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'The gap is large': B.C.'s small towns illuminate urban-rural divide in EV infrastructure

There's an infrastructure gap that's slowing down the adoption of electric vehicles across B.C. Here's what three small towns — urban and rural — are doing to close it.
In areas with less population density, British Columbians outside of city centres are finding ways to bring more electric vehicles into their communities.

About four years ago, mechanic Todd Penney received his first phone call from a Tesla owner planning to travel through Fort Nelson, B.C. on his way to Alaska. 

“He reached out to see if there's any way that we could charge his vehicle,” Penney said. “After discussing it back and forth a little bit, we figured out that my welding plug would work fine for him.” 

Penney is the general manager of Dalex Auto Services in Fort Nelson and a regional councillor of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM). 

Since that first phone call, Penney’s auto shop has become well known among electric vehicle (EV) owners as a place to stop and recharge while travelling down Highway 97 on the way to Alaska. 

Despite the rise of EVs taking a toll on Penney’s business, he says his passion for his community and desire to expand Fort Nelson’s tourism industry overwhelms any negative impacts EVs are having on his work. 

“[Fort Nelson is] kind of the holdup right now. There’s charging stations in Fort St. John and in Watson Lake, but there was none here,” Penney said.  

“I didn't want to hold us back from this possibility of tourism over not being able to charge your vehicle. So I was willing to offer that service.” 

Now, Penney says he charges a couple of vehicles a week — always tourists — who are trying to “see how far they can get.” 

“I spoke to [a person] over the weekend [who] lives in the Yukon, and they really want to test out their electric car,” he said. “So they're driving down... to Edmonton and back.” 

While the arrival of e-tourism to Fort Nelson appears promising for an emissions-free future, vehicle registration data from ICBC paints a different picture. 

British Columbians have been on an unprecedented car-buying spree — a trend that could undermine emission reduction targets from every region of the province.

Like the problem, the solutions would seem nearly universal: more residents walking and biking, taking public transport and adopting electric vehicles. In short, decarbonize the passenger transportation sector. 

But while some of B.C.’s cities make the province a leader in EV adoption in North America, many of the province’s rural communities are being left behind. 

Between 2016 and 2021, the northern B.C. community of Fort Nelson lost 22.5 per cent of its population, according to the latest census.  

However, over the same period, residents registered 6.5 per cent more vehicles, on par with the rest of B.C.’s registration spike. 

Of those 1,838 vehicles registered in Fort Nelson, only three were electric, according to data from ICBC. 

To change this narrative, the NRRM is endeavouring to help bring small rural towns into the province’s electrifying movement.  

On June 13, the NRRM passed a motion at its regional council meeting to turn on a 240-volt municipal plug to support EV tourism. This will be the first official charging station in the entire regional municipality. 

Until now, tourists travelling up Highway 97 have puttered into town on invisible fumes, says Hillary Sheppard, community and social development coordinator for the NRRM. 

“[The tourists] get down the highway to as far as they can... and then either run out of steam power and need to be towed, or they are just barely making it to Fort Nelson,” she said. 

Ironically, when Sheppard brought forward the request to turn on the municipality-owned plug at the council meeting, one of those dying EVs rolled into town. 

Penney was in the meeting with Sheppard when this request came in. 

“I just had [an EV] show up at about quarter to six here, I received a text and I sent a staff member down to make access to a plug,” Penney said in the council meeting. 

As EV adoption continues to increase across the province, Penney said the plug will be essential in giving tourists another option. 

“I would greatly appreciate it if we make something available,” he said in the council meeting. “I'm getting a lot more inquiries. We're getting several a week on average of electric vehicle owners that are planning this trip.” 

Limitations to rural EV adoption 

The urgent request to open this stand-in charging station comes while Fort Nelson awaits the promised installment of a Level 2 charger through the Charge North initiative.  

Slated to open by the end of 2023, the Charge North station will be one of 58 chargers installed in over 40 northern B.C. communities. 

Danielle Wiess is the strategy and collaboration lead for the Community Energy Association (CEA) — the organization leading the Charge North initiative and tasked with electrifying B.C.’s northern communities.

It's not the first time something like this has been tried in rural B.C.

Wiess, who lives in the Kootenays, said a similar project known as ‘Accelerate Kootenays’ led to the installation of 53 chargers before it wrapped up in 2019. 

Wiess says that since then, EV registrations have accelerated.

“Gone are the days when you knew the one EV driver or EV owner in town. There's several now. You don't even know who owns all of them,” Wiess said. 

Officially, Charge North is meant to support reliable EV travel over almost 2,800 kilometres of highway. But Wiess says it's more than that.

