What We Heard: The 2024 Ottawa Electric Vehicle Symposium

The practicalities of electrifying Ottawa’s transportation networks came through loud and clear at the 2024 Ottawa Electric Vehicle Symposium, hosted by EnviroCentre on February 28. 

With the region’s electric vehicle adoption steady, and an ambitious local sales target on the horizon for 2030, the symposium was a timely opportunity for a diverse group of local stakeholders, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and community members to share ideas and best practices. Panelists and participants discussed grid access and resilience, charging infrastructure, vehicle availability, emergency preparedness, local collaboration—and underlying it all, how to finance and scale a transition that is a cornerstone of the City’s push to net-zero emissions. 

After a series of short introductory speakers or panels, participants spent most of their time gathered in groups to talk about specific subjects in depth. We hope the key highlights and insights in this report will be a catalyst for discussion and action to accelerate Ottawa’s adoption of an electrified transportation system.  

Ottawa’s Plan for an Electrified Future 

Julie Lupinacci, Chief Customer Officer at Hydro Ottawa, opened the day with a synopsis of Hydro Ottawa’s current and future plans for an electrified future. Electric vehicle adoption in the region is steady, and Hydro Ottawa is adjusting its infrastructure investments accordingly. The utility understands the need to balance consumer requirements and proactive spending for future needs. 

What We Heard – Filling Up Grid Capacity 

The first set of table discussions sparked interesting ideas and concerns about how EVs will affect residents of Ottawa, whether or not they drive an EV. Major concerns included electricity rates, worry about blackouts, and how to plan ahead to prepare for more EVs on the road.  

  • Does Ottawa have the grid capacity to support EV adoption? 
  • Can we reliably source the equipment required to expand the grid? 
  • How do we change etiquette around charging stations? Some drivers overstay their time or unplug other peoples’ vehicles. 

Participants came up with ideas that highlighted how collaboration across stakeholder groups can create better solutions for all. 

  • Hydro Ottawa should allow university campuses to become net energy exporters to surrounding communities. 
  • A rate hike after an EV is fully charged could create an incentive for timely disconnection. 
  • Hydro Ottawa’s plan is to grow capacity gradually as EV adoption increases. If 90% of the cars sold in Ottawa in 2030 are EVs, it won’t mean that 90% of the cars on the road that year will be electric. 

Charging Infrastructure 

Organizations are working hard to ensure that charging infrastructure is available where and when it’s needed, said panelists Louise Lévesque, Senior Policy Director at Electric Mobility Canada, Shana Sachwani, Electrical Engineer at Envari Energy Solutions, and Ted Ferguson, Vice President, Partnerships & Market Development, at Charger Ready Properties. The panel was moderated by Mitchell House, Project Manager, Climate Change & Resiliency at the City of Ottawa. 

Panelists said there are still large gaps in the availability of charging infrastructure along major transportation corridors and chargers themselves are not as reliable as they need to be. Equity, accessibility, and reliability remain key challenges for the expansion of EV infrastructure, though solutions are quickly emerging. 

What We Heard – Availability, Accessibility, Reliability 

Table discussions focused on access to charging in urban, suburban, and rural areas, and how users can influence the way future charging stations are designed. 

  • Different settings need different approaches to charging infrastructure. For example, private companies get better return on investment in urban areas, but it’s important for utilities to step up in lower-income areas and many rural areas. 
  • Success stories like Simon Fraser University and Université de Montréal show that campuses can be great places for paid charging infrastructure, and for adding bike share and/or e-bikes as last-mile transportation. e.g. Park at a charger as needed then bike to your destination.  
  • Charging stations should be installed with usability in mind: available in well-lit areas, offering the ability to drive through, and located close to transit to encourage other sustainable modes of transportation while the car is charging. 
  • Density of charging stations is also important. If one unit is broken or in use, there should be another one available nearby. 
  • Mobile apps that accurately report charging station locations and status are essential to support trip planning and build confidence in charging infrastructure. 
  • Reducing the need for charger brand specific apps would be well received. 

