Exploring the World of Electric Vehicles– An Interview with CEO of Plug ‘n Drive

Electric Vehicles are becoming the new trend in the auto world– ever since Tesla Motors started exploring the possibilities of electric cars in 2003, a new world of electrified, gasoline-independent and low emissions vehicles started taking off. Today, there are more than 19 models of electric cars in Canada, with 18,000 found on the road across the country. Even with a national growth rate of 50%, these cars currently only comprise less than 1% of the vehicle market share nationwide (1 in 300 cars in Canada are electric).

I was excited to get the chance to interview Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug ‘n Drive, to learn more about these wonder cars and how they can help us in our path to a more sustainable, low carbon world.

Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug 'n Drive
Cara Clairman, CEO of Plug ‘n Drive

What does Plug ‘n Drive do and how did you get started?

I started the organization about 6 years ago, as a pilot project at Ontario Power Generation (OPG) while I was their VP of Sustainability. There were no electric vehicles (EVs) on the road yet, but we heard they were coming. It made perfect sense to me that since we have surplus, low cost and low emissions electricity being generated at night, wouldn’t it be amazing to persuade people to plug their cars in overnight? In Ontario, we can acheive 90-95% emissions reduction from EVs if they are plugged in at the right time. While doing some pilot studies at OPG, we realized there was a huge potential for electric cars to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and to save money.

In June 2011, I launched Plug ‘n Drive as an independent non-profit. We currently promote EVs through three main programs:

  1. Education: to help people understand the benefits of electric cars and why they should consider adopting one;
  2. Research: to show with concrete research the environmental and economic benefits of EVs;
  3. Infrastructure: to help people understand what they need (e.g. charging stations at home or at work) to make it easier for people to make the switch.

We have been off to the races for 4 years, and we have grown a lot. In the beginning it was just me, now we have a team of 7 people and we’re still growing!

What are some of the main advantages of electric vehicles?

The most obvious is the environmental benefit– EVs can lower GHG emissions by 90-95% due to low emissions from Ontario’s electricity grid, compared to those generated from burning gasoline. As a result of our high nuclear baseload, we currently generate excess electricity at night, which is one reason why EVs are such a great complement– they can be plugged in overnight, during non-peak hours.

There are also financial savings– electricity is much cheaper than gasoline, so even with low gas prices, I only pay about ¼ of what someone would pay for a gas car. There is also a greater economic benefit for Ontario—since I plug in here and electricity is made here, my money is supporting local jobs and infrastructure. Whereas with oil and gas, most of that money leaves the province. So economically, with EVs you save money for yourself, and you’re also investing in the province by purchasing electricity instead of gas.

There is a health benefit that comes along with the switch as well– since EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, air pollution-related health problems worsened by vehicle emissions (such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxides, and other pollutants) can be avoided.

How is the EV market evolving across Canada? 

There are about 18,000 EVs across Canada right now, and we’re going to hit 20,000 quite soon. This includes full electrics and plug-in hybrids. The numbers are still small but the growth is really aggressive compared to other vehicles. In fact, the growth we’re seeing now is better than the Toyota Prius (a pure hybrid car) when it first came out a few years ago, so we’re very optimistic about EV adoption. There was a recent announcement from the province about revamping and improving incentive programs*, and about improvements around infrastructure by investing more money in EV charging stations.

We’ve just heard from the federal government that they’re going to invest in infrastructure for EVs. With more infrastructure, people feel more confident about EVs and are able to adopt them without fear. Adoption is also increasing as more people have heard about EVs, and because more models are now available. As of this year, there are 19 makes and models of EVs or plug-in hybrids available in Canada, with more to come. BMW, Porsche, and Volkswagen have said in future they hope to electrify every make and model. So very soon, we could have an option to purchase any make or model we prefer in either electric or plug-in hybrid—before long, it will become the norm in Canada.

Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing modifications to Ontario's Electric Vehicle Incentive Program
Premier Kathleen Wynne announcing modifications to Ontario’s Electric Vehicle Incentive Program

What are the largest barriers of EV uptake in Canada and how can we overcome them?

Lack of public charging stations**: Some people drive long distances to work and want to be able to charge their cars at work, so more workplace and public charging stations are important. The more people see the technology, the more comfortable they will feel. Ontario has recently announced that they will invest $20 million in charging stations through their Green Investment Fund, so I think we will see some movement on that really soon.

