Toronto joins the electric current

City officials in Toronto plan to make their jurisdiction a little greener this year through the deployment of a dozen all-electric light-duty vehicles.

March 2, 2011
by By Jacob Stoller

FLEET MANAGEMENT, Jan-Feb 2011 Print Edition:
City officials in Toronto plan to make their jurisdiction a little greener this year through the deployment of a dozen all-electric light-duty vehicles. The acquisition is part of Toronto’s Green Fleet Plan, a comprehensive strategy to eliminate emissions by Toronto’s 4,700-vehicle fleet through improved usage policies and the introduction of cleaner technology.

Discussions are underway with Nissan, Ford and others to acquire the vehicles, which will be available later this year. While the purchase price is high—approximately double the diesel-powered equivalent—Drew Shintani, business development and improvement analyst for the city, is confident that the investment will pay off in the long run.

The initiative “is about staying ahead of the curve,” says Shintani, as well as showing leadership in the drive to reduce CO2 emissions. With higher energy costs and tougher pollution standards on the horizon, the city is acting now to build the infrastructure and the skills to support this greener technology. “If your focus is on delivering a break-even point, this might not be the best time to do it,” Shintani says. “But in the future, with the rise of oil prices there is going to be a growing in savings.”

Lower maintenance costs will also help generate a return on the city’s investment. “Costs are lower partly because of the excellent warranty coverage on these vehicles,” says Shintani. “Also, vehicles that use regenerative braking don’t have the same type of wear on the brake pads, and there’s not an exhaust system, so there will be savings there as well.”

In the short term, the vehicles will be used for trips between facilities with charging stations. While the stations are not difficult to build—the cars typically charge from a 220-volt outlet similar to those used by a stove or a dryer—many more will be needed. The current lack of charging stations and a travel range limited to 160 to 200 kilometres means vehicles will be confined for now to the inner city.

Toronto's Drew Shintani

The need for charging stations is a long-term issue that will have to be addressed as consumers adopt the technology. The city, argues Shintani, has a logical role to play here. Toronto is part of a group of municipalities, auto manufacturers and electrical utilities developing standards for charging stations.

Another limitation is this generation of vehicles can only meet the city’s light-duty operational needs. Models that can handle a heavier workload are expected in the future.

Cold-weather operation is a key requirement at least one vendor has addressed. “The vehicle sold in Canada will come with a battery warmer, so when the battery is plugged in (to be charged) the warmer will activate to keep the battery at its normal operating temperature,” says Ian Forsyth, director of corporate and product planning with Nissan Canada. “Cold weather, as far as the battery itself is concerned, is not much of an issue.”

The other cold weather issue is that without heat from a conventional gasoline engine, electric vehicles have to be heated electrically. Nissan’s Leaf EV comes with a heated steering wheel and heated seats, front and back. “When the battery is plugged in you can turn on the heater or the air conditioner so you can precondition the car,” Forsyth notes. “Then you’re using power from the grid rather than the battery to get the vehicle ready.”

Although the transition to electric has many people buzzing, electricity is not a resource that should be taken for granted, says Rocky Dwyer, a frequent contributor to journals on environmental practices. “You have to plug it in and it isn’t free,” says Dwyer,  “but more importantly it’s drawing on a resource that is stretched to its limit at the best of times. And where’s the power coming from? Is it coming from an alternate source?”

While acknowledging these concerns, Shintani is confident that electricity is the cleanest source of energy available, noting that the city is working to ensure the move to electric is the most sustainable solution possible. Partnering with Toronto Hydro, the city also plans to utilize “smart charging” technology that determines the ideal time to charge the vehicle so as to minimize stress on the grid.

While the city of Toronto’s vehicle transition plan presents several challenges, the move ensures that the city will be able to meet some of the harsher realities that many predict, such as a dramatic rise in gasoline prices. Rather than dragging their feet, as government is so often accused of doing, city officials are doing their best to stay ahead of the curve by adopting a sustainable solution to the problems of tomorrow.