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Battery-electric vehicles and Northern Ontario winters

Experts are confident in the future of electric cars but say Northern Ontario needs more charging stations  

With the arrival of winter in Northern Ontario, people are again getting used to warming up their cars every morning. It can take a few minutes and over a week, it could burn plenty of gasoline.

Not so if you drive an electric vehicle. 

That's one of the perks of them, said Devin Arthur of Sudbury, who has been driving an electric vehicle (EV) for more than five years.

"There's so many benefits to having your EV even in the winter … you don't have to wait for your car to warm up now because it's using electric heat,” he said. “As soon as you turn that car on, it's hot. And while the car is still plugged in, you're not expending any battery energy, you're using the power from your house."

Arthur is definitely pro-electric. He is the voice behind the Electric Vehicle Society of Sudbury, an online group of individuals passionate about the idea of electric cars and eventually doing away with gasoline and diesel vehicles.

In the past year, more Ontarians and certainly more Sudburians are hearing about the push toward electric vehicles and how the province is gearing up with the new Critical Minerals Strategy to promote more mining for battery essential minerals such as cobalt, lithium, copper and nickel. 

At the same time, there has been talk that electric vehicles are not yet robust enough to stand up to winter in Northern Ontario. So what does the consumer take away from this?

Mike Mayhew of Sudbury is another believer in electric vehicles. Aside from being regarded as one of Canada's experts for electric mining vehicles through his consulting firm Mayhew Performance, he is also a consumer and a Tesla owner who is passionate about electric cars. 

Mayhew said electric cars can and do run just fine in winter, but drivers need to change their mindset a bit and realize they're no longer sitting in a fuel-combustion vehicle anymore. 

"The EV is a different vehicle," said Mayhew. "And what you have to understand or realize is that any components that you use inside the vehicle, for example, your wipers, your heater, your bum warmer, your radio is actually absorbing energy and degrading your battery as you drive because obviously, the power is going to come from somewhere."

Mayhew said it's not all that different from a combustion vehicle where you have to keep an eye on the gas gauge, especially if somebody drives fast and pushes their vehicle beyond a normal speed limit. Mayhew said it's just that depleting the battery is not as physically evident as an empty gas tank.

He added that if he is driving to Toronto, and using a lot of energy in the Tesla, he knows he can pull into a charging station in Parry Sound or Barrie, and get a full charge in less than 30 minutes at a cost of about $7.

Mayhew said it is not that far off from the 10 or so minutes for a regular gasoline stop. He said the EV charging stop is a bit more relaxed. He said once the car is plugged in, he has time for a nature call, time to grab a coffee and sandwich, check his phone for messages "and then I can move on."

Arthur remarked that while the reliability concerns of many Northerners in winter was valid a few years back, he said a lot of people are hearing outdated information.

"And you see some older information, like the EV doesn't work in the wintertime or doesn't work in our terrain, like Northern Ontario. But the truth is, you know, it does work." 

Arthur said there are hundreds of EV owners who drive their vehicles year-round and have no issues, adding that cold weather can affect charging times and the full amount of a charge in extreme cold.

He said the automotive industry is working to improve battery chemistry and that includes beating cold-weather issues. He added that if an EV driver is stuck in a remote area for several hours, the EV is actually more efficient and will keep your car warm for a longer period than if you had to rely on a gasoline engine. 

One key issue that Arthur and Mayhew both commented on was the availability of charging stations for their vehicles. They both charge their vehicles at home. In fact, Mayhew has his own off-grid five-kilowatt solar panel for charging up his car.

It's a different story when you leave home to travel out of town. Mayhew, who often visits remote mine sites, said he has not taken the Tesla north of Sudbury. He said he cannot always be sure of finding a place to charge the vehicle.

"And that's one of the things I can tell you from experience that there's not enough chargers for the amount of vehicles that are out there in the market. So that's a big challenge," Mayhew said.

Arthur agreed. He said the EV Sudbury group is advocating for improvements. 

"One of the things that we're working on constantly is infrastructure expansion, especially in Northern Ontario," Arthur said.

He added that the Ontario government recently announced a $91 million fund to expand charging infrastructure across the province. 

"And we were asked to submit a proposal for that. So in our proposal, we did exactly that, we highlighted specific roads, and then that was one of my prime examples from Sudbury to Timmins. You know, it's a large gap and especially in the wintertime when it's cold, and maybe the highways aren't, you know, plowed yet and there's a lot of resistance with tires etc. You know, that's a location where there needs to be a station at the midpoint for people to feel comfortable driving that distance, or at least even just to take a break if the weather's bad", Arthur said.

He added that while the province has not yet responded to the proposal from EV Sudbury, he is hopeful. 

We haven't heard back yet, but we're waiting to see. We're encouraged by the fact that they specifically called out for rural and under-serviced locations. So we're hoping that they will at least consider some of these spots in the north.

Len Gillis covers mining and health care for

Len Gillis

About the Author: Len Gillis

Graduating from the Journalism program at Canadore College in the 1970s, Gillis has spent most of his career reporting on news events across Northern Ontario with several radio, television and newspaper companies. He also spent time as a hardrock miner.
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