Paul and Sharon Bernard of Chilliwack were the third owners in Canada to buy an electric car.

Paul and Sharon Bernard of Chilliwack were the third owners in Canada to buy an electric car.

Getting a charge out of electric vehicles

Setup of electric charging stations outpacing sales of EVs in Chilliwack. But that doesn't deter believers in the electric car revolution.

The setup of electric charging stations are outpacing sales of electric vehicles in Chilliwack. But that doesn’t deter believers in the electric car revolution.

EV charging stations are popping up all over town with determination. The Fraser Valley Regional District went online Friday with two charging stations at their Cheam Avenue office. The City of Chilliwack chargers at City Hall and the Tourism Centre launched about two weeks ago. In total, there are at least 14 public charging stations in Chilliwack, including four Level 1 slow-charge stations at University of the Fraser Valley, and others at various electric car dealerships, according to Buyers of plug-in cars also frequently purchase their own Level 2 quick chargers for home.

This is despite the fact that as of Dec. 31, 2012, there were only a handful of electric vehicles insured in Chilliwack, according to ICBC. There may have been more EVs purchased since then, and vehicles purchased in Chilliwack may be insured elsewhere.

Provincially, there were 285 EVs insured, and B.C. is aiming to have 600 quick chargers soon.

Chilliwack resident Paul Bernard was the third person in Canada to purchase the all-electric, battery-only Nissan Leaf, back in Oct. 2011. The Sardis Secondary School teacher is a self-proclaimed car guy and technology nut who wanted to do something positive for the city’s environment.

“It’s a fantastic way to get around,” he says. “We don’t miss the gas-powered car.”

Bernard says the transition from a gas engine, to an electric, was “seamless.” He’s only waiting for more quick charging stations so that he can travel further in a day.

“It’s like the first gas-powered cars, that existed a hundred years ago. Your average citizen will look at this thing, ‘Well, where are you going to drive it? You can’t go anywhere, there’s no gas stations, there’s no paved roads. I have my horse, and that works great,'” says Paul.

Infrastructure came slowly but surely then, and Paul believes we’re at another transportation turning point now.

“There’s a real pioneering phase to the whole thing, because we’re seeing the same transition happening.”

Paul and wife Sharon have already put 21,000 kilometres on the car. Although ideal for short-distance commuting, their Leaf can just make it to Vancouver on a single charge. On a Level 2, 240-Volt charger, it takes about 8 hours to re-power.

But most daily driving is within 60 kilometres, according to recent studies. The Leaf’s range has been plenty for primary driver Sharon. She easily completes her daily errands, and when she gets home in the evening, her routine is to plug the car into the home quick charger for the night.

“I never think about fueling,” she says. “People think they drive a lot, but they really don’t.”

The Bernards used to spend $350 a month to fuel their previous SUV. Now they spend $35 in additional hydro, saving nearly $4,000 in energy bills annually. They still keep a gas-powered car in the household for long-distance trips, and for pulling their RV.

The couple is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Level 3 DC Fast Chargers to British Columbia, which can charge a Leaf to 80 per cent in under 20 minutes by providing DC directly to the car battery, instead of through an AC converter.

The game-changing chargers are already available in Washington, Oregon, and California, where the U.S. government is building a West Coast Green Highway with fast chargers along the route.

B.C. is in a prime position to hop on, and the provincial government has a $2.4 million financial incentives program to defray the costs of charging stations and encourage electric vehicle purchases.

Mertin GM manager Jason Arnold is convinced the transport revolution will grip the public.

“Once you drive the car, you’ll be sold. This is the future,” says Arnold. “The manufacturers are investing so much money in electric cars, it’s going to go.”

True to his word, Arnold insisted that The Progress drive the all-electric Chevy Volt for a day, of which the dealership has sold five in Chilliwack. The car provides a less stressful entry into the plug-in EV market, as the onboard generator with a 30-litre gas tank kicks in when the battery charge runs out. As all EVs, the car is eerily quiet for the first-time driver. It is silent when idling at an intersection, and even on the highway the loudest noise seems to come from the tires hitting the pavement. With black leather interior and low seating, the Volt feels like a strong, high-end sedan.

Charging the car at the free city hall charger is fool-proof. Swipe the right card, and plug the unlocked charger into the car. The car dings, and the city can send a text message, when charging is complete.

The city’s experience with their new chargers has been that the Tourism Centre one is more heavily used, presumably by out-of-town visitors. The centre sees the extra service as one more way to draw people into the centre, where they might learn more about tourism in Chilliwack.

Likewise, Best Western sees $3,000 EV charger installations as a way to add value for cross-country clients. The hotel chain is working on being the first to have a charging station at every location, just as they were the first to have free internet for clients, says Kevin Wood, general manager at the Chilliwack Rainbow Country Inn location.

“At this hotel, we made a decision to be more conscious about our impact on the environment,” says Wood. The Chilliwack location is getting its first charger in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the Kelowna branch already has about five chargers, a reflection of demand, says Wood.

FVRD also sees the value, especially as a clean air initiative, and took advantage of government incentives that match 75 per cent of the charging station’s cost up to a maximum $4,000. The district has two live stations in Chilliwack, one in Boston Bar, and another soon coming to Hope.

“We saw this as a good investment for the public to help and encourage the use of electric vehicles. Get more of them on the road, and get gas cars off the road,” says environmental services coordinator Julian Zelazny.

The lack of EVs on the road is because of the classic chicken and egg conundrum, which the government has interrupted with the incentives program, says Zelazny.

“As people see the chargers are available, and see they’re around, they’ll see electric vehicles as an option. The price will come down.”

However, critics question whether electric cars will be the next transport revolution, and whether they might go the way of the “hydrogen highway.” About six years ago, the province invested $1 million into a network of six hydrogen fueling stations for hydrogen-powered cars, and yet there are few such cars on the road.