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  • The costs and provisos of driving EVs to a better planet

    Russ Francis

    Moving to electric vehicles is a key part of BC’s climate action strategy. Let’s crunch some numbers…


    VEHICLES ON BC ROADS spew out nearly one-third of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.  According to the latest emission summary published by Environment and Climate Change Canada, vehicles emitted 19.0 megatonnes (Mt) of GHGs in 2019, or 29 percent of BC’s total emissions. Owing to many more vehicles on our roads, that is nearly double the 1990 figure of 9.6 Mt, despite significant improvements in vehicle efficiency since then.

    These emissions include all on-road vehicles: gasoline and diesel-powered light cars and trucks, motorbikes, and heavy-duty trucks, as well as those fuelled by propane and natural gas. (Not included are a further 5.16 Mt from off-road vehicles, used in forestry, mining, construction and the like.)



    EVs save drivers save 80 percent in fuel costs. But it’s not quite that simple. (Credit: BC Hydro)


    Direct emissions from vehicles are not the only ones resulting from our use of fossil fuels to carry us around. Oil and gas extraction, petroleum refining, and fugitive emissions produce an additional 12.04 Mt annually in Canada. While not all of our fossil fuels go to powering vehicles, eliminating internal combustion power for transport would lead to additional reductions in those “upstream” and “midstream” emissions. 

    For British Columbia, where the electricity is mostly clean, there is a relatively painless way of reducing transportation emissions: switch to electrically-powered vehicles (EVs). This is especially true for light-duty cars and trucks, which emit approximately half of our road transportation pollution and which are becoming more available to the general consumer. (Note: This article considers only electric vehicles without fossil-fuelled engines; it does not deal with so-called hybrids.)

    And British Columbians are enthusiastically switching: One in ten new cars sold in BC last year was an EV, the highest rate in North America. There are now more than 60,000 light-duty electric vehicles on the province’s roads—exceeding the energy ministry’s 2021 target by 11,000. BC Hydro forecasts there will be 300,000 by 2030. 


    Are EVs really cleaner?

    One nagging question, often raised by fossil fuel industry advocates, concerns the lifetime emissions of EVs compared with vehicles powered by internal combustion engines: What about the emissions in building EVs, particularly their big batteries?

    Due to the extraction of the required minerals and battery manufacturing, more GHGs are emitted in making an EV than a gas-powered vehicle. But once the vehicles are driven, the difference shrinks, and eventually disappears. The timing depends on the efficiency of the vehicles and the source of electricity. BC, as mentioned, is fortunate to have virtually all its electricity supplied by clean hydro power. But even in the US, where 23 percent of its power is still generated by burning coal, EVs’ total emissions soon fall behind, in as little as one year of average driving.

    Recent research provides details of the life-cycle emissions of the two types of vehicles. A study by the International Council on Clean Transportation, released in July 2021, examined vehicles’ life-cycle emissions, starting with the extraction of the raw materials, manufacturing, driving, through to their final disposal. The short answer: EVs produce much less GHGs. 

    A model developed by Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory predicts that a Tesla Model 3, driven in a jurisdiction like BC where electricity is nearly all from hydro, would have fewer lifetime emissions than a Toyota Corolla after less than a year of driving. Consequently, there is little doubt that EVs are good for cutting emissions. 



    Total lifetime emissions in millions of grams. SOURCE: Argonne National Laboratory.


    How much power do EVs need?

    Natural Resources Canada reports that a typical BC car is driven 13,100 km annually, an average of 36 km per day. Finnish EV charger company Virta estimates that each kilometre in an EV uses about 0.2 kilowatt-hours (KWh), meaning that a typical BC car will use 13,100 x 0.2 KWh = 2.62 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity annually. (A megawatt-hour is 1,000 kilowatt-hours.)

    In other words, the 60,000 EVs currently on BC roads consume 60,000 x 2.62 MWh = 157,200 MWh, or 157.2 gigawatt-hours  (GWh) annually. (A gigawatt-hour is 1,000 megawatt-hours.) Based on Hydro’s prediction of a five-fold increase in nine years, the province’s EVs will draw 5 x 157.2 GWh = 786 GWh annually by 2030.

    Does that explain the government’s hasty rush to complete Site C? Hardly. If it is ever finished—still highly doubtful--the $16 billion boondoggle is forecast to churn out 5,100 GWh annually, more than six times the anticipated EV energy demand in 2030. Well aware of EVs’ growth, BC Hydro projects that it has sufficient energy until at least 2030.


