Hillary Shepherd excitedly ran out of her office in the fall of 2022 to tell her co-workers at the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality the news: their community just had its first proper electric vehicle (EV) charging station installed! “It was mostly blank stares that I got back,” she recalls, laughing.
The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM) was created 15 years ago when the town of Fort Nelson amalgamated with the Northern Rockies Regional District. NRRM is remote and cold. Fort Nelson is closer to the Yukon Border than it is to Fort St. John, the closest municipality to the south, and is colder than anywhere else in BC. It would not be a surprise, therefore, to learn that the region is not a hotbed for electric vehicles. In fact, according to vehicle registration information, there is only one EV in the community.
But it is a tourism destination. Located at Mile 300 of the Alaska Highway, thousands of tourists pass through Fort Nelson every year on their way to Liard Hot Springs, Whitehorse, or Alaska. These are bucket list trips for people around the world.
“Our first introduction to the need for electric vehicle charging came from people all over North America who wanted to drive their EV to the Yukon or Alaska. They needed a place to charge and many of them even sent us information about how to apply for government grants,” recalls Hillary, who is the municipality’s Community and Social Development Coordinator. As a creative first response in June 2022, municipal staff outfitted a light post at the edge of a local park with a plug and made it available to EV drivers.
More significantly, NRRM joined an emerging consortium of regional districts, municipalities, and Indigenous communities that was brought together by the Community Energy Association (CEA) with the aim of increasing access to EV charging throughout Central and Northern BC. Through a partnership called Charge North, they worked together to complete a feasibility study on EV charging, identified preferred locations for charging infrastructure, and ultimately procured and installed nearly 60 charging ports in 30 communities across Central and Northern BC. The partnership leveraged financial contributions from the individual communities to attract additional funding from government and the Northern Development Initiative Trust.
Fort Nelson was first to have a Charge North Level 2 station installed. It is also the northernmost charger in the network. Close to a year in, it has been used about 50 times. “We at least have one! That’s huge for us. It feels great to know that we’ve helped people travelling to our community.”
Fort Nelson was first to have a Charge North Level 2 station installed. “It feels great to know that we’ve helped people travelling to our community,” says Hillary Sheppard.
Mike Bernier, MLA for Peace River South, former mayor of Dawson Creek
Defining BC’s ZEV Divide
The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality is illustrative of an urban-rural divide in the transition to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs). For lots of reasons, electric vehicles are considered a “big city” climate solution. Population density provides the business case for public charging, for example, which in turn leads to higher levels of EV adoption; further building the business case for public charging in urban centres. In addition, BC’s largest cities don’t experience the extremely cold temperatures that are prevalent everywhere else in the province. Residents of these other regions, like consumers across Canada, remain concerned about the impact of cold weather on battery life and vehicle range.
“I would say that EVs just haven’t taken off here yet,” says Mike Bernier, a former mayor of Dawson Creek and current MLA for Peace River – South who has spoken in the Legislature about the need for more rural EV charging. “Part of it is related to concerns about battery life in the cold, but it’s also about charging infrastructure. I’m in the market for a new vehicle right now, and my wife and I have seriously considered electric, but I’ll have to go with an internal combustion engine. I need to travel long distances between communities in the region and the charging infrastructure just isn’t at the level I need.”
Bernier lives in the Peace River Regional District, which has about a dozen charging locations spread around six municipalities and nearly 120,000 square kilometres – and only one of them is a publicly accessible fast charger. For comparison, Downtown Vancouver alone has more than 200 charging locations. While this disparity could be rationalized by demand – that more EVs require more charging stations – it’s worth remembering that nearly 40% of all the electricity provided in British Columbia by BC Hydro comes from its power generation facilities along the Peace River.
Beyond considerations of equity, the concentration of charging infrastructure and EVs in BC’s southwest corner limits the potential for the province to achieve its climate action targets. This is because it is in rural areas where transportation makes up the largest share of community-based greenhouse gas emissions. In Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek, for example, transportation accounts for about two-thirds of community-based (ie non-industrial) carbon emissions – in other words, more than every other source of emissions combined. This isn’t the case in Vancouver, where less than half of local emissions come from transportation. Part of the reason for the difference is the prevalence of public transit in dense urban areas that simply can’t be replicated in rural areas. Even though getting people out of cars is a worthwhile aspiration, as long as personal vehicles are needed to get around in small communities, an EV is a better option than one with an internal combustion engine.
The concentration of charging infrastructure and EVs in BC’s southwest corner limits the potential for the province to achieve its climate action targets.
Closing The Gap
“Fort Nelson” and “Fernie” are next to each other in an alphabetical listing of BC municipalities, but don’t otherwise seem to have much in common.
Danielle Wiess disagrees.
“When it comes to planning and preparing for the transition to zero-emission vehicles, most of BC’s smaller communities have the same challenges and barriers,” says the Director of Transportation for the Community Energy Association. “They typically are separated by distance from other communities, they have few – if any – public transit options, they have limited local government capacity to implement low-emission transportation initiatives, and their residents are dependent on personal vehicles for work, social services, and pretty much everything else.”
The solution? Collaboration.
It was in Fernie, where Danielle lives, that Canada’s first example of multi-community collaboration for EV charging took shape. Back in 2014, a number of local mayors and regional district chairs in the Kootenays, members of the Highway 3 Mayors and Chairs Coalition, determined that EV charging across the region would be critical for attracting EV-driving tourists and supporting local residents in making the transition to ZEVs. Accelerate Kootenays was born and saw CEA bring together regional districts, municipalities, funding organizations, energy utilities, and other levels of government. The collaboration was unique and led to a region-wide vision and strategy; these in turn were used to attract funding from other levels of government. The first phase brought more than 50 chargers to 40 communities along 1,900km of highways. The second phase, now underway, is aiming to install another 100 chargers throughout the region.
