry converts to battery-powered 18-wheelers. In other words, no matter how often EV protagonists persist, the transition to EVs is not going to be easy for our electricity generators to accommodate.

One of the most important solutions to this future grid overload, say almost all the experts in the field, is something called V2G, or vehicle-to-grid charging. In this high-tech scenario, not only would you be able to charge your car at home (i.e. from the grid), your vehicle could reverse the direction of those electrons and pump electricity back into the grid (hence the, vehicle-to— well, you geddit). The idea is that you’d charge your car at night and other off-peak hours and then, when plugged in during the day at work or a parking garage, electricity could be sucked out of your battery when industrial and residential demand is highest.

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It’s difficult to estimate how much of this peak demand could be satiated by robbing EV piggy banks, one study estimating that these idle batteries could resolve as little as 10 per cent of the extra demand; with another claiming that, if all of Denmark’s cars were V2G-capable electrics, their total capacity would be enormous and be able to cover the “average frequency regulation demand,” engineering-speak for the additional loads of peak conditions.

There’s even some discussion that EVs, having the additional benefits of being able to “switch on” in tenths of a second, are actually better “backups” than the powerplants now tasked to respond to surges in demand. The one thing that all the studies stress, however, is that it requires the cooperation of everyone that owns an electric vehicle.

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And that’s where the politics I discussed earlier rears its ugly head. As logical an idea as this might be — and as much as I, a long-lapsed B.Eng., might admire the innovative engineering — who’s zooming who here? Is there anyone that thinks that even one of the Freedom Convoy’s unexpectedly legion followers — whose skepticism of the “common good” seems to extend to their own children, whom they refuse to vaccinate — are going to agree to letting the “gooberment” suck the electricity out of their car? (Fuel, they’ll be quick to remind you, that they’ve already paid for.)

Nor would our so-called “terrorist” truckers be the only ones. I can’t imagine Trump supporters — who seem to see pretty much everything as a globalist plot lead by George Soros — allowing President Biden into their garage with his save-the-planet argument. Nor is EV-mad Europe off the hook. I can’t even imagine the havoc France’s gilets jaunes will concoct when they’re told that the government is going to suck their “tanks” dry. In fact, anyone that’s ever been screwed on their hydro bill — and, by my estimation, that’s pretty much everyone — will be loathe to empty their Tesla’s kilowatts just because some government agency is telling them there’s an emergency.

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A driver prepares to charge his Tesla car at a Tesla Supercharger charging station on August 12, 2020 in Skei, Norway.
A driver prepares to charge his Tesla car at a Tesla Supercharger charging station on August 12, 2020 in Skei, Norway. Photo by Sean Gallup /Getty

Indeed, even fervent EV-ers suffer serious skepticism. According to another study, EV-loving Norwegians might be likewise unwilling to let their providers have access to their car’s battery, some wags even going to far as describing the allowing of a third party to use EVs for V2G as “a type of vandalism.” Nor were the Norwegians any more trusting than we Canucks of the institutions that deliver our electricity, the same study noting that “consumers are justifiably skeptical of trusting utilities with, given the degradation of their battery, one of the most expensive possessions they own.”

So, while V2G proponents suggest that only 10 per cent of a car’s battery would be accessible by the grid — in other words, they would not rob owners of the ability to get to work — consumers, even in the most EV-friendly country in the world, distrust their utility providers so much that the entire technology might be a non-starter.

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The lesson to be learned from these studies — and one that was hopefully not lost in the silliness that was the Freedom Convoy — is that trust, once lost, is difficult to regain, no matter how righteous the cause or technology. What I am saying is that the same distrust in our Liberal government that caused a significant portion of Canada’s population to lose faith in what is unquestionably a good idea — that would be vaccines — might make vehicle-to-grid energy-sharing a tough sell. Distrust in public institutions is at an all-time low, so, good idea or not, V2G is unlikely to be the salvation of our electric grids. We may have to find another way to power our EVs.

Author’s note: All political opinions expressed in this column are my own. Freedom Convoy-ers disagreeing with my views on vaccines are encouraged to express their beliefs at YouDontKnowWhatYoureTalkingAbout@IDontCare.com.