    EV affordability increasing, with some provisos

    On May 1, 2021, BC Hydro announced that free charging at its 90 fast charging stations is history. While the stations are handy, if not essential, for long distance drivers, it costs more to charge an EV at the Hydro chargers than at home, even twice as much. The 25 KW Level One chargers now cost $3.60 for a 30-minute session, which works out to 28.8 cents per KWh, compared with the residential Step 2 rate of 14.08 cents. While the 100 KW Level Three chargers cost less, 16.2 cents per KWh, the price still exceeds the top residential rate.

    As well, BC Hydro says it is working on a reduced rate for charging EVs at home, probably in off-peak hours. This would make the vehicles even cheaper to drive per kilometre. Various rebates are available for installing chargers in both single family and multifamily buildings. 

    Those who drive EVs are generally very happy with them, citing much lower fuel costs, good acceleration, quietness and less maintenance, not to mention virtually eliminating their GHG emissions with every kilometre driven. Depending on make and model, EV “fuel” costs—based on residential hydro rates—are approximately 20 percent of those for an equivalent gas-powered car—based on Greater Vancouver gas prices.

    However, the financial situation is muddier when also considering the purchase prices of EVs and internal combustion-powered vehicles.

    BC Hydro reports that somebody driving 20,000 km annually in an electric 2020 Nissan Leaf S Plus, will save about $1,448 each year around in fuel costs, compared with what Hydro regards as the gas-powered equivalent, a 2020 Chevy Spark 1 LT. This means that for the typical 13,000 km per year driver, fuel savings amount to $941 annually. The costs are based on BC Hydro’s residential rates, and Greater Vancouver gasoline prices in 2019.

    What about maintenance costs, another aspect in which EVs prevail over their gas-powered cohorts?

    According to an October 2020 Consumer Reports study, in the US a typical gas-powered car costs approximately twice as much per mile in maintenance and repair costs over its lifetime than an EV. When converted to Canadian currency, using the October 19, 2021 exchange rate, the difference is 1.83 cents per kilometre. (This assumes that Canadian repair and maintenance costs are comparable to those in the US.) For our typical 13,000 km per year BC driver, that amounts to an extra $238 in annual savings for EVs. The combined fuel and maintenance savings results in a total annual benefit of $941 + $238 = $1,179 each year for EVs.

    Even with federal and BC government rebates of up to $8,000, EVs are not cheap to buy. The 2020 Nissan Leaf Plus S listed for nearly $47,000, while the 2020 Chevy Spark 1 LT sold for a list price of just under $15,000 in Canada. Taking advantage of the $8,000 in rebates from the federal and BC governments, the Nissan Leaf Plus S comes in at approximately $24,000 more than the Chevy Spark. Ignoring the opportunity cost for the more expensive Nissan, the average BC Leaf 13,000 km/year driver would take 20.3 years to break even with the Chevy. If the Leaf buyer has an old car that meets the requirements for BC’s $6,000 Scrap-It rebate, it would take 15.3 years.

    Several cautions are in order. First, this comparison ignores the opportunity cost—essentially the interest charge over the years to borrow the difference between EVs and gas-powered cars. 

    Second, the repair and maintenance costs are average. For a particular model, they may vary: Some models are more reliable than others. 

    Third, the fuel prices. On September 1, 2021, BC Hydro applied to the BC Utilities Commission for a net increase of 3.3 percent for residential customers over three years, starting April 1, 2022. While electricity costs are somewhat constrained by requiring the commission’s approval, there is no such mechanism for gasoline. 

    One portion of gas prices is expected to go nowhere but up in the next nine years. BC’s carbon tax, currently $40 per tonne of CO2 , due to increase to $50 April 1, 2022. Presuming that BC adopts the federal government plan to increase it by $15 for each year after 2022, we will be paying $170 per tonne in 2030. At present, the carbon tax costs approximately 9 cents per litre of gasoline. In 2030 it will reach approximately 38 cents per litre. 

    Crude oil prices are the biggest factor in gasoline costs, and they are commonly believed to be headed upwards. Though they collapsed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since returned to pre-pandemic levels.  According to a September 20, 2021 Reuters report, New York bank Goldman Sachs said that a colder winter in Europe and Asia could boost demand for oil worldwide, which would mean higher gasoline prices. As well, demand for gasoline is increasing. Rory Johnston, founder of the Commodity Context newsletter, said in an October 7 report that worldwide demand for gasoline has since recovered: [G]asoline appears to have mostly returned to its modest pre-COVID growth trajectory.”

