I love Jim Kenzie, but…

I’ve read Jim Kenzie’s columns in the Wheels section of the Toronto Star for more years than I can remember.  He’s a great read: informed, enthusiastic, and not afraid to have a politically incorrect opinion about the vehicles he reviews.

I have to take exception to his column in the Saturday, March 12th edition of the Toronto Star.  In it, Mr. Kenzie goes to considerable lengths to declare electric cars a waste of time and taxpayer money.  Let’s take a look at each his arguments.

Mr. Kenzie says that tax dollars go to rich people for their third or fourth car as an EV.  We don’t consider ourselves rich, or in Mr. Kenzie’s words, “schlubs”, but we do have a Leaf (leased) and a Tesla (purchased pre-owned) in the fleet. Yes, it was a stretch to get the Tesla, even though the Leaf looks after 95% of our driving needs. Right now, it would be inconvenient (not impossible) for an everyday consumer to own a EV as an only car.

“Two Christmases ago, an ice storm took Toronto out for a week.”  Mr. Kenzie asks us to imagine what might happen if 500,000 or so EVs were plugged into the electrical system to charge overnight.  In a word, nothing.  In a 2001 report, the Pembina Institute stated that Ontario’s nuclear generators would be coming to the end of their service life in 20181.  Bruce Nuclear will undergo refurbishment and Darlington has been ready to be renewed since 2009. As generation capacity is rebuilt, initiatives including smart meters and Vehicle-To-Grid technologies will allow EVs to store power and put it back to the grid as needed.  EVs won’t be a burden on the electrical grid.  They’ll be part of the solution to balance loads and avoid surplus dumping of power.

In the short term, Mr. Kenzie is right.  If there were, say 200,000 EVs in Toronto, and they were all plugged in at 3pm on a hot summer’s day, the electrical system would likely be overloaded. In Devon Beare’s 2012 University of Waterloo thesis, the impact of EVs on Ontario’s electrical grid is examined.2 Studies in Germany back up Mr. Kenzie’s point.  However, there are initiatives that are in place today that can help deal with potential overload.  For example, Burlington Hydro has a pilot project where smart meters and smart EV chargers are installed in homes.  The charger is regulated by the utility. If peak load conditions put the district at risk, the utility can dial back the power to the charger.  By ‘learning’ the charging patterns of the users, the utility can make sure Mr. Smith has enough power to get to work in his EV, while reducing consumption in the rest of the neighbourhood during peak periods.  This scenario is a little 1984ish, but can do a lot to keep the capital cost of local infrastructure to a minimum.

“Gasoline these days is cheaper than water.” True.  But we still need to reduce greenhouse gases, no matter how inexpensive gasoline becomes.  This inexpensive gasoline is the result of not-environmentally friendly fracking, where fluids are injected into the ground at high pressure to extract the oil from shale deposits in the United States.  So successful is this technique, the U.S. will be self-sufficient in oil by 2020 and there is even talk of the U.S. becoming a net exporter.  The world is awash in oil.  But we’ll end up drowning in it and the CO2 emissions that result.

Mr. Kenzie is concerned about the use of rare earth minerals used in the production of the batteries.  The mining practices are extremely hard on the environment, and we could be at the mercy of the countries that produce these minerals. This is certainly a problem. Take a look at a Google Earth map of the Canadian Oil Sands.  Not exactly environmentally friendly, either.  The emissions from the Oil Sands account for about 10% of Canada’s green house gasses directly, not to mention the tail pipe emissions of the product itself.3  Recent studies have stated that total emissions from the production of oil from the Oil Sands may be vastly underestimated.4. I don’t have a solution for the rare earths supply issue; we have the potential to be held hostage similar to OPEC with oil in the 1970s.  But then, we don’t seem to have a problem powering millions of cell phones that are produced and sold every year.

“If electrics are ever going to be a significant part of our fleet, we will need massive amounts of new electricity to recharge their batteries.”  Well, no, we won’t.  If we get back to the Vehicle-to-Grid scenario, Devon Beame’s thesis postulates that EVs could store excess power drawn from the grid at night, and then the utility could draw it back for use at peak periods.  Each EV could likely store 6.9 kWh of energy for utility use, which would be about 30% of the capacity of a 24 kWh battery in a first generation Nissan Leaf.  From the thesis: “Nonetheless, with current generation EVs capable of supplying 6.9 kWh worth of energy capacity and approximately 360,000 vehicles expected by 2020, this study calculates that EVs could supply approximately 2,484,000 Kilowatt hours or 2,484 Megawatt hours of energy to Ontario’s grid.”  That’s about 25% of Ontario’s nuclear generation capacity.5

The base load of the electrical grid, or the power needed for refrigerators, freezers, cooking, washers, dryers and industrial motors, in Ontario in 2012 was about 13,000 megawatts.  The capacity of Ontario’s electrical system is approximately 35,000 megawatts.  Peak load is estimated at ​24,623 megawatts for the summer of 2016.  We have room for lots of EVs as long as the time that the vehicles are charged is managed.  The easiest way to do that, is through time-of-use incentives (it’s much cheaper to charge EVs at night, off peak) or through managed chargers similar to the program in Brampton.

“The only long-term replacement for petroleum is hydrogen.”  I freely admit, I do not comprehend the hydrogen argument.  Hydrogen requires a great deal of energy for extraction.  We have lots of hydrogen, you just have to break up water molecules to get at them.  Hyundai has a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle on the road, and its only emission is water.  That’s great.  Where do you fuel it?  There are 22 stations in the U.S.6  There are four demonstration stations in Canada.7  The electrical utilities have a plug in every home and business.  The infrastructure is already built.  Yes, we need batteries with more energy density.  They are coming.  But is it worth the cost to build out a hydrogen infrastructure because people want to fuel their vehicles in 10 minutes, rather than the hours it currently takes to fuel EVs in a residential setting?  My vote is no.

EV incentives are in place to help the consumer adjust to a new model for transportation.  Electric vehicles can’t yet tow 5,000lbs or go 300km on a charge (with the exception of Tesla).  The problems that plagued EVs 110 years ago have not yet been solved.  But incentives help purchasers and the vehicle manufacturers get EVs into the marketplace, where the real development takes place.  This is no different than the subsidies for exploration and development of the Oil Sands, subsidies that are not as readily transparent.  In 2015, according to the International Monetary Fund,  fossil fuel production in Canada received approximately $46 billion (US dollars) in subsidies.8 9 If Mr. Kenzie is upset about a $14,000 subsidy on a Chevy Bolt, then maybe he should contact his local MP and get the fossil fuel industry’s subsidies eliminated.

This, of course won’t stop me from reading his column in the future. Jim, continue to bring it on.  Thanks.

  1. s.cela.ca/pdf/energyreport-fullreport.pdf
  2. https://uwaterloo.ca/environment-resources-and-sustainability/sites/ca.environment-resources-and-sustainability/files/uploads/files/DevonBeare411Thesis13may12.pdf
  3. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/climate-quick-facts-how-canada-stacks-up-when-it-comes-to-emissions-1.2697959
  4. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/oil-sands-co2-emissions-higher-than-thought/
  5. http://www.ieso.ca/
  6. http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/hydrogen_locations.html
  7. http://www.chfca.ca/say-h2i/hydrogen-infrastructure/
  8. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2015/NEW070215A.htm
  9. http://www.imf.org/external/np/fad/subsidies/data/codata.xlsx

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