“[Charge North will] normalize EVs in the region, whether it's by local residents purchasing them or visitors who come through town and people see them,” she said. 

With construction yet to begin on the charging network, Wiess said there remains an urban-rural divide in EV infrastructure, driven by, among other things, money.

“The gap is large,” Wiess said.

“The funding incentives aren't there for private companies to go to these regions that don't have the adoption that urban centres might have, given population or just general access to electric vehicles.” 

Only when funding, demand and adoption increase, will this gap close, Wiess says. 

But according to Sheppard, there’s also a culture surrounding EVs that’s harder to adopt in places like Fort Nelson where winter temperatures can drop to minus 50 Celsius. 

Even when the town’s charging station does open, Sheppard said it will continue to mainly serve tourists because locals have yet to see if the EV batteries can cope with such frigid temperatures. 

“There's probably a great deal of skepticism on the equipment, batteries and vehicles that are expected to run on electric power, given our pretty severe climate in the winter,” Sheppard said. 

Penney shares some of those doubts, but for the most part, he says he's optimistic the technology will pull through.

“It is the way of the future... I think we're all on board with that,” he said.  

“It'll be a little bit more difficult up here in the north because of the temperatures, but I'm sure battery technology will come along and we'll all be zipping along quietly soon.” 

Werner Antweiler, associate professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, said concerns about batteries performing in places as far north as Fort Nelson are backed by science. 

“Batteries perform less well under cold conditions,” Antweiler said.  

“Below the 50th parallel in a lot of parts of Canada, where the conditions aren't too severe, EVs are perfectly fine. But the further north you go... you have wintry conditions that are not really ideal for EVs yet.” 

Antweiler estimates it will be another 10 years until EV adoption spreads to climates like Fort Nelson's. 

For now, Antweiler says Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland remain the “sweet spot” for EVs with ideal conditions and broader uptake.  

Infrastructure is key 

Within that sweet spot, are two small municipalities with warmer weather and urbanized cores. 

In the growing communities of Sechelt and Bowen Island, EV populations rose by at least 25 per cent in 2021. 

Bowen’s EV fleet surged from 12 to 112 vehicles in the six years leading up to 2021. EVs, in other words, accounted for 99 per cent of the community's growth in vehicle registrations over that time. 

In Sechelt, meanwhile, the town went from 20 to 182 EVs at a time when total vehicle populations shrunk by nearly nine per cent. 

What makes these two small urban centres more prone to EV adoption than their rural counterparts? According to two local EV experts, it all comes down to infrastructure. 

Bowen Island, about 1,500 kilometres away from Fort Nelson and a short ferry ride from Vancouver, is leading the charge. 

Here, councillor David Hocking, who sits on the municipality’s transportation advisory committee, says having an electric vehicle just makes sense.  

“The thing about Bowen, compared to the City of Vancouver, is we're mostly single-family homes. There's very few apartments,” he said. “So for most people, if they own an electric car, it wouldn't be too hard to figure out how to plug it in at home.” 

Local attitudes and climate go a long way in making the community an EV “sweet spot” in rural B.C.

Bowen’s average low of 4 C in the winter months pales in comparison to Fort Nelson’s average of -22 C. 

Whereas Shepphard says her community may be wary of driving an EV in Fort Nelson’s extreme temperatures, Hocking says within his community, there’s a shared consensus that EVs will soon become more abundant.  

“We all know... that we need to electrify transportation, from a greenhouse gas perspective,” Hocking said. 

But with many residents having the right infrastructure to be able to charge at home, Bowen Island is not much further ahead than Fort Nelson.  

In March, the island community opened its first public charging station after an issue with BC Hydro delayed the project

The two charging spots sit in the library parking lot, and unlike Fort Nelson, Bowen’s first plug-in charger is serviced by the charging network operator FLO.  

Bowen Island charging station_1
Bowen Island recently had two FLO chargers installed in its library parking lot to encourage its growing EV population. | Bowen Island Municipality

Despite the varying senses of urgency behind each installation, both newly installed charging stations were apparently opened with a similar demographic in mind.     

Bowen’s new charging spots are a two-minute walk from the ferry terminal and right beside the visitor information centre — perfect for tourists choosing to travel electric.  

“If [the tourists] were touring the island, stopping for a meal, a night or getting a coffee, [the charger is] located right in the cove where all these other services are,” Hocking said. “That's why it's there.” 

Since the chargers were commissioned in May, they have been used for approximately 183 sessions — equivalent to just under 235 hours of charging.

Now, Hocking said Bowen’s municipal council is prioritizing the electrification of public transport, such as buses or ferries, over the installation of any more private vehicle chargers.  

