Tag Archives: Nissan LEAF

Ignorance and the art of electric car bashing

There has been a lot of misinformed commentary, being passed off as fact, appearing in mainstream newspapers lately about the supposed “disaster” that is the electric vehicle. Much of it is appearing in the Ontario press, presumably to attack the current Liberal government’s supportive policies in this area in the lead-up to October’s provincial election. My Clean Break column this week in the Toronto Star offers a reality check:

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Tyler Hamilton

There is a certain curmudgeonly segment of the population that seems to despise new, attention-grabbing technologies, particularly those that hold the potential to make the world a better place.

Electric vehicles fit all three categories, and this is probably why they have been criticized so much over the past two years – or past two weeks, for that matter.

The following points are almost always emphasized, and confidently passed off as “unwelcome facts” in attempts to prove electric vehicles are just a passing fad:

They’re too expensive and always will be;

They don’t drive far enough on a single charge and this will always be a problem;

They’re not really green if the electricity you charge them with is dirty;

Electric cars have come and gone in the past, and this time is no different.

Let’s start with cost. They do come at a premium and will for the next few years. But how is “premium” defined?

The roughly $42,000 (before rebate) price tag for the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid or $39,000 for the all-electric Nissan Leaf is high when you compare it to a Honda Civic or Mazda 3, but not for folks who opt to purchase an Acura TL.

Why would consumers purchase an Acura TL when they could get a Honda Civic instead? I’m not sure, but they do. Maybe it’s faster, or has extra features that appeal to certain individuals.

Similarly, electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf will appeal to those who want the latest technology, better performance, place a higher value on clean transportation, and are tired of being gouged at the gas pumps.

The words “premium” and “expensive” are subjective, so to generally dismiss electric vehicles as too rich is disingenuous, particularly coming from folks who opt for marble countertops, high-end furniture and luxury SUVs.

Now, regarding the range of electric vehicles, there’s no question that all-electric cars aren’t ideal if you want to drive across Canada or to the cottage. Not yet, at least. They currently take too long to re-charge and there aren’t enough charging stations in existence today to support such a journey.

But automakers haven’t marketed them that way, so it boggles my mind when I read reviews that criticize the poor range of these vehicles. All-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf are being promoted for urban driving, and will likely appeal to families with two cars or more.

The vast majority of people travel less than 50 kilometres a day to and from work, and millions of Canadian households have two or more vehicles in the driveway. This means that for a significant per cent of Canadian drivers an electric vehicle, even with current range limitations, makes sense.

They should be tested and reviewed in this context.

It should also be recognized that not all electric cars are created equally. The Chevy Volt, and other models likely to follow, comes with a gas-powered generator as backup. Range is not an issue, something critics of electric vehicles conveniently overlook.

Meanwhile, energy-storage technologies are improving – ask the engineers at Magna e-Car—charging speeds are getting faster, and costs are coming down. The vehicles will become more affordable to more consumers, but it won’t happen overnight. Nobody said it would.

It’s true, however, that electric cars are only as green as the electricity that goes into them. But even in jurisdictions still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, studies suggest the high efficiency of electric motors makes plug-in vehicles the slightly cleaner option.

Fortunately, the majority of electricity in Ontario comes from zero- or low-carbon sources. Without question, an electric vehicle charged in this province is dramatically cleaner than any gas-powered vehicle, particularly if it’s charged at night, which will be the case most of the time.

Let me make this final point: This is not a passing fad, nor can it be compared to past attempts at introducing electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell cars.

There has never been a time in history where most of the world’s major automakers have introduced, or have committed to introducing, a commercial model of a plug-in electric vehicle.

Never have there been more companies in the world working to develop and drive down the cost of supporting technologies, such as battery storage, charging infrastructure and electric drive trains.

Maybe electric vehicles won’t ever come to dominate the roads, or maybe they will. In the short term, even if they capture a few per cent of global vehicle sales over this decade it would be a major achievement – and this is entirely possible.

