A thin grass shoulder separates Highway 3 from a row of scrubby trees. Only a couple of shallow, marshy pools at the roadside hint to passing drivers that Birch Lake sits behind the tree line.
It looks like any other stretch of highway in the NWT, but a territorial government report picked this spot, about halfway between Behchokǫ̀ and Fort Providence, as one of its preferred locations for a future electric vehicle fast-charging station.
The spot is more than 100 kilometres from the nearest power grid but the territory hopes to put a fast charger there, adding a stop along a corridor of charging stations that would make Yellowknife accessible to EV drivers in the south.
“We’re pretty positive about this technology. We know it’s advancing. We know the ranges are increasing. We know more options are coming out,” said Robert Sexton, director of energy for the NWT government.
“Transportation is one of our largest greenhouse gas emissions sectors, and this is just one of the steps we’re taking to address that sector.”
Projects that will bring 22 publicly accessible fast chargers to the Northwest Territories have been approved for federal funding, a spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada told Cabin Radio in an email. The charging stations will be a mix of level two and level three chargers. Level two chargers take a few hours to fill a battery, while level three fast chargers can do it in as little as 30 minutes.
Places like Birch Lake will need level three fast chargers to get drivers recharged and back on the road quickly.
Natural Resources Canada approved the projects through its Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program and the Electric Vehicle and Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Deployment Initiative.
The feds haven’t announced the winning applicants and a spokesperson didn’t say whether they came from government or the private sector.
The NWT’s Department of Infrastructure said in an email it applied for funding through the zero-emission vehicle program but hasn’t yet heard whether its application was approved.
Whoever gets the funding, the approved projects will increase the number of level two and three charging stations in the territory more than tenfold. That’s still well behind the Yukon, though, which will add 206 new chargers through the same programs.
The NWT doesn’t know the outcome of its funding application, but it does know where it wants to put fast chargers if and when it gets them.
A territorial government report published last year lists nine locations that lead south from Yellowknife and branch into southeast and southwest corridors on the way to the Alberta border.
The territory’s preferred locations are Behchokǫ̀, Birch Lake, Fort Providence Airport, Kakisa River, Enterprise, 60th Parallel Territorial Park, the intersection of Highways 5 & 6, Wood Buffalo National Park, and Fort Smith.
Grid access a challenge
Along with 60th Parallel Territorial Park, Birch Lake is one of two locations in the report that are more than 100 kilometres from the nearest access to the power grid.
Rather than extend power lines, the report proposes an off-grid, solar-powered charging station from California-based company Beam Global as a solution.
The territorial government is unsure of the technology and doesn’t expect to install chargers at Birch Lake and 60th Parallel Park until 2030, much later than the 2021-2022 deadline it set for other, more readily accessible locations.
“The item in the report that talks about one of the solutions in California involving solar and batteries – that’s the type of solution we’d wait for the technology to mature first before we even look at it,” said Sexton, who oversees the territory’s phased approach to EV infrastructure.
“Our intention here is to proceed with the phase one approach where we do the locations that are technically viable and look for solutions for the future.”
But Beam Global’s chief executive, Desmond Wheatley, says that off-grid solar technology is ready today.
He remains optimistic the technology would work in Canada’s north, even as he acknowledged the NWT’s long, dark winters would limit its capacity for much of the year.
“You’re going to move to all-electric vehicles. There is simply no question about that any more,” Wheatley told Cabin Radio.
“When you’re confronted with a scenario where there’s no other option, don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it.”
Wheatley said Beam Global was not contacted by the authors of the GNWT report, despite having been featured.
A sip and a gulp
Major governments in Europe have announced bans on internal combustion engines. Norway’s ban has the earliest start date, currently set to begin in 2025. The United Kingdom is set to follow five years later.
Canada has yet to announce a national ban, but British Columbia and Quebec have already imposed their own.
Wheatley anticipates a future where people will recharge their cars like they recharge their phones – wherever and for however long they can. He said drivers will hook their cars up to “sip” energy when they’re parked throughout the day.
But highway driving requires old-fashioned gulping, and that power demand can cause problems for EV infrastructure, even where there’s easy access to the grid.
“The underlying electrical infrastructure will determine to a considerable degree what kind of EV charging infrastructure can go in there,” said Mark Heyck, executive director of the Arctic Energy Alliance, an organization that promotes renewable energy in the NWT.
“My hope is that as different infrastructure decisions are being made, there’s thought to what we might need in place for the transportation corridors of tomorrow.”
Heyck said the GNWT’s planned expansion of the Taltson hydroelectric system is a promising development for proposed fast chargers in Enterprise and Fort Providence.
But large infrastructure projects like the Taltson expansion are notoriously difficult to see through from planning to completion. There’s also disagreement about the effectiveness of the expansion. An Alternatives North study criticized the expansion of Taltson for being, in its view, more expensive and less effective than quicker options like renewable diesel and wood-pellet boilers.
The Arctic Energy Alliance has administered a $5,000 electric vehicle territorial rebate since June of last year. The rebate is not available to communities that get their power from diesel generators, because filling a battery with diesel power outsources, but doesn’t eliminate, emissions.
Sexton said the territory plans to tailor its fast charger rollout to balance the demands of drivers with the realities of the power grid.
“There might be some transformer upgrades that would be required, but we’ll look for the best locations that will be most advantageous for the cost of the product,” he said.
Sexton said the territory is “proceeding” toward installation dates outlined in the report, but did not say whether it would hit the earliest targets of 2021-2022 for charging stations in Behchokǫ̀, Fort Providence, and Enterprise.