A Tesla charging station sits unused in a garage at KP Woodwright Ltd, the Hay River small business owned by Patricia and Ken Wray.
The Wrays’ main charger, mounted in their home, is enough to fill the Tesla Model 3 they use for short trips around town. They posted their backup charger to PlugShare, a crowdsourced application that allows users to upload and search for electric vehicle (EV) charging stations around the world.
“We just figured you’ve got to do whatever you can to help this happen,” said Patricia Wray. “The charging is so difficult, at least up here. So, if we can make a station, we’ll make a station.”
The only problem is there’s no one around to use it. The Wrays are still waiting for someone – anyone – to siphon their free electricity.
When it comes to EVs, governments around the world are facing a choice between building infrastructure to attract drivers or waiting for drivers to come before building to meet their needs.
So far, the NWT is choosing a third path: neither invest in change nor keep pace with it.
There are currently six EV charging stations scattered across the NWT, according to PlugShare. The northern reaches of the PlugShare map are barren, above a dense cluster of pins that marks the recent influx of new stations across southern Canada and the United States.
One pin marks the parking lot outside Yellowknife City Hall, where the YK Car Share Co-op parks its small, red Chevrolet Spark EV. Another is at the Arctic Energy Alliance head office, a couple of blocks away on 51 Street in downtown Yellowknife.
Three pins mark campground wall chargers at the Fort Providence, Lady Evelyn Falls, and Queen Elizabeth territorial parks.
Outside the handful of charging stations ringing Great Slave Lake, the KP Woodwright garage is the only place with a plug.
“We had to step in,” said Patricia. “And given our age, I’m sure people are going, ‘Holy cow!’”
Patricia sees a divide between a younger generation that embraces EVs and an older generation that’s hesitant to leave combustion engines behind. She said she expects people to be surprised when they learn the couple, both in their seventies, owns multiple charging stations.
NWT charging at a trickle
There are three “levels” of EV chargers.
Level one, the slowest, replenishes no more than a few kilometres of range for each hour it’s hooked up.
When most people buy an EV, they opt for a level two charger. These chargers take somewhere between two and four hours to fill a battery – usually between 200 and 400 kilometres of range – depending on the battery’s size and the amount of charge it started with.
Level one and two chargers, also known as slow chargers, release energy in a trickle. Level three chargers release it in a flood. They’re commonly called fast chargers or “superchargers.” Without them, it’s almost impossible to make long trips between cities in an EV.
“It’s a challenge today to find the charging infrastructure to be able to travel at a relatively normal pace if you’re driving a battery-only electric,” said Mark Heyck, executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, an organization that promotes renewable energy in the Northwest Territories.
Many experts view fast chargers as the lynchpin for widespread electrification.
A spokesperson for the GNWT Department of Infrastructure said in an email the installation of a “small number” of fast charging stations along NWT highways is “critical” to meet EV demand. The spokesperson said the territory is developing a plan for where best to place the stations.
There is currently not a single fast charging station in the NWT.
The Yukon, by contrast, has four, and plans to bump that number to 10 by the end of the year.
Corridor from BC to Yukon
“I think we’re trying to keep pace with EV adoption at this point,” said Shane Andre, executive director of the Yukon government’s energy branch.
“We’re a little bit ahead of the market, but we recognize that could change really quickly.”
Andre expects to see “exponential” growth in EV sales in the Yukon.
The Yukon needs to cut its transportation emissions by 30 to 45 percent in the next 10 years to meet its climate targets. But the adoption of EVs is as much a response to demand as a gesture of climate action.
British Columbia leads Canada in EV market share, and many of those drivers want to head north. They’re asking for infrastructure, and the Yukon is delivering it.
“Building a radius out from our most populated areas – that’s our plan moving forward,” said Andre.
EV owners in Alberta and Manitoba don’t have a similar fast-charging corridor that leads north to the NWT.
The nearest charger south of the territory is at a Best Western in High Level, Alberta, about 300 kilometres outside Hay River. It’s a slow charger, and it’s only there because the Wrays’ son-in-law, James Locke, pressured the hotel to install it. Locke wanted somewhere to charge his Tesla on his drive north to visit the Wrays.
“He had to make numerous trips up here from down south, and he’d just been scrounging for places to plug in,” said Patricia.
“He always stayed at the Best Western because he couldn’t make it all the way here on a charge. He talked to them so much they eventually put in a plug.”
Despite the Wrays’ best efforts, the NWT lags the Yukon and much of the rest of the world in EV uptake. But the Yukon, and everywhere else for that matter, trails an unlikely leader – Norway – by a wide margin.
