Editorial: Transportation electrification equation

Transportation electrification initiatives are making significant inroads into the marketplace, but they’re not about to displace internal combustion machinery any time soon. The provincial government outlined some of its efforts on that front during B.C.’s recent Clean Energy Vehicle Day. They included investing taxpayer dollars in doubling the size of the province’s fast-charger network to 64 sites. B.C. also provides incentives of up to $5,000 to buy or lease new battery electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles in the province. That’s good news for people considering investing in electric vehicle (EV) transportation.

But those taxpayer-bankrolled incentives won’t do much to reduce B.C.’s overall transportation greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The movement of freight, not people, is B.C.’s leading source of GHGs. Commercial transportation currently accounts for roughly 24% of the total compared with 13% for personal transportation, and the resources needed to electrify the province’s commercial truck transportation sector are daunting.

For example, researchers from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions estimate that shifting all freight trucks in the province to battery or fuel cell power would, by 2040, require up to 33 terawatt hours of electricity, roughly equivalent to 55% of the province’s current electricity generation. 

A spike in demand for electric vehicles will also drive demand for lithium and cobalt, raw materials that are fundamental to modern energy storage technology. Any constraints in their supply will slow EV penetration into the marketplace. Sales of internal combustion engine vehicles, meanwhile, will also continue to expand in emerging economies in Asia, regardless of how many EV alternatives displace those sales in North America.

Ultimately, energy storage technology, continental infrastructure support and real-world economics, not taxpayer-subsidized incentives, will determine the speed of transportation-sector electrification in this province and elsewhere in North America. In the meantime, fossil fuels will continue to drive global trade, whether by truck, railcar, airplane or ship.