Every time we publish an article on the future of electric vehicles, a horde of Facebook commenters descends with, shall we say, less than charitable views on the subject.
However, the number of people who have actually owned and operated an electric vehicle in the Northwest Territories – using it on a daily basis, throughout the winter – is significantly smaller than the number of people with a view on the topic.
To find out more about the actual, practical implications of running an electric vehicle in the NWT, we interviewed Jeremy Flatt, best known to Yellowknifers as one of the people behind what was the Fat Fox café and catering company.
Flatt acquired a second-hand Kia Soul, a fully electric vehicle, in January 2020. He says it’s the first battery-powered electric vehicle to find full-time use in Yellowknife.
We selected a sample of five Facebook comments on our most recent articles – one examining plans for electric vehicle infrastructure in the NWT, and one reporting where a new series of charging stations is likely to be located – and put them to Flatt.
Here’s a full transcript of that conversation.
Ollie Williams: How is Yellowknife’s first battery EV right now?
Jeremy Flatt: Oh, it’s magical. It’s great. It’s like every day is Earth Day for me. You know, I get in and I just feel like a good person every time I start it up. It’s handling pretty well.
People have a lot of questions about these things, as you may have noticed from the Facebook comments beneath Cabin Radio articles on the subject of electric vehicles.There are plenty of people who, let’s say, are doubters. What I wanted to do with you is essentially create a version of Celebrities Read Mean Tweets that is Electric Vehicle Owner Responds to Mean Facebook Comments.
I’ve chosen five. The first one – and I’ve tried to choose ones that were at least somewhat civil – this one just says, “Good luck at minus-40.”
Good luck at minus-40. Well, OK, all right, since I bought the vehicle – or since we bought the vehicle, in January 2020 – we’ve had a couple of prolonged stints of minus-40. And it’s been fine. So thank you for wishing me luck. It’s been great. Obviously, you know, the range goes down, but Yellowknife’s really small. I don’t know, I don’t really have anywhere to go. So.
What does the range go down to? Give us an idea of what the actual impact is.
So on really, really cold days, your range is about half the full range. My vehicle is five years old and its original range, its factory range, was 160 kilometres. So this is like a second generation vehicle and we’re several generations later now. On a really, really cold day, the actual effective range is about 65 kilometres, something like that. But I mean, I’m using the vehicle to drive around town, so it doesn’t really negatively affect my life in any way.
You are not planning to be driving down to Alberta in it any time soon.
Absolutely. That’s the thing. We were looking at what our driving needs were when we bought the vehicle. At the time, we were running our catering company. We were doing lots and lots of short journeys. Pretty-much everywhere in Yellowknife has powered parking stalls. We had a powere parking stall where we were working, we have a powered parking stall at home, and you’re able to charge it just off a 120-volt circuit. And that’s all we’ve ever done with it. And it’s fine.
Let’s move on to our next Facebook comment, because this ties in: “Can’t imagine a power bill with one.”
It’s not been that bad, actually. It’s not been too bad. I think the important thing to remember is most owners of internal combustion engine vehicles probably plug their vehicles in in the winter anyway. Most of you out there will have a battery blanket or a block heater or both in your vehicle. That will draw probably about a kilowatt, 1,200 watts, maybe. And you might have that plugged in for eight or nine hours overnight, which is about the same as we have for our electric vehicle – we plug it in probably twice a week. Each eight or nine-hour charge in the middle of winter will give us about maybe 40, 50 kilometres of driving range. Your power bill doesn’t change that much.
I would love to be able to analyze my power bills and say, “This has been the real difference,’ but we’ve moved house since we bought the vehicle and I haven’t been keeping a close track on the power bill. I think people’s assumption is that you have to have one of these two-phase, five to 11-kilowatt charging stations installed at your house. That has just not been my experience at all. I think people are overestimating the amount of driving they actually do and it’s quite feasible to charge your vehicle off a 120-volt circuit twice a week, overnight. I don’t think it’s a huge impact, really.
Facebook comment number three. “Electric vehicles are a terrible idea for the North until they can modernize the infrastructure.”