Right now there is quite a lot going on in Ontario, Quebec, and BC, which is where we’re seeing 98% of the EV adoption. All three provinces have some sort of EV incentive and infrastructure program. There are, of course, EVs sprinkled across the other provinces, but unfortunately very few in provinces without an incentive program. The good news is that the federal government has included funding for green technology in their new budget, which could help the other provinces kick-start the implementation of such programs.

Psychological/”Range anxiety”: Even though most of us will plug in at home overnight, a psychological barrier exists because we are so accustomed to going out to get gas, we can’t imagine plugging in at home. Drivers have a fear of “running out” of power, and want to have access to charging stations just in case. There is also “range anxiety” – most electric cars have a range of 100-150km, but if you want to travel longer distance on occasion – e.g. from Toronto to Montreal, an ideal alternative would be to take the train or rent a car.

The EV is actually a great commuter car– most Canadians drive 50km or less a day, so these cars can easily handle the average commuter distance. Those with a longer commute can opt for a plug-in hybrid – the backup gas makes them an ideal transition car.

top ev sales canada
Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and Tesla Model S– the top 3 electric cars sold in Canada

How big of a role will EVs play in achieving a de-carbonized future?

EVs present one of the best short-term opportunities—we already have the electricity infrastructure for it, so  not many additions are required to get the remaining infrastructure ready. Compared to other technologies where a whole new set of infrastructure needs to be built, the case for EV is much more attractive and affordable. In Ontario, transportation is the single largest GHG emitting sector, so EVs are our best bet for creating near-term reductions.

I see EVs playing a critical role in reducing carbon and the province has also recognized this– the key challenge right now is to encourage a public shift. Since vehicle emissions requirements are increasing, it is becoming more difficult for gas vehicles to meet them– automakers are likely to gravitate towards manufacturing and selling EVs. Along with Ontario’s new cap-and-trade program, it is increasingly costly to drive a gas vehicle. Overall, it makes a lot of sense to incentivize people to choose EVs over gas vehicles in order to help accelerate our emissions reductions and meet our carbon targets.

Do you have personal favourite EV?

I drive a Nissan Leaf, which I love. But of course there’s the Tesla, an EV that’s beautiful and has incredible performance – it’s almost like driving a rocket ship! I’ve test driven all of the Tesla models—the downside to them is they’re expensive, so they’re not for everyone. Fortunately, in the next year we’re going to see two or three new vehicles coming out that have a higher range but are still affordably priced—the Tesla Model 3 and the GM Bolt. They’re both in the 300km range– which is almost twice the current typical range (a Nissan Leaf has a range of approximately 172km; a Ford Focus has 122km***).

Image Credit: Tesla Motors website
Tesla Model S

*The Ontario government has an EV incentive program (EVIP) that provides EV buyers rebates up to $6,000-$10,000 per car, as a part of their Climate Change Strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province. This program aims to make EVs more affordable for early adopters, and to increase market demand for these cars. The value of the incentive is based on the vehicle’s battery capacity, seating capacity and manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

**There are over 3000 charging stations across Canada right now. Plug ‘n Drive developed a map of charging station locations, which they keep up-to-date by adding 40-50 charging stations each month. They also have an online store called “Charge My Car” to help home owners compare models and purchase the home charging station that’s right for them.   

***Plug ‘n Drive has a number of models in their fleet that they provide to the public for test drives. Visit their website to learn about upcoming opportunitiesto test-drive the cars in a no-pressure environment and pick out a few of your favourites!

 

After my short yet fruitful interview with Cara, I am now a lot more optimistic about the growing potential of electric cars and their ability to help electrify and clean up Canada’s energy system. As Cara said, with the right governmental assistance, ample outreach and educational programs, and an increase in the variety of EV models in the market, we should be able to accelerate our EV adoption and leverage the various health, environmental and economic benefits that these vehicles can provide us– visit plugndrive.ca to learn more.

Header image source: Plug ‘n Drive facebook page
Image of Cara: TSSS website
Image of Kathleen Wynn announcement: Ontario government newsroom
Image of EV sales: Pembine Institute blog 
Image of Tesla Model S: Tesla Motors website

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