The increasing affordability of zero-emission vehicles

Paul Minstrell became intrigued with electric cars when they first arrived on the market. According to Nissan, the first mass-market electric vehicle called “Leaf” came to the market in 2010. 

As zero-emission vehicle production scales up, technology costs will also come down.

Kathrine Proulx

The Humber web and graphic design professor said he switched to an electric car to save on fuel costs. He noticed there was also less maintenance involved on it than a gas-powered car. He only had to replace the brakes once in the last eight years since buying it in 2015. And since then, he’s only clocked up 150,000 kilometers. 

“We came across the BMW i3, which only had about 120-kilometre range, and for me to get back and forth to work, it was enough. So, I figured, maybe I’ll look at that, and there was a good deal year-end,” Minstrell said. “The most we’ve paid for is the tires. Other than that, there’s really been no costs,” he said.

In response to the high cost of zero-emission vehicles (ZEV), the Government of Canada is taking action to make them affordable for everyone. Transport Canada defines ZEVs as vehicles that can run without producing tailpipe emissions such as plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

This also includes battery-electric vehicles which run completely on electricity. According to the Canadian Automobiles Association electric vehicles (EV) can cost as much as $189,000. But Transport Canada said the government is using tax incentives, tax write-offs for businesses and other initiatives to increase the number of new EVs and ZEVs on the road. They also plan to use economies of scale to lower the price eventually. One way they plan to lower the cost is to grow the used electric vehicle market since approximately 60 per cent of Canadians purchase their vehicles as used, according to Transport Canada.

The problem is the charging right now, that needs to be addressed.

Dr. Claudio Canizares

“As zero-emission vehicle production scales up, technology costs will also come down,” Transport Canada said in an email statement. “This too should enable more affordable zero-emission vehicles to enter the Canadian market in the years ahead.”

Dr. Claudio Canizares, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo, owns an electric vehicle. He said the prices of new zero-emission vehicles are similar to the prices of new gas-powered vehicles because of incentives. This is especially true in provinces like British Columbia and Quebec.

According to Chevrolet Canada, the 2023 Chevrolet Bolt EV starts at $41,542. This is well below the national average price of a new vehicle at $58,637, according to the Autotrader December 2022 price index without any provincial or federal incentives. 

Canizares said the battery is what makes electric vehicles generally more expensive than gas-powered ones.

A solar panel installation company called Solar Square points to lithium batteries driving up the cost due to low supply of lithium on the planet. Other metals inside them such as nickel, manganese, and cobalt are also scarce.

According to an email statement from Natural Resources Canada, cost reductions of batteries will soon enable them to be widely used. Since 2008 the price of lithium-ion batteries have declined by nearly 90 per cent, the statement said. 

Canada is one of the only places in the western hemisphere that have the minerals advanced batteries need like nickel, graphite, cobalt, copper, lithium, and manganese, the statement said.

A study co-authored by Gang Zhao and published in ScienceDirect said lithium-ion batteries have been the primary batteries used in the last twenty years. For conventional, long-used lithium-ion batteries, prices may lower in coming years. BloombergNEF said prices fell in 2021 because of the increasing use of lower-cost lithium iron phosphate (LFP), and because cobalt, which is more expensive and used in nickel-base cathodes, was being used less. The new cells are around 30 per cent cheaper than the old ones.

BloombergNEF conducted the 2021 Battery Price Survey. This survey projected that by 2024, the average price of battery packs for electric vehicles will be below $100 per kilowatt-hour. They said that below this threshold, automakers in certain markets may be able to manufacture and sell EVs at the same price as traditional gas and diesel-powered vehicles. This varies by company and location.

ScienceDirect’s study cited Li-ion (Lithium-ion ASSB) as having very high energy density and as being very safe.

“As a cheaper and more abundant substitution, the lithium, the sodium-based (Na-based) ASSB (especially the sodium sulfur battery) is expected to be a ‘future battery’ due to its high theoretical specific energy and material earth-abundancy,” the study said.

Automakers have begun to invest in such batteries. Volkswagen put $100 million (USD) towards California battery manufacturer QuantumScape for an “ASSB start-up.” Ford, BMW, and Hyundai have co-invested in another battery manufacturer, Solid Power. This would also raise the mileage of EVs, make the battery system simpler because of its “single-piece large plate structure,” and make them safer because they would generate less heat, ScienceDirect’s study said. Nissan will build a factory to produce such batteries by 2028, according to an April 8, 2022 press release from Nissan. The Japanese car manufacturer hopes to build an EV with all-solid-state batteries developed in-house by 2028. Nissan’s vision called Nissan Ambition 2030, plans to start a pilot production line in Yokohoma, Japan in 2024 that will involve “materials, design and manufacturing processes for prototype.”