The Road to 2035 

Brian Kingston, President and Chief Executive Officer at the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, described how the industry is progressing toward the federal government’s 2035 EV sales mandate, and how sales volumes can affect the size and availability of models. He noted that Chinese manufacturers are subsidized and therefore are able to provide lower cost/smaller models to their consumers. Incentives, infrastructure, supply chains, and education are still barriers for EV manufacturing.  

What We Heard – Barriers to Buying 

Participants identified cost as a major barrier to buying an EV – cost of the vehicle, cost of personal charging infrastructure, and more.  

  • Even though there is a good return on investment (lower maintenance costs, electricity vs gas prices), the up-front cost of an EV is still a barrier for many potential buyers.  
  • There was a perception that manufacturers are increasing sticker prices to absorb government rebates. 
  • There’s concern that sales are trending towards larger vehicles. 
  • A lack of cooperation between federal and provincial governments was identified as a bottleneck for incentives and infrastructure expansion. 
  • Fixed charges from utility companies for new electric services could be a barrier for high-rise and multi-unit residential buildings to install new chargers at scale. 
  • There’s also some concern that increased electrification could drive up utility rates, leading to questions about how municipalities will influence those costs. 

The Local Lens: Policies, Resources and Highlights 

Public charging stations are being installed in Ottawa, four fully electric buses have been purchased with many more to come, and Hydro Ottawa is adapting its services to support local EV adoption, panelists said. It was also noted that residents have their own impact on vehicle electrification policies, which means we all have a role to play in how our transportation system develops. Steve Winkelman, Executive Director of the Ottawa Climate Action Fund, moderated the panel, which included Mitchell House, Project Manager, Climate Change & Resiliency at the City of Ottawa, Shane Labrash, Supervisor, Energy Conservation, Business Development at Hydro Ottawa, and Matt Nguyen, Senior Project Manager, Zero Emission Bus Program at OC Transpo

What We Heard – Emergency Preparedness 

Emergency preparedness was at the forefront of people’s minds going into the table discussions, leading to questions and lively discussion about how the City of Ottawa, Hydro Ottawa and OC Transpo are preparing to deal with increasingly hostile weather events. Participants suggested a series of solutions including: 

  • Battery storage, especially in rural areas. 
  • Relief centres around the city. 
  • EVs as local power backup for essential needs. 
  • Burying electrical cables when possible. 

Participants also asked about the timeline for purchasing electric buses and the impact on transit service. Participants were hesitant to bring on more electric buses if that impact was expected to be negative. 

Your Role in the Big Picture 

The last panel of the day focused on how the community can contribute to EV adoption in all its forms for a sustainable and resilient Ottawa. Moderated by Sharon Coward, Executive Director of EnviroCentre, the panel included Jay Wilson, Director of Net Zero and Electrification at Electricity Canada, Jennifer Stelzer, Director of Community Sustainability Programs at EnviroCentre, and Raymond Leury, President of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa.  

Panelists agreed on the need for a broad view of transportation that includes but extends beyond personal EV purchases. They encouraged participants to engage with any and all levels of government to call for better charging infrastructure and faster EV adoption. The panel also pointed to the need for reliable, up-to-date information on electric vehicles and a commitment from all partners to work on that together.  

What We Heard – Reliable Information and Collaboration 

Table discussions agreed that reliable information and collaboration are essential building blocks for local EV adoption.  

  • There is a lot of confusion about where to find reliable information. Some go-to sources participants mentioned included Electric Autonomy Canada, Plug N’ Drive, and Electrek
  • Potential EV buyers and other Ottawa residents need condensed fact sheets on EVs and one-stop websites where they can get the answers they need in plain language.  
  • Partnership and collaboration among various stakeholders will be essential to build trust and allow honest opinions to be shared. 

Let’s Keep the Conversation Going 

EnviroCentre appreciates the time everyone took out of their day to share their knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and concerns. The transition to an electrified transportation system in Ottawa cannot happen without community collaboration. We must learn from each other to ensure we create a system that works for our city. The months and years ahead will bring many changes to the roadways and bike paths of Ottawa. Let’s make sure we build a city where everyone has affordable, sustainable, and accessible options to move throughout their community.  

Reach out to the people you’ve met, reach out to decision-makers, and reach out to politicians. Your voice matters more than you know!