zunum electric airplane

Take an electric airplane to work? These experts want to revolutionize transport in B.C.

A quick switch to electric transportation is well within the province’s grasp, experts say

Princess Diana and Prince Charles drove a gas-guzzling Range Rover for their honeymoon, with a motif mascot of a dog with a pheasant in its mouth. Last month, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry motored to their wedding reception in a silver blue Jaguar E-Type Concept Zero convertible.

And while the $613,000 price tag for an electric version of the 1968 classic is beyond reach for most mortals, the sight of the newlyweds grinning in their zero emissions vehicle sent a signal to the world that going electric is not just necessary but also fashionable in a royal sort of way.

In B.C., where the transportation sector accounts for almost 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, a rapid switch to electric cars, trucks, tugboats, and ferries is well within our grasp, according to Jae Mather, executive director of the Clean Energy Association of B.C.

“People are starting to realize that electric transport is here to stay,” Mather told a recent electrification summit in Vancouver organized by Clean Energy B.C.

“Things are going crazy in this sector.”

Electrification could revolutionize commuting

How crazy? Well, a company called ePlane — billing itself as “Canada’s first electric airline” — handed out flyers to summit participants announcing that the Abbotsford airport has come onboard as the first official airport launch partner for ePlane test flights beginning in 2020.

ePlane, a subsidiary of Electric Air, aims to offer unlimited flight passes in Western Canada in 2025 and predicts that electric planes will dominate regional and domestic aviation in 2030.

“Just as electrification took to the streets by way of hybrid and full electric vehicles, electric aviation is now set to revolutionize the way we think of air travel,” the company states.  

Not only does ePlane intend to reduce B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions, it also sees electric aviation as a way to resolve the housing affordability crisis in B.C. urban centres.

The company boasts its future fleet of aircraft will “allow British Colombians to live in smaller towns, and commute to larger cities for employment on our electric planes, and then fly back to their families in the evening.”

While B.C. awaits deployment of electric planes — as Boeing, JetBlue and NASA also plan to fly hybrid electric jets — there are plenty of clean transportation options available right now that the province must embrace, according to Mather and others in the clean energy field.

China is far ahead of us in electrifying transportation, with electric and hybrid buses making up 17 per cent of its fleet, the majority of them running only on electricity. In 2017, 99 percent of the 385,000 electric buses on the road worldwide were in China.

David Richardson, a director of Green Power Motor Company, an electric bus manufacturer based in Vancouver, reminded summit participants that Norway has set a 2025 deadline for banning the sale of gas and diesel powered cars and vans. Many other countries and at least eight U.S. states have also set official targets for electric car sales.

Canada behind on adoption of electric vehicles

Richardson flashed up a chart showing that the adoption of electric vehicles in the U.S. is disproportionately small compared to European Union countries.

“Sadly, Canada does not even register on the chart,” Richardson said. “We have some work to do. Notwithstanding these very disappointing numbers for North America I am completely convinced that our future is green.”

One key factor driving the electrical revolution in the transportation sector is the dramatic drop in battery prices, Richardson said.  

“Historically the price of batteries was a serious impediment to the introduction of EV sales. EV buses are now dropping below the price of new diesel buses.”

The additional 70 per cent fall in battery pack costs expected by 2030, coupled with lower operating and maintenance costs for electric vehicles, makes the electric bus story “compelling,”Richardson said.

“This will drive rapid deployment of tens of thousands of EV buses of all sizes and configurations,” he predicted.

Two Green Power double decker electric buses in Victoria are already ferrying passengers from the cruise ship terminal at Ogden Point to Butchart Gardens, and Green Power is selling its electric transit buses, electric school buses and electric shuttle buses throughout North America.

One wild card in reducing B.C.’s GHG emissions from transportation is the advent of online shopping, according to Curran Crawford, a University of Victoria mechanical engineer who specializes in sustainable energy systems.

