Can the Tories’ love of nuclear power overcome their hatred of electric vehicles?

OPINION: A new report shows that, on top of all their environmental benefits, electric cars could be a boon for Ontario’s nuclear power plants
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 24, 2020
After the Progressive Conservatives won the 2018 election, they cancelled a provincial rebate for electric cars. (Doug Ives/CP)

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Shortly after Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives won the 2018 election, one thing became abundantly clear: they really, really don’t like electric vehicles and don’t think the government should do anything to encourage their adoption. Among the early moves by the PC government: cancelling a provincial rebate for electric cars — which predictably led to plummeting sales in Ontario and (maybe less predictably) was done so ham-handedly that it led to one of the government’s early judicial defeats, after electric carmaker Tesla successfully argued in court that the Tories had maliciously singled it out for harm. In May 2019, the government also reversed changes to the province’s building code, which required new homes to have “rough ins” for electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. The measure might have added a few hundred dollars to the cost of new homes; EV buyers may now face much higher bills to retrofit their homes after the fact.

On the other hand, the Tories do love the nuclear-power sector, which provides the majority of Ontario’s electricity. Their affection recently resulted in the signing of an agreement with other provinces to help develop the next generation of small modular nuclear reactors. So what if they have to choose between their skepticism of electric cars and their ardour for nuclear power?

A new consultant report commissioned by Plug’n Drive, a group sponsored by car companies and electrical utilities to encourage the broader adoption of electric vehicles, argues that electric cars (and, specifically, their batteries) could play an important role in shifting Ontario’s electricity mix even further away from fossil fuels, while recouping their costs for owners. The environmental benefits are especially pronounced if those cars are powered by consistent, clean nighttime electricity — in Ontario’s case, that’s most likely to mean nuclear power.

“In order to take advantage of EVs from an environmental perspective, we need to get a focus on what our electricity system is,” say the report’s author, Marc Brouillette, principal consultant at Strategic Policy Economics. Pointing to the projected greater share of natural gas in Ontario’s electricity supply in coming years, he asks, “Is that what Ontarians want? Hopefully, the government is thinking about that.”

In his report, Brouillette suggests that EVs can provide a number of benefits for their owners. First, by a pretty simple form of arbitrage: buying electricity when it’s cheap overnight and selling it back (for example, to malls or office buildings) in the daytime when it’s expensive. He also notes that the current federal government has a rebate program to encourage EV purchases and has also proposed to credit EV owners in its forthcoming clean-fuel standard — in effect, by paying owners for the GHG reductions created when they use cleaner electricity instead of gasoline or diesel.

EV owners could also benefit from the “second life” of their car’s batteries, since they would still be able to store large amounts of electricity even after a decade of use. Being able to resell those batteries at the end of a car’s life for even 20 per cent of the sticker price would bring a substantial benefit to the owner.

But sell to whom? This is where the province’s power system stands to benefit. If a large number of cheap (previously used, but still high-capacity) batteries are available, storing electricity at the kind of scale that’s useful for electrical utilities becomes possible. Brouillette’s analysis suggests that so-called second-life batteries could reduce the cost of either solar or nuclear power in Ontario’s grid — but storing “baseload” power (the kind generated reliably, 24/7) from nuclear plants overnight and using it during the day could be cost-competitive with the natural-gas plants that the province currently uses to keep the air conditioners on in the middle of hot summer days when demand is highest.

That would allow the province to whittle away the remaining greenhouse-gas emissions produced by its already relatively clean electricity system — arguably making the case for even more nuclear power, as EVs, their second-hand batteries, and nuclear work well together.

“If you’re into the world where we need to get rid of our emissions … the one thing that’s absolutely clear is we need two to three times as much electricity generation as we have today, and it needs to be clean,” Brouillette says. Whether that means replacing gasoline cars with EVs or replacing natural-gas appliances with electric varieties, any long-term climate plan is going to need a lot more electrical capacity.

The Plug’n Drive report doesn’t assume any specific actions from the provincial government — all the beneficial policies it cites are federal ones, and the Liberal government in Ottawa is relatively enthusiastic about EVs — but Brouillette notes that the recent announcement from Ford giving consumers the option to end time-of-use billing complicates matters, as that could erode the appeal of charging EVs at the cheapest nighttime rates.

But if the Tories want to help out the nuclear industry, one of the province’s larger industrial employers, they may want to find a new appreciation for electric vehicles.

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