In northern Norway, the government stepped in
Norway leads the world in the transition from gas to battery-powered vehicles.
As of April 2021, EVs made up slightly more than half of new car sales in the country.
By comparison, EVs accounted for just 3.7 percent of new vehicles registered in Canada in the third quarter of last year, the latest data available.
“Government support is really the key,” said Lars Godbolt, an advisor to the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association.
The Norwegian government, said Godbolt, places heavy purchase taxes on cars. He said taxes can add an extra 30 to 35 percent on top of the original price.
Norway waived the purchase tax for EVs. But the perks didn’t end there.
EV drivers are exempt from toll roads and at one time benefited from free public charging and free parking on streets in major cities. Now, they pay a small fee but still benefit from a substantial rebate.
In short, the government made it cheaper – or at least competitive – to own an EV in Norway compared to a combustion car.
“Living in a city, you could save thousands of dollars a year just by owning an EV, because you had all these privileges,” said Godbolt.
But even in Norway, the world’s EV leader, market share isn’t spread evenly. In the south, where people are more densely packed and incentives like free parking are more impactful, EVs account for most new car sales.
In Oslo, the country’s capital and largest city, EVs make up 62 percent of sales.
In its northernmost province of Troms og Finnmark, buyers choose EVs about half as often.
The comparison between the NWT and Northern Norway isn’t exactly fair to Canada. Despite being the least densely populated part of Norway, Troms og Finnmark is still nearly 80 times denser than the NWT. The NWT has fewer people and fewer roads – and would need fewer chargers to connect them. Still, Norway’s network of charging stations shows it’s possible for other cold, sparse places to do the same.
Godbolt said the gulf in sales between north and south is because the north only recently built enough fast-charging stations for people to traverse the long, empty highways between cities.
“Up in Finnmark, because of the big distances, people rely more on cars. You really need that car to perform,” he said.
Godbolt said Norwegian researchers found the region’s cold weather was another obstacle. Cold temperatures can slow charging times and cut the battery’s range by up to half.
A Canadian study led by Jose Delos Reyes at Red River College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, found extreme cold could drop an EV to as low as a third of its total range in optimal weather.
Cold-weather performance doesn’t deter drivers like Patricia Wray, who only uses her car for short trips around town.
“I love my car in the winter,” she said. “Yes, we have reduced range. But this is the first two years we’ve never had to call a taxi because our car froze up when it gets to 40 below.”
Other drivers, though, need their car for longer hauls. And a shorter winter range means more demand for charging stations.
Godbolt said the challenges unique to Norway’s northern counties required a different government response.
“The stations in Finnmark were much more financed by the government,” he said. “Up to 100 percent of the investment cost.”
More than just government funding
As the Wrays demonstrate, EV uptake is the result of more than just government funding.
Godbolt said Norway’s EV boom didn’t begin until after Tesla released its first “big, heavy, fast, luxurious” sedan, the Model S.
The Norwegian government taxes cars differently depending on their weight, speed, and price. The heavier, faster, and more luxurious the car, the more it’s taxed. It would cost a Norwegian buyer double or triple the money to purchase the Model S if it came with a combustion engine instead of a battery.
In the NWT, the Arctic Energy Alliance administers a territorial rebate of $5,000 for residents looking to purchase an EV – if they live in a region serviced by hydroelectric power. That rebate joins another $5,000 available from the federal government, and another $500 territorial kickback on the price of a home charger.
Heyck, who reviews rebate applications as part of his position with the Arctic Energy Alliance, said most applications in the territory are for hybrid-electric vehicles, but he’s seeing a broader range of all-electric models coming to market.
“Auto manufacturers are going whole hog now to start producing electric vehicles in all sorts of different models,” he said.
Ford Motor Company recently announced it will release the F-150 Lightning Pro in 2022, its first battery-powered pickup truck. Ford said the truck will have more than 400 horsepower, nearly 800 lb-feet of torque, and a range of 370 kilometres. A Ford spokesperson said the base model will not be released in Canada, making the cheapest version available to Canadian buyers ring in at just short of $60,000.
Heyck said the announcement is too recent for anyone in the NWT to have applied for a rebate, but he is processing an application for a Cybertruck, Tesla’s pre-production pickup.
Heyck said the Arctic Energy Alliance has issued five rebates since the program launched in June 2020. Another 10 are going through the process.
For the Wrays, all the new EVs on the road could mean they’ll have their first EV driver turning up at KP Woodwright in need of a charge.
“We think after the border is open, we will,” said Wray. “I know we will.”