Electrifying BC vehicles infographic

Powering all of British Columbia’s vehicles with kilowatts instead of petroleum could prove surprisingly cost-effective over the long haul.

Thanks in large part to its Clean Energy Act, British Columbia (BC) boasts one of North America’s cleanest electrical grids with close to 95 percent of its electricity generated from renewable sources—mainly hydropower, with smaller shares of biomass and wind. But that’s only part of the story: Electricity meets only 18 percent of BC’s total energy demand.

Fossil fuels remain the dominant energy source—with transportation contributing more than a third of the province’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Enter University of Victoria researcher Victor Keller and colleagues from the PICS 2060 Project. Recently, the team set out to understand how much additional clean electricity the province would need in the coming decades to electrify all on-road transportation, what it would cost us, and what such a move would mean for the climate.

Switching from Pump to Plug

Their finding: Electrifying BC’s entire road fleet will require generation capacity to increase by up to 60 percent. And the best possible outcome of all the scenarios they tested? In the electrification scenario, where half of all available vehicles participate in utility-controlled charging, between the years 2015 and 2055 cumulative emissions in the province will drop 40 per cent.

That’s great carbon-cutting, but what are the cost implications? Presently the province requires that renewable energy sources must deliver at least 94 percent of the power on the grid—a policy known as a renewable energy portfolio standard. Assuming the government hangs onto that policy, researchers found that the  needed increase in clean-electricity supply would raise the average unit cost of electricity by only 9 percent.

Furthermore, the cost premium drops even further—a mere 5 per cent—under a scenario in which drivers allow the electricity utility to choose when the vehicles are charged, via smart meters and other technologies.

“These results demonstrate that electrification of the transport system and a significant reduction in greenhouse gases can be carried out at low additional cost to the electricity system,” says Keller.

Where the Power Will Come From?

“If we are serious about climate change, we will likely require significant electrification of our energy services in coming decades,” says Keller. “The energy provided by the Site C project (1.1 GW) will be a welcome addition, but it just scratches the surface of potential increased energy needs.”
By the year 2055 BC will need to increase energy generation capacity 7.4 GW above 2015 levels to meet expected economic and population growth, that’s almost a 50% increase. Adding total vehicle fleet electrification, capacity will need to be 36 GW. That’s almost double the 2015 number. 

Which begs the question: If all of us switch from pump to plug, what will produce the additional 14 GW worth of capacity?

Keller points out that BC Hydro and private-sector power developers have already accessed most of the cost-effective opportunities to harness hydroelectricity. Geothermal remains an emerging technology, still in its infancy today. That leaves a pair of mature, utility-scale renewable-power sources that are sweeping the world, and that grow more affordable with each passing year.
“Solar and wind are looking very promising,” Keller says.

Read the media release.

Chart of use demand by fuel type in BC in 2016
This figure shows end use demand by fuel type in B.C. in 2016. Source: Canada's Energy Future, 2018, National Energy Board.

Link  Keller, Victor and English, Jeffrey and Fernandez, Julian and Wade, Cameron and Fowler, McKenzie and Scholtysik, Sven and Palmer-Wilson, Kevin and Donald, James and Robertson, Bryson and Wild, Peter and Crawford, Curran and Rowe, Andrew. Electrification of road transportation with utility controlled charging: A case study for British Columbia with a 93% renewable electricity targetApplied Energy vol. 253, 2019