What’s up with Quebec’s public charging stations for electric vehicles?

My wife and I recently bought a 2017 Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid vehicle. It suits our needs very well, as most of our trips are within its 40km all-electric range, but when we take longer trips, for example to Ottawa, we don’t experience range anxiety because the switch to hybrid mode, using the gas engine, occurs seamlessly when the battery gets to empty. And with a rated fuel economy of 4.3 L/100km for combined city/highway driving in hybrid mode, it remains inexpensive to run even beyond the 40 km all-electric range. So our new car contributes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as well as pollution. Since buying the car, our actual fuel economy is 2.3 L/100km!

On a recent trip from Westmount to Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, however, we received an unpleasant surprise. Pulling up at a public charging station, we found that we were unable to use it because it requires a card that has to be sent to the user by regular mail. What ever happened to using your credit card, like at gas pumps, or even to pay for parking in Montreal?

There was a second shock when I looked at the cost of using the public charging station. Circuit électrique, the company which operates these stations, charges $1 per hour at some stations (charged by the minute), or a flat fee of $2.50 per charging session, at other stations. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it turns out to be a massive subsidy for some users, while for others it costs more than running their vehicles on gasoline! It all depends on what electric vehicle (EV) or plugin hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) you have.

Our Prius Prime PHEV requires 2 hours and 10 minutes to get a full charge at one of these public stations. Its charging rate is limited to 3.3 kW at 240 volts. A full charge takes 5.72 kWh of electricity, for which Hydro Québec charges $0.1026 per kWh, or $0.65 total. Circuit électrique’s profit: $1.85 per charge at the $2.50 flat fee, or $1.52 at the $1 hourly rate (see the spreadsheet below).

Suppose, instead, I were a wealthy person and had bought a Tesla model S with a 100 kWh battery. For this model, a full charge at a public charging station would take about 5 hours at a charging rate of 19.2 kW, and take about 65 kWh of electricity. Thus, the Tesla owner gets $7.41 worth of electricity for $2.50 at a flat fee station, or for $5 at an hourly rate station. Net loss for each Tesla charge to Circuit électrique: $4.91 or $2.41 respectively.

I’m pretty sure that Circuit électrique’s business model is not based on giving money to Tesla owners, so all that money must be coming from somewhere. I suspect it’s either from the large profits the company gets from PHEV owners like me, or from Hydro-Quebec subsidies, or from having its losses covered by Quebec taxpayers. Either way, it’s a net transfer of money from the less wealthy to the more wealthy. And why not? Tesla owners are more deserving than the rest of us, no?

Of course, not all EVs in Quebec are Teslas, and not all PHEVs are Prius Primes. The numbers will be different for other models. But in general, PHEVs with their limited charging rates will pay extra, while high charge rate EVs like the Tesla will make money each time they charge. EVs with lower charging rates, such as the Chevrolet Bolt, will earn $1.95 for their owners for each charge at stations costing $2.50 per charging session, but will be overcharged a whopping $5.05 per charge at stations with a $1 per hour fee. But wait! That’s not all! Even if your charge is finished, the hourly fee continues until you get back to your vehicle to physically unplug it!

Even worse than these glaring inequalities is the way in which the price system sabotages the Quebec government’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging (through subsidies) the purchase of EVs and PHEVs. In the case of my Prius Prime, when gasoline costs $1.20 per litre, I would save $1.09 by burning gas for each 40 km trip instead of recharging at a $2.50 per session charging station. In fact, burning gas would continue to be cheaper than recharging whenever the gas price per litre is less than $1.45! Again, these numbers will be different for different PHEVs, and EVs, of course, don’t even give you this option.

I find it hard to believe that our government would deliberately set up a system which takes money from less well off people to give to the rich, and at the same time discourages me from using clean electricity instead of gasoline! Probably just a case of bad planning. But then again, one never knows…

In any case, it would be simple to have charging stations which simply charge for the electricity consumed (plus a per-use surcharge to pay for the infrastructure), send you an email or a text message when charging is complete, and after a short grace period, start to charge a “parking” fee if your car remains plugged in (because this prevents other users from charging their vehicles).

Charging station costs.numbers

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