“Nissan believes all-solid-state batteries can be reduced to $75 per kWh in fiscal 2028 and to $65 per kWh thereafter, placing EVs at the same cost level as gasoline-powered vehicles,” the statement said.

Canada and Ontario have had over $17 billion in investments from automakers and battery suppliers of batteries and their associated materials. 

The University of Toronto published an article on their professor Gisele Azimi, who is leading a team working on developing a new way to recycle EV batteries. Kevin Zhang, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the university who is also involved in the project said mining the materials needed for batteries from raw ore, such as lithium, takes a lot of energy. 

Plus, the article said the many batteries that end up in landfills can contaminate groundwater.

Conventional methods for lithium battery recycling are bad for the environment as well, with one producing greenhouse gasses and another producing wastewater that must be processed.

They extract the metals from the battery using common and recyclable carbon dioxide, instead of the dangerous acids and bases used in the other methods. 

This method is also just as efficient in extracting the needed materials as the conventional ones, while also generating less secondary waste.

This is good for the battery market as well, since it would help make production costs cheaper.

According to Gridserve, the average range of an EV in 2023 is about 352 kilometres. But the average range of a gas-powered car in 2021 was almost double that, according to Visual Capitalist, at 664 kilometres.

However, according to the International Energy Agency, the average range of an EV more than doubled between 2010 and 2021. This will continue to improve with better battery technology, as ScienceDirect stated.

Humber College received $100,000 from the federal government’s Zero-Emission Infrastructure Program (ZEVIP) for new charging and hydrogen fuelling stations on campus. ZEVIP is currently funding over 200 projects across Canada to meet the zero-emissions deadline. 

Tessa Soltendieck, Humber’s manager of the Office of Sustainability, understands the challenge in electric vehicle affordability. 

“We don’t have any control over the supply or pricing of electric vehicles and I know and can acknowledge that both of those things are a challenge. Electric vehicles are very expensive. And more than that, due to supply chain issues, they are largely unavailable right now,” Soltendieck said.

The chargers will be installed at the Humber Cultural Hub and built at the Lakeshore Campus. The building will have 10 dual EV chargers, which means they will have two ports each and be capable of charging a total of 20 electric cars at once. This grant is listed amongst various Electric-Vehicle Related Investments from Natural Resources Canada. Currently, Humber has 4 EV charging stations at the Lakeshore Campus and 10 at the North Campus. Chargers offer the first four hours free, purposely designed to encourage the driver to leave and allow someone else to charge their vehicle, Soltendieck said.

As of 2022, Transport Canada has invested over $900 million across the country for EV charging stations.

Transport Canada said that since EVs can be much cheaper to operate and maintain, this offsets the higher purchase price. According to the insurance company The Personal, a plug-in hybrid may cost $700 per year. Whereas the costs of refueling a gas-powered car over the same time frame may cost between $1,000 and $2,500. EVs are cheaper to maintain because of fewer moving parts and lack of oil changes. 

According to electric services company Blink Charging, lower long-term costs is one of the most important reasons consumers buy EVs.

Transport Canada has set a goal for most vehicles to be emission-free by 2035.
Although Canizares supports this deadline, he said the lack of charging stations is an issue that should be fixed.

“I think it’s not unrealistic, there are technologies that are comparable. I have an electric car and it has a similar range to a gas vehicle. The problem is the charging right now, that needs to be addressed. There’s not enough charging stations,” he said. 

Toronto Zoning bylaw for EV chargers states all residential parking spaces at dwelling units at apartment buildings and mixed use buildings must include an electric vehicle outlet.

Minstrell now drives a hybrid with a 30-kilometre electric range, and can drive 1,000 kilometres per tank of gasoline at a filling cost of, on average of $50. Minstrell said for “stop-and-go” traffic, such as a traffic jam on the 401 or city street, it can switch to electric mode because that is where “you waste gas.” 

“[On] highway speeds, it sips gas, it lasts a long time doing highway speeds,” he said. Minstrell said if he could buy a fully electric vehicle at a good price, that could go somewhere around 400 kilometres without recharging, he would buy it.

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