Toronto Hydro project studies EV potential

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Bill Tharp is a bit of a pioneer.

He was among the first to drive a diesel-powered Smart Fortwo when they arrived in North America four years ago.

Now, he's the first person on the continent to regularly use the battery-powered "ED" version of the tiny two-seater.

Tharp is the first participant in a pilot project organized by Toronto Hydro to see how drivers would use electric vehicles and the impact they'll have on the electricity distribution system.

He's all smiles when he talks about his experience using the white-and-green Smart he took delivery of on a four-year lease last November.

The car lost 10 to 15 per cent of its 130-kilometre range on cold days. But it has run well, warms quickly, and it took Tharp, CEO of a company that invests in clean technologies, just a couple of trips to his Oshawa office to eliminate anxiety about running out of power before he reached a destination.

"It's really, really fun to drive," he says.

Besides, it gets him a prime parking spot, equipped with a charging station, at the Sheraton Centre Hotel on Queen St., a short walk from his office.

Fourteen others will soon join him in the Hydro pilot project, as the utility completes its selection from among 600 people who applied for the chance to pay $545 per month to test the cars.

"Toronto will be a key centre in Canada for electric vehicle deployment," says Tom Odell, manager of Hydro's electric vehicle project.

Battery-powered vehicles are rarer than four-leaf clovers on GTA roads, in large part because carmakers won't offer them for sale here until the fall.

And there are no more than a dozen charging stations, including two at the Sheraton Centre.

But Hydro and the city are trying to ensure that if the new technology takes off, the transition from gasoline to electricity for fuel will go smoothly.

Toronto is like hundreds of other cities around the world trying to anticipate the demand for electric vehicles and what those vehicles will require. How many charging stations must be installed? What other supports might be needed? Should any laws be rewritten? Will the electricity system be overloaded when the cars are plugged in for recharging?

In effect, the stage is being set for a change that hasn't begun and the scale of which no one can predict.

Electric vehicles could benefit Toronto by removing tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants that cause respiratory ailments and climate change.

A study by Ecometrica, a UK firm that specializes in greenhouse-gas accounting, calculated that, in Ontario, typical battery-powered vehicles are responsible for far fewer emissions than those that run on gasoline or diesel fuel, although some emissions would come from the generating stations that produce the electricity for the vehicles.

But Hydro's pilot project and another headed by a city agency called the Toronto Atmospheric Fund are addressing other concerns.

"We want to learn what consumer behaviour will be like," says Odell. "It's all about infrastructure preparedness: having a handle on the impact on the grid."

While Ontario's generating stations can, overall, supply enough electricity for plug-in vehicles, problems could arise at the local, distribution level, Odell says.

Hydro has done theoretical studies, he says. "Now, we're trying to get real-world data." The Smart ED is to go on sale next year, and there should be many electric cars, from many companies, on the road before the pilot project ends.

Odell says the 15 vehicles and drivers will provide detailed and consistent information.

Hydro is talking with operators of malls, big-box stores, high-rise residential buildings, parking lots and car-sharing groups on their potential demands for electricity and charging stations.

"Everyone is anxious to participate," Odell says. "We expect the load will ramp up a lot faster than people expect. We want to be ready."

A city agency called the Toronto Atmospheric Fund is heading a program that focuses on how fleets will use electric vehicles. Mercedes-Benz, which makes the Smart, as well as Nissan, Ford, General Motors and Mitsubishi, have all promised to supply vehicles.

To date, the roster amounts to just two Smarts added to Hydro's stable and a Transit Connect, with electric components supplied by Toronto-based Azure Dynamics Corporation to a Ford van. The provincial transportation ministry is preparing to put them into service.

Monitors will collect data on such things as how long and when the vehicles are used or plugged in, how they're driven, what distances they get per charge, and costs.

That data will "help the fleet operators understand the business case" for electric vehicles, says Ben Marans, who runs the program.


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