Commercial transportation currently accounts for 25 per cent of B.C.’s total GHG emissions, and Crawford said it could be challenging to ratchet down that number as people eschew traditional shopping in favour of internet purchases.

“Traditionally you would’ve gotten into your personal vehicle and driven to the mall,” Crawford told The Narwhal.

“Whereas now you might sit at home and click on Amazon and order something, and then you might order something else, and then each of those packages gets delivered to you.”

The end result, Crawford said, is more delivery vehicles and more road congestion. “Do you believe the Amazon drone is going to be running around and delivering packages?” he asked. “Or will it be a sprinter van?”

In theory, if package delivery could be grouped effectively and delivered by electric cargo vans, it would reduce both traffic and greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

“The danger is that you end up with heavy duty vehicles running around in non-efficient travel patterns.”

Up to 80 per cent of Vancouver emissions from shipping

And then there is the shipping sector. Alan Grant, vice-president of business development for Corvus Energy, pointed out that hefty GHG emissions from shipping are not counted by any particular country.

“So they run the cheapest, dirtiest fuel they can and they come into port. And you get what you get because you want the cargo they’re carrying.”

Up to 80 per cent of airshed emissions in Vancouver are from shipping, Grant told summit participants. “So you can do a great job of getting your emissions down and then a ship pulls into port and blows it all away.”

Many ports are starting to examine this issue, Grant said, and Rotterdam, London and Singapore have all committed to zero emissions for ships entering their ports.

The solution is known as BOB, or “batteries on board.”

Ships, including cruise ships, can enter harbours on batteries and use those for energy until they are connected to shore power. Tugboats can use battery power to reach ships in distress, and they can switch back to traditional power for rescue operations.

Grant said ship owners didn’t know anything about batteries just four or five years ago.

“Now every ship owner who’s building a new ship is saying ‘tell me why I can’t use batteries because I think this is the way forward. I think this is going to save me money on maintenance.’ It’s a complete change.”

BC Ferries has commissioned two small hybrid ferries, currently under construction in Romania, while Norway has pledged to make ferry travel in its fjords emissions free.

The world’s first fully electric battery powered passenger and vehicle ferry operates between Lavik and Oppedal in Norway, carrying 360 people. It takes less than 10 minutes to recharge the ship’s batteries at either end of the run, for less money than it costs to buy a cup of coffee, said Grant.

“The biggest controversy they had were waffle irons. The truckers coming on the ship wanted waffles in the morning.”

Ferry operators, concerned about sufficient energy supply, had cut back the number of waffle irons for the conversion to electric power. But once the issue made headlines in the capital city of Oslo, the full contingent of on board waffle irons was reinstated.

The electric ferry saves one million litres of diesel and reduces CO2 emissions by 3,000 tonnes a year, Grant said.

He added hybrid ships save 35 to 50 per cent on maintenance costs and 20 to 25 per cent on fuel costs.

“What we’re seeing is a really good return on investment.”

New rules needed to support widespread electrification

Mather said a first step towards electrifying B.C.’s transportation sector is to change the rules to allow anyone to offer EV charging services.

Currently, only registered utilities — BC Hydro, Fortis and a few municipalities like Nelson that run their own grids — can sell electricity.

Mather said companies like Shell should be able to install EV charging stations at all of their gas stations, using, for example, solar panels to generate the electricity.

“When we transition to electric vehicles there’s going to be a corresponding reduction in the amount of fuel sold, so it doesn’t seem right to prejudice those companies who have the infrastructure for selling fuel to not be able to sell power.”

B.C. should set binding targets for getting electric vehicles into the marketplace, Mather said, and lock down a strong climate action plan when the government’s new roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is unveiled this fall.

B.C needs a hybrid electricity system, like other jurisdictions, where the government runs the grid and individual producers compete in the marketplace to supply clean energy, Mather said.

“BC Hydro is a crown corporation. It’s our asset. We need to use it for what it’s great at, and we need to use the private sector for what they’re great at. And the private sector’s great at speed, agility, and accessing resources to make things happen quickly.”

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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