Accelerate Kootenays attracted awards and raised awareness of the possibility that rural communities could charge ahead of senior governments and energy utilities and accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in their own regions. This led to other regions contacting CEA to replicate the community-driven approach to building a rural EV charging network: in southern Alberta, through the middle part of Vancouver Island, and in Northern BC. In all, by June of 2023, CEA had facilitated the installation of more than 200 charging ports in places like Milk River, Kaslo, Masset, and Lake Cowichan – communities that previously had no public EV charging infrastructure. CEA is now supporting the creation of similar regional networks in northwestern Alberta and Ontario.
CEA’s experience is facilitating regional networks highlights that most local governments and Indigenous communities are constrained in their capacity to address the low-carbon transition on their own. “We know our community but there’s a certain level of ‘boots on the ground’ knowledge of EVs and of charging that we didn’t have and still don’t,” says Hillary Shepherd. “I guess that’s where we really came to value being part of the network with CEA.”
The Community Energy Association (CEA) was established as a non-profit organization more than 20 years ago and emerged from a committee created by the Government of BC and the Union of BC Municipalities to provide support and information for local governments on energy-related topics. Over the past two decades, energy issues have intertwined with climate action such that local governments now have targets for reducing local greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring their communities are resilient to climate change. Most communities struggle to achieve these targets.
Early analysis of the sources of community-based greenhouse gas emissions identified the dominance of transportation as a source of GHG emissions. And not only from communities as a whole: for many local governments specifically, the fleets they operate (garbage trucks, snow plows, police cars, etc) emit more carbon emissions than the rest of their operations combined. Clearly, if local governments and their communities are going to reach their targets and meaningfully curb their emissions, transportation has to be a big part of the effort.
By June of 2023, CEA had facilitated the installation of more than 200 charging ports in places like Milk River, Kaslo, Masset, and Lake Cowichan—communities that previously had no public EV charging infrastructure.
Danielle Wiess (far left) with colleagues from Ontario local governments at the EV and Charging Expo 2023.
Is it working?
“Sometimes people think of the transition to electric vehicles as a chicken-and-egg issue and wonder what comes first: more EVs or more charging infrastructure,” says Danielle. “Our experience at CEA is that it’s very clear that charging infrastructure comes first.”
Take the Kootenays, for example, where Accelerate Kootenays helped to stimulate installation of electric vehicle charging throughout the region. In the East Kootenay Regional District, there is now one charging port per 250 square kilometres. This is much more dispersed than Metro Vancouver: with nearly 1,000 chargers, there’s a place to charge every 3km. But compare both ratios to Mike Bernier’s home region: The Peace River Regional District has 34 ports in a region nearly as large as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia combined. This works out to one port per 3500 square kilometres.
Not surprisingly, EV adoption rates follow a similar pattern. Metro Vancouver leads all of BC with zero-emission vehicles (mostly EVs) now making up about one in five new light-duty vehicle purchases. This is in stark contrast to Northern BC, where EVs make up fewer than 3% of all new vehicle purchases. The Kootenays lands in-between those regions, but interestingly, the year after Accelerate Kootenays brought new charging infrastructure to the region, EV adoption nearly tripled. No other part of BC has seen anything like that rate of growth in recent years.
“Rural charging infrastructure really serves two main purposes,” adds Danielle. “For locals, even if they do most of their charging at home, a visible and reliable charging network gives them confidence in switching to electric even if they only rarely travel outside of their community. Secondly, even for those who live in big cities like Vancouver, they want to know they can go skiing or visit friends and family who live elsewhere. In this way, adding chargers in rural areas boosts EV adoption everywhere, not just within those rural communities.”
“Leading Canada in the transition to zero emission vehicles”
The Government of BC claims that the province is tops for EV adoption rates in Canada, with EVs now comprising more than 18% of all new vehicle sales in BC . These statistics, however, mask the reality that BC is actually a single jurisdiction where multiple phases of the ZEV transition are occurring simultaneously.
“Sure, EV adoption is highest in large cities but that has been known for years. The real lesson here for me is that rural areas don’t have to accept trailing big cities forever,” says Danielle. “Accelerate Kootenays shows that increasing the number of charging stations, and putting them in strategic locations, leads to EV adoption.”
Accelerate Kootenays also demonstrates how collaboration – between communities and between levels of government – can result in an expanded network of charging stations, using local knowledge to meet the needs of residents and tourists alike.
Rural areas have no time to waste. In only 17 years from now, all new vehicles purchased or leased in BC will have to be zero-emission models. This puts pressure on vehicle manufacturers to ensure greater availability of ZEVs, but also on communities and regions to provide the infrastructure – like availability of charging ports – that will enable this rapid transition to occur everywhere in BC.
“We’re still learning what this transition means but I feel fortunate that we were able to be part of Charge North.” Hillary says. “We now – finally! – truly feel part of this transition and can imagine all sorts of great outcomes for our community.”
For Hillary Shepherd, this urgency and the scale of change needed can feel daunting, but as she notes, the community now has one public charging station and one can lead to more. In fact, the Northern Rockies municipal council is now considering adding more local chargers and exploring how this added capacity might stimulate development in parts of the community and showcase local attractions.