But to declare electric vehicles stillborn on the first year of their commercial introduction, as some observers have recently said, amounts to a stunning display of ignorance.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

The incentives are there, the signals have been sent: Where are the Ontario manufacturers of plug-in vehicles and technologies?

UPDATE: The “comprehensive study” referred to below was, as suspected, never done. Here is a response from the Ministry of Transportation on the matter: “The study was not completed as originally intended. Subsequent to the press release that is being referred to, MTO conducted research and analysis to determine options the Ontario government could take to support consumer adoption of electric vehicles. This included identifying types of electric vehicles major OEMs were producing and when these vehicles were expected to enter the Ontario market. In addition, a broad scan was undertaken to determine what other jurisdictions are doing to support the introduction of electric vehicles. A cross ministerial working group on EVs was set up to identify the barriers and opportunities to the introduction of electric passenger vehicles in the province. Elements of this research will be released as a public education document to inform Ontarians about this newly emerging transportation technology. This document is expected to be available on the ministry’s Website in the very near future” — i.e. more than two years after the comprehensive study originally envisioned, this “newly emerging” technology isn’t as new as it once was.

On Thursday, January 15, 2009, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty walked in front of a podium at the Toronto Convention Centre and signaled to the world that the province was a good place to invest in electric-vehicle manufacturing and infrastructure. “One of the most important things we can do is demonstrate we are truly an electric-car friendly jurisdiction,” McGuinty said to a scrum of reporters, outnumbered only by the black-suited government bureaucrats and policy wonks trying to “manage” the importance of the event. What McGuinty announced was a partnership with Better Place, the California company led by Shai Agassi that’s trying to establish electric-vehicle charging and battery-swapping infrastructure around the world. There were no investments from either side. Rather, Better Place said it would establish an office in Toronto and serve to educate the public about electric vehicles while also demonstrating its charging technology (a commitment the company, to its credit, fulfilled with this March 2011 announcement).

“The province has committed to conducting a comprehensive study, which will look at ways to speed up the introduction and adoption of electric vehicles. This study is scheduled for release in May 2009,” according to a Better Place press release issued on the day. Personally, I don’t remember having ever seen that comprehensive study, nor do I know if it was ever done (am currently checking on this).

Better Place continued, “This announcement maintains the province’s traditional strength in automotive production while incorporating the forward thinking technology of battery operated vehicles. Embracing this technology in its early stages will provide the province with the stimulus needed for enhanced job creation and economic growth.” Indeed, the province’s own press release stated,”Expanding the use of electric vehicles by consumers and government will help create and sustain jobs in the auto sector and put Ontario at the forefront of the new, green economy in North America.”

McGuinty, at the press conference, specifically said: “It’s going to make it more attractive to build those very cars right here in our province.”

To strengthen the signal sent to the market — that is, the message that Ontario is serious about electric vehicles — McGuinty also announced the province would offer rebates of between $4,000 and $10,000 (among the highest rebates in the world) for plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles purchased after July 1, 2010. It would also issue green vehicle license plates that would allow drivers to use high occupancy lanes and gain access to public charging facilities and parking at Ontario government and GO Transit lots.

The vision was sound. But two and a half years later, what has all this signalling and messaging and “incentivizing” brought to the province? Not a heck of a lot. Not only is there not a single original equipment manufacturer in the auto sector making (or planning to make) a plug-in vehicle in this province, Ontario car buyers have to wait a year or more before they can purchase plug-in vehicle models that are available in the United States, and they have to pay several thousands of dollars more at a time when the Canadian dollars is worth more than the U.S. greenback. There’s no manufacturing of electric-vehicle charging systems and related infrastructure being established within our borders. There’s no indication that homegrown Magna, which is making and supplying the electric drivetrain for Ford’s upcoming Focus BEV, is doing the manufacturing in Ontario. There’s no hint of any foreign, including Chinese, manufacturers planning to set up operations in Ontario. We’re not even making conventional hybrid-electric vehicles in this province.

