OPINION | How “clean” is your electric car? Depends on where you drive.

By John Gorman, President and CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association and Cara Clairman, President and CEO, Plug’n Drive

Sales of electric vehicles took a hit last year in Ontario, as provincial incentives came to an end – but this contrasts with increasing sales in other provinces, such as British Columbia and Quebec. And there’s no question that the long-term trend in EV sales is looking greener. Prices are coming down for both fully battery-operated vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles, while awareness of our carbon “tireprint” continues to grow. Yet the transportation sector remains the largest or second-largest carbon emitter in every Canadian province.

Electric Mobility Canada states that Canada had 136,000 zero-emission vehicles on its roads by late 2019; Fleetcarma posted that sales of electric vehicles had increased by 166% between the third quarters of 2017 and 2018 – with electric cars accounting for 8.3% of all sales in Canada.

That all sounds like a boon for the climate because, according to Natural Resources Canada, “The efficiency of energy conversion from on-board storage to turning the wheels is nearly five times greater for electricity than gasoline.” 

Well-to-wheel efficiency

Unfortunately, that’s only part of the issue. Even if your electric vehicle releases no tailpipe emissions, it’s drawing electricity from the grid – and what powers that?

Canada’s provinces are a patchwork of energy mixes, and some are cleaner than others. The Canada Energy Regulator, a new government agency, has mapped the greenhouse gases that province and territory’s grid emits to create a kilowatt-hour of electricity. Nunavut and Alberta, which burn mainly fossil fuels, emit the most per kWh, while Quebec, which relies largely on hydroelectric power, emits the least. The good news is Canada has an abundance of low-emitting electricity. Plug’n Drive, a non-profit organization committed to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles in Canada, calculates that people who drive electric cars in Canada can reduce their vehicles’ greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 95%, depending on where they live.  

Nuclear power plays an important role here, because it has one of the lowest carbon emissions of any form of power generation, close to that of hydroelectric power. But not every province has the right geography to build more dams.

So, when you charge your electric vehicle in Ontario, you’re getting 62% of that electricity from nuclear power, which means that greenhouse-gas emissions are much lower than if Ontario were still burning coal to make electricity. The real greenhouse-gas emissions from your electric car depend on “well-to-wheel efficiency” – that is, the efficiency of every step of creating your electricity, including oil production or coal mining, transportation, and power generation. This depends on where you drive.

Greening the grid

Even in provinces that depend heavily on fossil fuels, driving an electric vehicle lowers greenhouse-gas emissions. But there is always room for improvement, and there are some hopeful signs. Several provinces have made commitments to getting their grids off coal – and, in December, the premiers of Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick agreed to advance the development and deployment of small nuclear reactors which are often referred to as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). “Nuclear power has virtually no emissions relative to (liquefied natural gas), which has some emissions, relative to carbon capture and storage, which does have some emissions,” Premier Scott Moe told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix

Saskatchewan, which has many smaller remote communities, may be ideally suited for SMRs, which are catching on in new markets, as far away as Poland. And the expertise to build SMRs may come from close to home, as two New Brunswick companies – Moltex and ARC Nuclear – have made advances in their development.

In conclusion

By driving on our grids, Canadians have a huge opportunity to take a bite out of transportation emissions and work towards achieving our country’s climate change goals. Electricity is also much less expensive than gas, which helps consumers save money while reducing carbon emissions. A combination of nuclear and renewable power will continue to “green” our grid, making EVs an important part of our global fight against climate change.    

John Gorman, is president and CEO, Canadian Nuclear Association and Cara Clairman, president and CEO, Plug’n Drive

Watch Sixth Estate Before the Bell January 28, 2020 at 0800 ET on Facebook for a live stream of the show and where you can ask your questions directly to Mr. Gorman. For more information and to see a list of guests appearing tomorrow on the show please click here!

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