Most Ontarians today drive gas or diesel powered vehicles. However, this could soon change as the use of electric vehicles grows.
Our reliance on gas and diesel vehicles has contributed to the transportation sector being one of the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions in the province. For this reason, Ontario’s Five Year Climate Change Action Plan (2016-2020) identified the increased uptake of electric and hydrogen vehicles as an element in the province’s overall plan to address climate change. In order to encourage and accommodate increased sales of electric vehicles, Ontario is also working towards increasing the availability of charging infrastructure across the province.
In the past five years, electric vehicle sales in Canada have increased by 68%. In 2017, 7,477 electric vehicles were sold in Ontario, which accounted for less than 1% of total vehicle sales. By 2020, Ontario hopes to have 5% of vehicles sold within the province be either electric or hydrogen vehicles.
As the vast majority of electric grid infrastructure was designed and built in the pre-electric vehicle era, the electric grid risks being strained as more electric vehicles begin plugging in to charge. However, innovative technologies exist that could assist in preserving a reliable grid as more drivers begin purchasing electric vehicles. Smart charging and energy storage systems are just some of the viable approaches that could assist in maintaining a reliable and efficient grid.
Smart charging refers to technologies which allow for the controlled charging of an electric vehicle by allowing utilities and the electric vehicle to communicate. The owner of the electric vehicle sets the time by when their vehicle must be fully charged. The utility company then notifies the vehicle when it may charge, based upon demand, the owner’s preferences and grid capacity.
The benefit of smart charging is that it has the ability to reduce the risk of brown-outs in situations where too many electric vehicles are plugged in at the same time to charge on a constrained local distribution line. Without smart charging, these electric vehicles could begin drawing electricity from the grid simultaneously. Smart charging introduces flexibility for the driver and the grid. It allows utilities to direct each electric vehicle when to charge based upon grid capacity and ensures each electric vehicle is fully charged by the time determined by the driver. Critics point out the resulting ceding of a certain amount of control by the vehicle owner, but unless we completely restructure the grid, smart charging appears to be an inevitable part our future. Legislation enabling or enforcing the ability of utilities to mandate smart charging should be expected in the coming years.
Vehicle to Grid (V2G) Technology
Certain electric vehicles can be used as energy storage units, which is known as Vehicle to Grid (V2G) technology. These electric vehicles store energy within their batteries which is then fed back into the grid at times of peak demand, introducing flexibility to a grid that was not designed or constructed to support mass electric vehicle charging.
V2G technology can also be used to enable self-supporting energy systems. As an example, a homeowner can purchase solar panels to power their home. The homeowner could then use their electric vehicle to store energy from the solar panels during off peak times. In order to maintain a consistent supply of energy, the homeowner could then draw energy from the electric vehicle when the solar panels were not producing energy or during peak demand hours. Permitting said systems will require changes to utility regulations in many cases, as well as to the Building Code, and may require greater legislative changes.
The introduction of energy storage systems in Ontario’s energy market offers an opportunity to ensure the grid can continue to respond to the province’s growing energy needs. There are a variety of energy storage systems that have recently been introduced to the Ontario energy market. These include batteries, flywheels, compressed air energy storage and thermal energy. Energy storage systems perform a grid balancing function. Surplus energy is stored and then fed back into the grid at periods of peak demand.
Energy storage systems, usually in the form of batteries, can be installed at the site of electric vehicle charging stations. To reduce demand on the grid, the charging station draws power from the battery when charging the electric vehicle. The battery then charges from the grid during off-peak times. While the legislative changes necessary for the future development of battery energy storage systems are minimal, electric utilities do need to consider changes to permit and facilitate the addition of storage to their grids.
As the use of electric vehicles increases, the demand on Ontario’s power grid will correspondingly rise. Innovative approaches to the generation, use and storage of electricity offer an exciting opportunity to ensure the continued reliability of our grid as more electric vehicles plug in to charge.
 Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, “Ontario’s Climate Change Update 2014”, accessed April 2, 2018, online: https://www.ontario.ca/page/ontarios-climate-change-update-2014
 Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, “Ontario’s Five year Climate Change Action Plan, 2016-2020”, accessed April 2, 2018, online: https://www.ontario.ca/page/climate-change-action-plan
 Supra, note 3.
 FleetCarma, “Electric Vehicle Sales in Canada”, accessed April 2, 2018, online: https://www.fleetcarma.com/electric-vehicle-sales-canada-2017/
 Supra, note 2.