There is one battery maker that I know of, Mississauga-based Electrovaya, that is producing battery packs for two Chrysler demonstration plug-in models (a pickup and a minivan), but Electrovaya was here before McGuinty’s 2009 announcement and, if this little company does end up getting volume orders, there’s no sign yet that it will do such manufacturing in Ontario. If there is something I’m missing here, please let me know.

The Ontario Smart Grid Forum — a group representing members of Ontario’s utility sector, industry associations, public agencies and universities — recommended in a February 2009 report that:

A Task Force, led by the Ministry of Economic Development and involving other relevant Ministries, should be created consisting of representatives from the auto sector (vehicle manufacturers and suppliers) electricity sector (OEB, IESO, OPA, distributors and generators) and universities to develop a comprehensive plan for enabling plug-in electric vehicles in Ontario. The plan would address policy, financial, and electricity system impacts of substantial electric vehicle penetration and identify what is required to ensure that vehicles can be charged as they develop. The Task Force should link to the ongoing collaborative work by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and standards development organizations to develop electric vehicles standards.

Never happened. Neither has the government released an economic development roadmap related to electric vehicles and technologies.

From what I gather, none of the billions of dollars in bailout money that went to the Canadian operations of major U.S. automakers during the economic meltdown were conditional on these companies establishing a plug-in vehicle/technology manufacturing footprint in Ontario, nor have any rewards since then. Just today, it was announced that the federal and Ontario governments would be supplying up to $140 million in loans and grants to Toyota to upgrade its manufacturing operations in Cambridge and Woodstock. Again, no mention of Toyota’s commitment or intention of building capacity for next-generation vehicle technologies in Ontario.

At this point in time, it appears the McGuinty government’s 30-month-old “signal” to the auto sector as an attempt to attract investment in next-generation electric vehicle technology/infrastructure has been a dismal failure. This next-generation manufacturing is instead being created in Michigan and other U.S. jurisdiction. Ontario’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade has failed to execute on the promise of “creating and sustaining jobs” in this emerging and increasingly strategic part of the North American transportation market.

What gives? Can’t say, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Libs, after three years of talk, actually pulled a rabbit out of the hat and delivered on that earlier promise? Perhaps there will be a pre-election surprise, but don’t count on it.

Nissan, you’ve got some ‘splainin to do re: Leaf Canadian pricing

Exciting to see Nissan announce Canadian pricing for its Leaf electric car today. Disappointing to see that Canadians will have to pay more than $5,000 more than Americans at a time when the Canadian dollar is worth more than the U.S. greenback. What’s with that? I mean, a couple of thousand more, maybe I can see the reasoning. But having to pay $38,395 Canadian for the base model when you can get the same thing for $32,780 U.S. south of the border? That’s just a ripoff.

Nissan has to come up with a pretty good reason to justify the higher cost if it wants Canadians to buy in. Personally, I was interested in the Leaf until this pricetag shocker, so I may wait now for Ford to launch its Focus Electric in Canada. This seems like a brazen attempt by Nissan to soak up the generous $8,500 rebate being offered to electric car buyers in Ontario.

So, Nissan, what the dilio?

News roundup: crop-boosting wind turbines, hydro consolidation, and EVs and biodiesel in Toronto

I’ve been a little preoccupied this past week finishing up the first draft of my book so that I can actually enjoy some R&R, my family, food and wine (ah yes, wine) during the holidays. Now that I have a bit of a breather, here are some recent news items that caught my eye:

Let’s start with today: the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory came out with an interesting study that suggests wind turbines in farmed fields could be boosting crop yields. The giant, sweeping blades of wind turbines, says Ames, might “help corn and soybean crops stay cooler and dryer, helping them fend off fungal infestations and improve their ability to extract growth-enhancing carbon dioxide from the air and soil.” The researchers behind the study emphasize that their results are preliminary but believe beneficial effects are likely.