    More assured pricing predictions exist around EVs: lower prices are coming in the next decade. In a draft September 29, 2020 report written for BC Hydro, Vancouver consultancy Navius predicts that EV prices will drop significantly by 2030, mostly due to much cheaper batteries. The cost to manufacture batteries will drop by approximately half by 2030, and could possibly fall by three-quarters. The latter scenario means that an EV with a range of 160 km could sell for the same price as a gas-powered equivalent as early as 2025.


    But will EVs make a significant dent in BC’s emissions?

    Given the increasing affordability of EVs, BC’s requirement under the Zero-Emission Vehicle Act that all light-duty cars and trucks sold in 2040 will be zero-emission vehicles, may be met well ahead of schedule. (Zero-emission vehicles include those powered with hydrogen.) Ignoring the significant emissions from building EVs outside of Canada, how much will this help the province meet the goals of its struggling CleanBC climate plan?

    According to BC’s 2020 Climate Change Accountability Report, incentives to boost zero-emissions light vehicles will save 1Mt of emissions by 2030, or about 11 percent of GHGs currently emitted annually by cars and small trucks. That doesn’t take us very far towards the BC government’s target of cutting total emissions by 16.8 Mt in 2030, as laid out in its climate crisis plan, Clean BC. 

    In general, BC’s emissions are going in the wrong direction. In 2017, the year in which the NDP formed a minority government, the province’s official GHG emissions totalled 66 Mt. They have since grown to 68.6 Mt in 2019, the last year for which the provincial government has released data. That’s an increase of 4 percent since 2017, despite the now-urgent necessity to quickly reduce emissions.

    However, given British Columbians’ penchant for beating EV sales projections, we may in fact easily meet the goal of all light vehicle sales being zero-emission well ahead of the 2040 target. That would count as a rare success story in BC’s attempts to reduce emissions, though making little more than a dent in the overall emissions picture.


    The Jevons Paradox

    There is another confounding factor when estimating the future use of EVs: The Jevons Paradox, also known as the “rebound effect.”

    In his 1865 book, English economist William Jevons noted that providing a raw material more efficiently results in higher consumption. In modern times, researchers discovered that the effect occurs with lighting. When LEDs first penetrated the market, the expectation was that less energy would be used for lighting, since LEDs use about one-fifth as much power for the same lighting. It never happened.

    Instead of saving energy, lighting became brighter and was left on for longer each day. The net effect was more lighting, while the proportion of global GDP used by lighting remained constant, according to a survey article by researchers at Germany’s University of Freiburg, published January 2018 on the ResearchGate website.

    It may even continue to grow, say the researchers: “In addition to the global number of many poorly lit areas…new application possibilities for LEDs could also drive demand [higher.]”

    Could this happen with EVs? Once they sell for the same price as comparable gas-powered vehicles, so that the initial financial hit for going electric disappears, it’s not much of a stretch to predict that average British Columbians will drive a lot more than the current 13,100 km per year. Fuel costs down by 80 percent, repair and maintenance costs cut in half, minimal GHG emissions, and fun to drive: Our roads may be jammed with EVs—meaning more road wear and tear, more accidents, less physical exercise, and all the other disadvantages of driving instead of walking or cycling.

    Russ Francis won the 2021 Webster Award for excellence in environment reporting, announced November 3. He is thrilled that the BC government announced October 6 that it will review the countless billions given to the fossil industry through the so-called royalty credit scheme. But first, BC will consult the industry and any other “interested” British Columbians, says oil and gas minister Bruce Ralston. After that he will tell us more about the review—in February 2022. After all, it just wouldn’t be right to make those wealthy fossil companies go without taxpayer handouts cold turkey..

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    On October 25, the BC government announced that 90 percent of all passenger vehicles sold by 2030 must be EVs—and 100 percent by 2035. Ten thousand public charging stations are promised by 2030, along with subsidies for charging stations at residences and workplaces.

    Another aspect of the transportation plan, one that addresses, in part, the Jevons Paradox mentioned in Russ Francis’s analysis, is the Roadmap 2030 goal of a 25 percent reduction in kilometres driven by personal vehicles compared to 2020—with 30 percent of trips taking place by walking, cycling or on public transit by 2030. Grants to local governments towards infrastructure and exempting electric bicycles from provincial sales tax are among the measures aimed at accomplishing the reduction.