This rankles me a bit. It’s a bit of that kind of northern exceptionalism thing that crops up every so often, where people are like, “That’s a great solution for down south but it’s never gonna work up here.” As far as driving long journeys right now? Yeah, you might be right. The new vehicles that are coming out have a 600-kilometre range in the summer but the reality is you’re still gonna have to recharge when you get somewhere and, even on a level-two charger, that’s probably a four or five-hour time commitment. But I mean, I’m interested to know: did that comment come up in response to an article about improving the infrastructure in the NWT?
From memory… can’t remember which one this was, but I think both articles we’ve done in the past month, essentially, were about improving the infrastructure in the NWT. So I’m going to say yes.
I think in that case, it’s worth considering the spirit of the article and saying, “Well, yes, we do need to improve the infrastructure.” And I think it’s important to realize that electric vehicles are becoming a big thing. Long-haul freight and stuff like that, these companies are looking at electrifying their tractor trailer fleets. At some point, we’re going to have to be ready for this thing. The NWT seems to be last to the party on a lot of important things and it’d be nice to not be completely last to the party on this.
In a somewhat similar spirit, mean Facebook comment four: “Who’s going to fix these things once they hit the streets? Bit of a Catch 22: no engines, no mechanics.”
The great thing about not having an engine is that you don’t really need so much fixing. That’s one of the big pluses of EVs. I think the only major thing I’ve had to do to our vehicle in the last year and a half is replace the 12-volt battery. Weirdly, they have 12-volt batteries in them as well as a giant battery. We just upgraded to an AGM battery that’s more suited to the cold. Generally speaking, they need a lot less maintenance.
I think somebody mentioned, “Who’s going to pay for the cost of having the battery replaced twice a year?” Or that the batteries get really badly damaged in the cold. That was something we were worried about before we bought the vehicle. We hadn’t a lot of evidence to go on of their use in Canada in really cold temperatures, but they’re very popular in places like Sweden and Norway where they have, you know, comparable drops in temperature in the winter. I was a bit worried about what two or three weeks of prolonged minus-40 might do to the battery, but there’s been no discernible impact to the performance of the battery. I think the idea that they just break in the winter is nonsense, really.
Last comment: “These need real-world, on-the-ground, full-year testing before handcuffing people in the North to technology that may not work as in California.”
Well, you’re welcome. You’re very welcome, I’m pleased to have been able to provide that service for you. And I can highly recommend them based on my experience, not least for the real, warm sense of self-righteousness and self-satisfaction that comes with driving them around the place.
Just finally, and without you having to respond to a particular comment, is there anything else you want to add?
There are a lot of smug things I want to say, but I won’t. I think the main things that really strike me about why they’re so well-suited to Yellowknife: they handle really well. They’re heavier. So they sort-of stick to the road really nicely. They’re really fun to drive, they accelerate really fast, which is fun. They warm up straight away. You get in, you press your little button, it makes a little musical chiming sound, and your car gets warm pretty-much right away because it’s using an electric heater instead of waiting for waste heat from the engine.
We effectively have charging stations everywhere in town, we have these powered parking stalls that we can use. I think that’s a really big plus. Up till now, studies about the viability of electric vehicles and the NWT have assumed this surge in peak demand for electricity at particular times and have been based on everybody using fast-charging stations at home, which is a responsible assumption to make – because that’s what has been done elsewhere – but I think people are driving a lot farther in other places, for one thing. My experience of using the vehicle as you would use a normal vehicle – driving to work and back, going to the shops, deliveries, that kind of stuff – there was really no need for a fast-charging station. We were able to get all our charging done off a regular outlet.
And I think in that sense, it bodes really well for the future of these vehicles and Yellowknife because it implies that we don’t necessarily need this massive increase in infrastructure or investment in infrastructure for available power. I think the assumptions are based on increasing peak demands and that is maybe not going to be as much of a concern. But, I mean, I’m not an electrical engineer. There may well be experts out there who have comments to make on that topic. In my own experience, I would say it’s been a very, very manageable thing for us.