Power failure

·5 min read

Shopping for new wheels in Manitoba is as easy as surfing around local dealership websites to find the right vehicle with the right options at the right price.

Easy.

That is, unless the hope is to find one powered by an electric motor.

There are two sides to the story about why they have failed to capture as much of the market here as they have in other provinces: supply and demand.

In other words, Economics 101.

The numbers on Manitoba roads are rolling ahead, although they don’t seem able to shift out of first gear. In 2019, Statistics Canada showed 138 new EVs registered in the province, compared to 73 in 2018 and a measly 19 in 2015.

That sluggish demand is the big problem, says Oumar Dicko, chief economist for the Canadian Automobile Dealers Association.

“Most people do not know enough about electric vehicles to go and buy one,” Dicko says. “I think there’s still a very big lack of awareness.”

More education would likely go a long way, as would increased investment in charging infrastructure in Manitoba, which is failing to keep up with other provinces, he says. Winnipeg has about half as many public chargers available as Edmonton; less than a third of what’s available in Quebec City.

In the climate plan the Trudeau government released in December, $150 million was set aside for charging infrastructure. But Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson says provinces need to step up, too.

“There is a role for the province, as well,” he says in an interview with the Free Press. So here in British Columbia, in almost every small town, you will find charging stations. And that’s in part because it’s both federal and provincial investment. So that is an area where we’re going to talk to the provinces about how we can accelerate the deployment of infrastructure.”

The national auto dealers’ association is also encouraging more provincial governments to create EV incentive programs in an effort to boost demand.

Electric vehicle policies vary widely across Canada. Manitoba doesn’t offer prospective buyers any incentives for driving a zero-emission vehicle off the lot. Quebec offers up to $8,000, and $3,000 is available in B.C. In both cases, there is also an additional federal incentive of $5,000 for fully-electric purchases.

Ontario previously offered up to $14,000 in incentives, but Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government scrapped the program after being elected in 2018.

However, demand doesn’t explain everything. Both B.C. and Quebec have introduced quota systems.

By 2025 in B.C., 10 per cent of light-duty vehicle sales must be electric. By 2030, it rises to 30 per cent, and to 100 per cent by 2040. Manufacturers are inclined to send their EVs there instead of here.

KIA, for example, makes one of the top-rated EVs in the North American market, but they are choosing not to sell the Niro EV to anyone in Manitoba.

Wilkinson says the federal government is aware of supply issues in provinces that haven’t prioritized EV policies and the goal is to create a quota system across the country.

“In terms of supply... it is a challenge right now,” he says. “We need to ensure there’s better supply and, particularly, better supply as we start to see electric vehicles come down that cost curve and more models being available. We have signalled in the plan that we are looking at tools like a zero-emission mandate, which would mandate car manufacturers to have a certain amount of supply.”

Later this month, when U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, it is one of the first issues the two governments would like to engage in, Wilkinson says, noting the auto sector’s cross-border integration.

There is speculation that manufacturers and dealers have a disincentive to sell EVs due to smaller profit margins and the fact that the vehicles require much less maintenance, and thus less service department revenue for dealerships. However, Geoff Sine, executive director of the Manitoba Motor Dealers Association, refutes that notion.

“Manitoba dealers are excited about the new EV models and gearing up by investing in EV-specific repair equipment, training and charging stations,” he says in an email.

Manitoba has the potential to have one of the cleanest transportation sectors in the country — if electrified — given its clean energy supplies. Manitoba Hydro estimates the cost of driving an EV would be a penny or two per kilometre.

The Canadian Automobile Association estimates the cost of driving a four-cylinder compact gas-engine vehicle at about 3.25 cents per kilometre.

Adoption of electric vehicles is an important part of the national climate plan. Emissions from the transportation sector account for 43 per cent of Manitoba’s emissions. Nationally, transportation emissions have risen by 27 per cent since 2000.

Manitoba Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard says lowering emissions from the transportation sector is a priority; she is waiting on a final report from an advisory council on how to proceed.

“I look forward to receiving the expert advisory council’s recommendations that will, in part, help develop a plan for electric vehicles in our province,” she tells the Free Press in an email.

Eric Bibeau, an associate professor of engineering at the University of Manitoba, says both the federal and provincial policies are moving too slow. He’d like to see Canada institute a ban on the sale of combustion engines by 2030, something France has done.

“Manitoba is going to lag behind Canada. Canada is going to lag behind the world,” Bibeau says. “One of the biggest problems is that we have misconceptions… we have a lot of disinformation there.”

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press