Pam and Martin Oets bought an electric Smart car

Couple charged up about technology

West Kootenay a dead zone for electric car charging stations

Martin and Pam Oets love new technology. The latest iPad, the biggest flat screen TV — whenever something new comes along they want to try it.

So when they heard a limited number of electric Smart cars would be released in Canada, they jumped on the opportunity to get one. They got their name on a list and waited a year for their number to come up, then finally last month they got word that their car was waiting for them at the Kelowna dealership. They just had to figure out how to get it home.

The West Kootenay is essentially a dead zone for electric car charging stations. There’s one at Wing Creek Resort in Kaslo and one in a public parking lot in Rossland, but none along the Crowsnest Highway east of Osoyoos until you hit Fernie. For the Oetses, the only way to get their car home was on a trailer.

“We rented a U-Haul car mover and that’s how we got it here,” Martin explained.

They now have a 220 volt charging system in their garage, which will power up the battery from a zero to 100 per cent charge in five hours. They plug the car in overnight to have it ready for the day’s outings. Usually public charging stations are higher voltage and can have the battery ready for the road in 20 minutes to an hour.

The car can go 140 km on a single charge, but that’s in ideal conditions when there’s no head wind or tricky driving conditions and only one person riding in it.

“In reality, on Kootenay streets, we only expect to go about 100 km between charges,” Martin said.

It’s enough for them to make trips into town and back no problem, but trying to make a round trip to Castlegar would be a gamble — at least for now.

“We’re hopeful that the cities in this area will get chargers and eventually we’ll be able to go anywhere in our car,” Pam said.

Last winter the province announced a plan to link BC into the West Coast Green Highway, which means adding fast charging stations for electric cars every 60 to 80 kilometres along major routes heading towards the US border, where they join into a network continuing all the way to California. Installations are happening throughout Vancouver Island, the lower mainland, Fraser Valley and Okanagan.

There are also government incentives available to electric car buyers. The Oetses received a $5,000 rebate on their car and $500 off the charging system. All told the vehicle cost them around $26,000 after taxes.

They knew they were taking a risk when they bought it, but they wanted to encourage the proliferation of the technology. They’ve visited places like Amsterdam where electric cars and charging stations are everywhere and believe it’s time our country got with the times.

“It’s easy for governments to say they don’t need to invest in electric car charging stations because nobody drives an electric car. Now we have one and we can put some pressure of them,” Pam said.

Nelson Hydro plans to put a charging station in the parking lot next to the police/library building in the coming year. The project was originally slated for 2013 but was pushed back while the local utility focused on work at the Rosemont sub station and the downtown hydro conversion.

The high speed charger, expected to cost between $7,000 and $10,000, will allow two vehicles to power up at the same time. Nelson Hydro general manager Alex Love said there would likely be a fee to use it.

“They would be paying for two things: the use of a parking spot and the energy they use, which isn’t really any different than getting gas from Esso,” Love explained.

He doesn’t expect there to be a huge demand for the charger initially, but over time he expects it could be a revenue generator, similar to a parking meter.

“We’re quite enthused about making efficient use of electricity and helping facilitate people using electric vehicles,” Love said. “We know from talking to car dealers that lots of people are using (hybrid) electric cars in this area.”

Hybrid electric cars, like the Toyota Prius used by the Nelson Police Department, can drive about 25 km in all-electric mode before switching over to gasoline. The police currently charge their car from a regular outlet in the parking bay, but having a fast charge station would allow them to power up throughout the day and spend more time in electric mode.

Love expects that eventually one charging station won’t be enough and the city will want to install them in other public parking lots, like the one down at Lakeside Park.

Nelson Development manager David Wahn is trying to encourage condo developers to put in charging stations in their parking lots.

But so far it’s been a tough sell because of the upfront cost of the high speed charging units. Nelson Commons, for example, agreed to put three individual slower-speed chargers in the underground residential parking lot, for people who own units in the building, but said it couldn’t afford to put any fast charge stations above ground for  public use.

For the Oetses the lack of charging stations means they won’t be able to take their other vehicle — a Ford Escape SUV — off the road and they’ll probably still have to rent a trailer every time they need to get their electric car to Kelowna for maintenance.

But for them, the joy of driving the quiet, high tech vehicle is worth the trouble.

“It makes it fun going into town,” Martin said. “We love the technology and it makes us feel like we’re doing something good for the environment and for the culture around fuel dependency.”