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    I find it unusual that an award winning environment writer hasn't looked into the topic of his essay enough.   I am in favour of Electric Vehicles from farm tractors to scooters, but saying that BCs hydro power is clean is just not paying attention.   BC Hydro has covered more than 800,000 acres of valley bottom land in this Province with their reservoirs.  Flooded forest and farmland and range, all some of the best carbon sequestration ecologies we have. 

    In doing so our crown corporation has slashed and burned and chipped and left to lie on the floor of the 'lakes' millions of tonnes of organic matter that degrades anaerobically creating methane that is continuously released into the atmosphere.  Some estimates are that hydro is as bad as natural gas generation.  

    Certainly let's adopt cleaner transportation, but let's not fool ourselves by listening to BC Hydros propaganda concerning the 'clean energy project' at Site C.  We have better alternatives.

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    Great article, Russ

    Analysts expect traffic congestion to intensify (and transportation carbon emissions to rise) unless a trip reduction program is introduced. Urban congestion in BC is already at high levels, and vehicle trips are expected to be increasing due to a perfect storm of factors, including these:

    • “Transit hesitancy” post-COVID
    • Cooped-up demand (“revenge travel”)
    • Increased chauffeuring of students (was 14% of peak hour traffic in some urban areas pre-COVID & growing)
    • “Induced demand” (from highway/bridge/tunnel widening)
    • Increased ZEV ownership causes more & longer trips (“rebound effect” from cheaper fuel & feeling “guilt-free”) => increased congestion, road wear (ZEVs are >25% heavier), accident intensity & particulate emissions; while locking in vehicle ownership - instead of encouraging transit and active travel; while also doing nothing for equity and affordability.


    A multi-tactic trip reduction program that is mandatory for all of BC's large employers and trip generators could reduce congestion and overall vehicle km travelled by ~15% within 3 years. The BC Government is instead considering offloading this trip-reduction responsibility to individual municipalities – a sure way to NOT be effective, as demonstrated in all other jurisdictions that have tried that route. Let's all urge the BC Government to do this centrally: detailed plans have been submitted for a proposed program launch in 2022.

    The other no-brainer opportunity is getting ICBC to introduce a pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) vehicle insurance option. Drivers who select this option typically reduce their vehicle-km-traveled by 10 to 15%. Net cost to ICBC is nil; potential savings to everyone on congestion, pollution, safety, health, time, costs, etc are huge.


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    According to Volvo, building an equivalent electric version of an internal combustion car causes 70% more carbon emissions. Replacing the 1.5 billion cars on the globe with electric cars alone will be a carbon disaster, as are the environmental impact of all those batteries which are not recycled. The solution is clearly not to keep doing the same, except electrically powered. Individually owned cars, whether internal combustion or battery electric are destroying our cities and have environmental impacts we can not afford. The article frames the issue as a choice between one or other car, but to have a future we need drastically improved public transportation and infrastructure for bicycles and ultra light low speed vehicles, while largely banning the monstrosities we currently use to get around. 

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    6 hours ago, Sjeng said:

    According to Volvo, building an equivalent electric version of an internal combustion car causes 70% more carbon emissions. Replacing the 1.5 billion cars on the globe with electric cars alone will be a carbon disaster, as are the environmental impact of all those batteries which are not recycled. The solution is clearly not to keep doing the same, except electrically powered. Individually owned cars, whether internal combustion or battery electric are destroying our cities and have environmental impacts we can not afford. The article frames the issue as a choice between one or other car, but to have a future we need drastically improved public transportation and infrastructure for bicycles and ultra light low speed vehicles, while largely banning the monstrosities we currently use to get around. 

    Thank you, Sjeng, for presenting these important considerations. Let's agree to ADD to your list of necessities (improved transit and bike infrastructure) the need to reduce the unnecessary, unwanted and wasteful trips wherever possible. To have that reduction, we need to enlist all the large employers and trip generators (schools, malls, health facilities, etc.), and compel them to examine how they can make changes to reduce unnecessary single-occupancy vehicle trips. For example, improving transit and bike lanes do not help a blue-collar worker who has an inconveniently-scheduled and lengthy commute, therefore these programs are all needed, and will work synergistically.

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