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Hydro dams dot Northern Manitoba but Level 3 charging stations don’t

Driving an electric vehicle is difficult for those in Northern Manitoba because there are no charging stations on the highway between Thompson and Winnipeg.
manitoba hydro keeyask generating station
Northern Manitoba is home to many hydroelectric dams, including the newest one, Keeyask, but not to electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

I live in Thompson, Manitoba, the Hub of the North, 750 km north of Winnipeg. I’d love to buy an electric vehicle (EV) tomorrow, but can’t drive it to southern Manitoba. The north is hindered by a lack of EV charging infrastructure. Why?

Consider that Thompson is surrounded by hydro dams that provide huge amounts of electricity to Manitobans and northern American states. Thompson has had a large nickel mine for 60 years that can feed the world’s need to produce car batteries. Mining companies are ramping up their exploration and production to supply a predicted tenfold demand for nickel. All good news for Thompson and Manitoba.

Thompson’s mining company, Vale, is spending over $20 million this year on drilling exploration to determine the size of huge nickel deposits. Also, Vale just announced a $150 million expansion to boost nickel production. More good news.

Thompson has been a centre for winter weather testing for nearly 40 years for cars, snowmobiles, jet engines, etc. There will be a tremendous need for such testing for EVs and battery development.

These are all assets to grow the EV industry in our province. Yet, Manitoba lingers behind the rest of Canada. Why?

The province and Manitoba Hydro offer no incentives to purchase an EV or install charging stations in a home, workplace, condo or apartment. There are restrictions on who can sell electricity which reduces the incentive to invest in charging stations. Level 2 charging stations are relatively inexpensive and work in a home, workplace or hotel if you have three to four hours to charge your vehicle. However, when travelling on a trip you want to use a Level 3 charger that only takes 15 to 30 minutes to charge. Enough time for a snack or restroom stop. Level 3 stations cost approximately $80,000 to $100,000 and require a lot of charging business to get a return on investment. No small business or small municipalities can afford such an investment.

The solution is simple. Provincial utilities should install or fund these public chargers as a loss leader! In one year, for only a few million dollars, the provincial government could cover the complete province with rapid chargers that will encourage Manitobans to buy electric. That’s less than what the province has spent on bike trails for sustainable transportation in Manitoba. Then, 50 per cent funding is available from the federal government zero emission vehicle (ZEV) programs. That’s what other provinces have been using. Thereafter, Manitoba Hydro would be selling electricity for EV drivers that mostly charge at night at home. At 8 cents per kilowatt hour, the revenue generated would result in a payback for this investment. Beats selling our surplus hydro at night to the USA for 1.5 cents per kwh. More money would stop being sent away from Manitoba to fossil fuel suppliers elsewhere. Of course, that process might take 10 years, but Manitoba should start that now.

Over the past few months, the Thompson Chamber of Commerce released a Green Energy Capital brief that outlines what Manitoba needs to do. The chamber and North Central Development have been working with northern communities along Highway 6 and Highway 10 to explore the options of Level 3 charging stations. National Resources Canada offered 50 per cent funding through a ZEVIP grant in 2021. Sadly, most small towns could not afford their share of the capital cost.

A critical stop along Manitoba northern highway routes is Ponton, a fuel, restaurant and restroom service along Highway 6 and 39 owned by Pimicikamak Cree Nation (Cross Lake). A visitor could not drive to the north from Winnipeg without an EV charge at Ponton. Nor could you drive from Western Canada to Thompson without a stop at Ponton. Or vice versa. PCN has been trying to install a Level 3 charging station after their facility burned down two years ago and planning for a rebuild is underway. Unfortunately, the cost to provide a three-phase power line from Manitoba Hydro is $1.2 million! How can any business justify such a overwhelming investment? EV rapid chargers in the north should be considered an essential infrastructure if the private sector won’t or can’t afford to provide.

If Manitoba truly wants to take advantage of all its EV assets mentioned in the Green Energy Capital brief, and allow northerners to enjoy the benefits of ZEV transportation and be on par with people who live in the south, the province needs to change and improve its policies, programs and incentives. The longer Manitoba waits, the more that business for hydro sales, nickel supply, and EV development will go elsewhere.

Recently Tesla signed an agreement to buy $1 billion of nickel a year from Australia! The Thompson chamber invited Elon Musk to visit Manitoba 18 months ago to see our EV assets. Why are they now talking to Australia instead? Consider that General Motors has announced they will only produce EVs by 2035 and are trying to catch up to Tesla. The federal government will only allow ZEVs after 2035. Would all that massive EV growth justify a new mine or refinery somewhere? How about a new battery gigafactory that Canada needs, because Canada does not have one? Why is Alberta negotiating with the feds for a new battery plant? Do they have the nickel and low hydro rates like Manitoba has?

Over the past six weeks, Electric Autonomy Canada has hosted weekly one-hour webinars on EV growth in Canada. Discussions with expert panelists have been on adequate critical mineral supply, EV battery development and recycling, EV manufacturing in Canada, etc. Between 400 and 500 people attend virtually every week. The opportunities for investment and business are huge. The concern is that China is taking the world lead in battery production, supply and clean energy technology and to supply the military. Canada should stop sending our critical minerals to China and Japan and then buying back finished battery products for computers, smartphones, tablets and EVs.

Many webinar comments and examples are always what Quebec, Ontario and B.C. are doing. In five hours of discussion, not once has Manitoba even been mentioned! If you go to electricautonomy.ca and look under the menu heading for “Provinces,” there is nothing specific listed under “Manitoba.” Yet, the province says: “Our vision is to make Manitoba Canada's cleanest, greenest, and most climate resilient province.” Our province has the assets the industry needs.

As many of you have heard, the Thompson chamber has been planning with others to host the most unique event in the EV world – the first North American EV Rally in August 2022. It will be 4,000 km long from Texas to Churchill or “From Palms to Polar Bears!” Unfortunately, the longest EV gap, 750 km, along the route is between Winnipeg and Thompson, and we can’t host it. Our fear is that Europe or China will do that first. Isn’t that a shame in a province that brags about our 98 per cent clean, green, sustainable hydro electricity?

This is the second part of a two-part series. The first part was in the Sept. 8 Thompson Citizen and also at thompsoncitizen.net.