The goal: lower transportation emissions that, according to Hocking, are Bowen’s most polluting sector. 

Small, urban communities are ideal 

One step up from both Bowen and Fort Nelson, is the EV-abundant municipality of Sechelt.   

This coastal community, with a slightly larger population than Bowen Island, is the home of John Henderson, founding member of the Sunshine Coast Electric Vehicle Association.  

In 2010, long before EV infrastructure was even a topic of light discussion, Henderson’s bright orange Tesla Roadster rolled into town. Henderson’s Tesla made history as the first ever in B.C., he says.  

“When I got mine in May of 2010, I was the weirdest guy around. I was a freak,” Henderson said. “I probably spent the next five, six or seven years explaining why it worked.”  

As the number of registered gas-powered vehicles declined, Sechelt’s EV fleet grew by 810 per cent between 2016 and 2021, climbing from 20 to 182 cars.   

Henderson says this apparent energy transition can be partly attributed to Sechelt being what he calls a “contained community.”  

While rural residents of B.C. often travel further to reach some of the same amenities, Henderson says Sechelt residents rarely have to worry about the number of kilometres they’re clocking each day.  

“People know that they are going to come home at the end of the day, having driven 20, 50, 80 or 120 kilometres to and from work, and they don't have to worry about charging until they get home,” he said.  

Even if someone doesn’t have a charger at home, Henderson said charging or range anxiety is consistently a thing of the past.   

In the village of Sechelt, there are at least four charging stations, according to the charging locator PlugShare, with many more spanning the Sunshine Coast, from Gibsons to Madeira Park.   

Over the next couple of weeks this number will grow even larger, Henderson says, with the installation of 12 Tesla superchargers at Sechelt’s Tsain-Ko mall.  

Chargers dot the municipality of Sechelt, from coffee shops to the liquor store, to various malls. Together, they’re signs of an EV culture that’s alive and thriving.    

While Henderson said he understands EVs aren’t for everyone, he’s hopeful the evolution of EVs will eventually follow a similar path to the evolution of gas-powered vehicles.   

Just as gas stations once slowly expanded across the province, Henderson estimates charging stations are on the same path. In Sechelt, he says, the evolution of EV culture over the past 12 years offers an example of what could come in the rest of B.C.  

“It has gone, over the last 12 years, from skepticism and doubt to just great enthusiasm,” he said. 

Still a long transition ahead  

Fort Nelson, Bowen Island and Sechelt show the limits and potential of electric vehicles in rural B.C.  

While the more urbanized municipalities of Sechelt and Bowen Island are seeing an uptick in EV adoption, rural Fort Nelson has been holding steady at a total of three EVs in town since 2019.  

“Typically, in rural and remote places, transportation emissions are some of their highest sources of [greenhouse gases] because things are far apart and people have to drive a lot,” Weiss said.  

Weiss isn’t the only one pushing for EV adoption outside of urban metropolises.   

Alex Bigazzi, head of UBC's Research on Active Transportation Lab, said it makes sense, economically, to have EV uptake start in the cities because that's where the population density and money is.  

But it isn’t necessarily the most impactful move.  

“Really, what we want is the opposite,” Bigazzi said. “We want the cleanest vehicles in the rural areas… because they are driving longer distances and there’s no other options.”   

While charging stations may be more dispersed in a rural area, Bigazzi said at-home charging is easier and often makes more sense. 

“You also more often have home-based trips,” he said. “You have more people who live in single-family homes, which makes charging much easier than apartments.”  

At-home charging is also a large part of why Sechelt has seen so much success in its EV uptake.  

As a transition technology, Bigazzi said plug-in hybrids are going to play a key role — both for people in rural areas who have range anxiety and people in urban areas who have charging anxiety.  

Yet even as charging networks expand into the rural regions of B.C., 2021 saw a major shift in the number of new gas-powered vehicles across the province, upping emissions and slowing progress toward B.C.'s climate goals.

For many, the technology remains too nascent or two expensive for even its strongest backers. For others, it comes down to timing.

Both Hocking and Wiess have yet to go electric because they’re waiting for their preexisting gas-powered vehicle to reach the end of their life.  

For now, with the expansion of charging networks across even the most remote regions of B.C. on the horizon, Antweiler said it’s important to remember EVs aren’t “one size fits all.”  

“It's very important to keep an open mind to... different solutions for different constituencies in that transition towards lower emission vehicles and zero-emission vehicles,” he said.  

“That transition will take many forms and shapes. There's no one technology that does it all.” 

This is the second in a two-part series looking at how vehicle ownership is changing in British Columbia. Read part one here.