In other news, Toronto-based Riverbank Power, which has a large pipeline of innovative pumped-storage projects, is getting more seriously into run-of-river hydroelectric projects. The company has just acquired Symbiotic Energy Corp., a developer and operator of hydroelectric projects based out of Portland, Oregon. The deal boosts Riverbank’s pipeline of run-of-river projects to 1,100 megawatts and gives it three shovel-ready projects. In addition to the acquisition, Riverbank has raised $25 million from Caisse de Depot et placement du Quebec. The money will go toward development of the three run-of-river projects. This complements Riverbank’s pumped-storage business, which boasts a 16,000 MW project pipeline in North America. Riverbank has a unique underground approach to pumped storage based on a system design it calls AquaBank. You can read about it here.

Also in Toronto, Nissan Canada has committed 500 of its electric LEAF vehicles to the Toronto Atmospheric Fund’s FleetWise EV300 Initiative, meaning fleet operators participating in TAF’s program should have no problem getting first-generation LEAF vehicles when they go on sales at the end of 2011. On the topic of EVs, hotel owner Starwood Canada has installed the first hotel-based EV charging stations in Canada at its Sheraton Centre Toronto hotel and at Le Centre Sheraton Montreal. ” Coulomb Technologies is supplying the chargers, which will be part of the company’s growing ChargePoint network, which EV drivers will be able to access through their mobile devices to find charging stations closest to them. It’s a standardized charging station, so everything from cars and buses to bikes and Segways can use it. Could this be the beginning of a cell-phone like network and service for electric vehicles? Meanwhile, Canada Post has started using all-electric Ford Transit Connect delivery vehicles in its fleet.

But let’s not believe for a moment that electric vehicles are going to steal the entire show, as Energy Innovation Corp. announced it will soon open the first biodiesel fuel production facility in Toronto.  The 10-million litre a year facility will be based in the city’s Portlands area. The facility will use flaxseed from southern Ontario as its feedstock and, as a byproduct, will produce high-grade animal feed. That’s because only 40 per cent of the flax seed is used to produce fuel. The rest is high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The Globe and Mail has a story here.

GM sets dates, gives (few) details for Chevy Volt release in Canada

GM’s much-anticipated Volt extended-range electric car will be available in the second half of 2011 at dealerships in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Quebec City, Oshawa and the Ottawa area, the automaker said today. Unfortunately, the company said it won’t be disclosing Canadian pricing until closer to the launch, so we’ll have to wait. The second-half 2011 release is also when Nissan plans to launch its Leaf electric vehicle in Canadian markets, so it will be interesting to see these two pioneering vehicles going head to head.

BTW: If you want to read an out-of-touch column about electric cars, read my friend Eric Reguly’s anti-EV rant in the Globe and Mail. Eric gets it right most of the time, but not this time. I think some incentives are required to get any new industry going, but I do take his point about the rebates on offer for EVs being a little rich. My own opinion is that incentive or no incentive, there will be a first wave of electric car buyers because they love electric cars. They’ll pay the price, just as someone will pay for fancy upgrades on a car. As volume picks up, prices will come down. To compare today’s situation with the state of electric-car technology 100 years ago is just ridiculous, as is comparing the track record of the Toyota Prius. This isn’t just about one carmaker coming out with one hybrid car; this is about all major carmakers and new entrants each coming out with their own models that will compete against each other in the market and, as a result, drive down costs and push innovation around battery technology. The situation we have today is unprecedented, so to poo-poo it simply because electric cars couldn’t make it in 1920 or 1950 or 1990 is just sour grapes. Energy technology transitions don’t happen overnight, and nobody believes the world will be dominated by EVs in a couple of years, but they never will become a significant part of the market if you don’t start somewhere. Besides, there are other issues driving us toward EVs: global warming, peak oil, urban pollutions, etc… He says the market doesn’t demand electric cars, and a big part of the market doesn’t, but there is a growing group of consumers who do want them and it’s not insignificant — and it will get bigger in my opinion, as EVs develop a track record and come down in cost.