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Clean Cars, Dirty Energy: Canada's Electric Car Dilemma

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency
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Electric car sales have been doing great in Canada. Considering the fact that public electric vehicle (EV) chargers were a relatively new and untried concept in many Canadian until just recently, the spike in sales is a powerful statement about Canada's growing green economy.

So is the increasing number of provincial incentives popping up to encourage consumers to go electric. To date, at least six of Canada's 13 provinces and territories offer incentives to drivers who will turn in their conventional cars for electric ones.

One of the more interesting is British Columbia's "Scrap It" program, which recently upped the ante for car owners who turn in their gas-guzzlers. Consumers with cars manufactured in 2000 or later can claim an incentive of $3,000 toward an electric car. For those who want to throw away the keys altogether -- and BC's significantly pricey car insurance along with them -- the province offers a plethora of other incentives drivers can claim in return for scrapping their carbon-churners (mind you, none that would cover the cost of a, say, 2010 vehicle at current sales prices in BC).

Still, electric propulsion is becoming a popular idea in provinces like Quebec, which boasts more than 2,500 plug-in registrations to date. With Canada's increasing focus on climate change mitigation, it's to be expected.

A new report, however, debunks the idea that switching over to electric vehicles will, in all cases, reduce carbon emissions. In fact, says Chris Kennedy, a professor in civil engineering at the University of Toronto, the answer to the world's carbon production problems isn't in what kind of propulsion your car relies on, but rather on what produces that power.

Regions -- in this case, provinces of Canada -- that generate their electricity from carbon-rich sources don't really benefit from the use of electric vehicles. That's particularly true in provinces like Alberta, its neighbor Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia on the eastern seaboard, which get the majority of their power from coal-generated plants. In other words, the demand at the EV charger helps to keep those provinces' carbon production high by creating a supply-and-demand for the coal-based power.

"You're better off filling up at the pump," Kennedy said in a recent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.  "Or if you really want to go for something greener, you should be buying a conventional hybrid car."

Those provinces that rely on green sources for their electricity generation can benefit from residents switching to EVs. And yes, British Columbia, with its ample supply of hydro power, is one of them.

Kennedy's findings aren't a total surprise. The question of how to reduce carbon emissions in transportation and power generation has been at the heart of climate change research for years. For Canadian provinces, however, it reinforces the message that the energy sources they support, invest in and develop within their borders may have a broader impact on their futures than previously realized. And while this research isn't likely to stop the oil sands development or hydraulic fracturing investments in Canada, it is one more source of data that suggests that what we develop and how we use it count when it comes to our impact on climate change and the environment.

Image credit: Plug'n Drive Ontario

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee