Quebec’s Electric Vehicle Shift Offers Lessons for Maine

Maine’s aggressive climate change goals could draw some valuable lessons from their Canadian neighbors. Taxes on fossil fuels and adjusted energy rates have helped Quebec move the needle toward EVs.

Quebec, Canada, as seen from across the St. Lawrence River
Shutterstock/nicepix
(TNS) — In 2012, the provincially owned power utility in Quebec installed its first electric-vehicle charging network — 35 stations in two cities. Today, Hydro-Quebec has roughly 3,000 public charging stations, including 500 direct-current fast chargers that can top up a battery in a half hour or so.

That network, called the Electric Circuit, helped Quebec get within 8,000 vehicles of its goal of putting 100,000 electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road by 2020. Money was also helpful. Quebec uses tools that include a small tax on fossil fuels, chiefly gasoline at the pump, and a fee on electric rates to subsidize charging infrastructure and vehicle rebates. Together, they add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
"For early adopters, you have to help people," Marie-Claude Francoeur, Quebec Delegate to New England, told the Press Herald in an interview. "They need a little push and a little help." Francoeur was a speaker Wednesday on a webinar presented by Maine's Environmental and Energy Technology Council. She was joined by an executive from Hydro-Quebec as well as a manager working on global charging infrastructure at the Quebec-based parent company of Circle K convenience stores.
 
Their presentations offered a chance for Maine businesses to hear about the lessons being learned by a neighbor that shares Maine's ambitious climate change mitigation goals. One takeaway is that a global transition from internal combustion engines to electric motors is well underway, but governments and businesses can accelerate the shift and even benefit from it.
 
Quebec, a province with 8.5 million residents, accounts for half of Canada's EV and plug-in hybrid car sales, according to Quebec auto dealers. Under its Plan for a Green Economy, the province now is shooting for 1.5 million EVs by 2030. The rate of conversion last year was hurt by the pandemic and a slowdown in car production, presenters said. Auto dealers actually have customers on waiting lists now for EVs.
 
Quebec also passed a law to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles in 2035, an action that mirrors a new policy in California and is meant to speed up the transformation.

REBATES BOOST ADOPTION

Maine's Climate Action Plan sets an ambitious goal of putting 41,000 light-duty EVs on the road by 2025, and 219,000 by 2030. The plan calls for developing a "roadmap" by next year to identify the policies and incentives needed to get to those levels. It's a heavy lift, because there now are only 4,000 or so EVs registered in Maine.
 
Quebec encourages EV sales with rebates of up to $6,412 (U.S.), which can add up to $10,300 when combined with federal incentives. It also offers $474 for homeowners to install 240-volt charging stations, so called Level 2 units.
 
Low electric rates also help. Charging a typical vehicle at a Quebec home costs roughly $240 (U.S.) per year. Hydro-Quebec says its residential electric rates are the lowest in North America, roughly 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. By comparison, home rates are closer to 16 cents in Maine.
 
In Maine, Efficiency Maine Trust has two programs that help offset the cost of vehicles and chargers, chiefly using $5 million from Maine's share of the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement. The trust offers $2,000 rebates on qualified electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. It can be combined with a $7,500 federal tax credit for eligible vehicles.
 
The trick is trying to determine what's the right amount of subsidy to bring about a market shift and how long to maintain that aid, said Michael Stoddard, the trust's executive director. He recently learned that in Norway, where battery-powered cars now make up more than half the market, the government no longer needs to subsidize urban charging stations. Falling battery costs and recent commitments by manufacturers to shift production to battery-powered vehicles also will help bring the price of EVs in line with gas-powered cars in the coming years, he said.
 
"That's a signal to me that there's a future not far away where you don't need subsidies," Stoddard said. "It's all about market transformation."

STATIONS DRAW CUSTOMERS

That market transformation also presents opportunities for businesses, presenters said.
Circle K's parent, Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., does business in Norway. Its stores there have become a leading destination for electric vehicle owners to charge up, according to Mathieu Lefebvre, the company's director of fuel operations and electric mobility.
 
Couche-Tard is preparing to phase in a network of fast chargers in North America, Lefebvre said, focused first on Quebec and California. The company has found that customers will have an "in-store experience" while they wait 20 minutes or so to add range to their batteries. "It's the perfect product offering," he said.
 
Hannaford Supermarkets, the Maine-based grocery chain, also has recognized that installing charging stations in its parking lots attracts drivers who turn into shoppers. The company has been on a steady path of discovery with EV chargers, according to George Parmenter, Hannaford's sustainability retailing manager. It started with a vendor who installed 10 stations split between Maine and New York in 2016. Then came the addition of banks of Tesla superchargers that take up eight parking spaces. Now there's a partnership with Volta Charging, which is installing chargers that are free to customers. Expenses are paid through advertising at the kiosk.
 
"We didn't know if people would use these things when we first installed them," Parmenter said.
Over the long term, electric cars and charging stations can become an integral part of the so-called smart grid, according to Barry Woods, director of electric vehicle innovation at ReVision Energy in South Portland. In the evolving age of renewable power, batteries in cars, buses and trucks also have the capacity to store electricity from solar farms, for instance, and discharge it when it's needed to the grid.
 
"They have a higher purpose than transportation," Woods said. "We look at cars as four wheels and a big battery."
 
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