Alberta has breathtaking views and adventures. Many residents and tourists that have driven the province’s highways can attest to exceptional experiences with world-renowned attractions, vibrant rural communities and one of the most diverse and scenic landscapes in North America. A road trip in the province offers fantastic views of fertile prairies, majestic mountains, rolling foothills and vast forests. But for travellers who embrace electric vehicles (EVs), much of the province couldn’t be explored in their automobile of choice — until now.

Through a number of initiatives, EV charging stations are being placed in key locations to allow EV owners a chance to hit the open road and experience the uniqueness of the province’s different regions.

“Your typical unit today has 400 kilometres of range so that can make some round daytrips difficult,” says William York, an EV owner and a member of the board of directors for the EV Association of Alberta. “I know of folks who used to be unable to visit family in Pincher Creek in their EVs. It can be hard to get your car there and back from Calgary without an easy network to rely on.”

“We’ve been working to promote renewable energy as an industry for a long time, so we’re aware of the pace of change happening in the auto sector. Four years ago, we could see it coming.” —Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative

Even with challenges EV owners have experienced when travelling in rural areas without a lot of EV infrastructure, more and more Albertans are embracing electric vehicles. The EV Association of Alberta’s membership grew from 1,400 in 2018 to more than 2,000 in 2020, and the number of EVs in the province grew from about 400 in 2017 to more than 3,700 in just three years.

“It’s a remarkable growth and it is because of many things: policies, the wholesale economics of EVs – they get cheaper the more you make – and government incentives, to name a few,” says York. “But people have experienced a few white-knuckle drives in the past because of lack of charging infrastructure.”

ATCO was chosen as the owner/operator of the Peaks to Prairies Electric Vehicle Charging Station Network. Photo courtesy of ATCO.

To help reduce the number of white-knuckle drives from pushing the limits of an EV’s range, Petro-Canada and Tesla both have charging stations set up along the Trans-Canada Highway, an east-west transcontinental highway that spans approximately 570 kilometres across southern Alberta. Canadian Tire – a national department store chain – is installing 55 level 2 chargers and 240 fast chargers at 90 of its locations by the end of 2020, including several in Alberta.

Then there’s the $2.2 million Peaks to Prairies Electric Vehicle Charging Station Network that has opened southern Alberta up to EV users. The Peaks to Prairies network consists of a combination of 20 level 2 and level 3 charge stations connecting communities south of Calgary, as well as to the province’s western border with British Columbia where it links to a charging station network and to the southern border with the United States where there are future plans for a charging station network in Montana.

The Peaks to Prairies Electric Vehicle Charging Station Network includes 20 charging stations that are strategically positioned across 1,400 km of highway in southern Alberta.

In southern Alberta, there has been an awareness of evolution in transportation for some time. “We’ve been working to promote renewable energy as an industry for a long time, so we’re aware of the pace of change happening in the auto sector. Four years ago, we could see it coming,” says Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, a regional economic initiative that comprises 28 communities across south central Alberta.

At that time, the Community Energy Association (CEA) had already started work on an initiative in British Columbia’s East Kootenays, a mountainous district in the southeast corner of that province that shares a border with Alberta, called accelerate Kootenays. That project is deploying 53 charging stations throughout the Kootenays, including locations along Highway 3, which extends into southern Alberta.

“We wondered about the possibility of Highway 3 becoming an electric highway,” says Bev Thornton, executive director of the Alberta SouthWest Regional Alliance, a regional economic initiative that comprises 15 communities in southwest Alberta. “We didn’t know anything about it, so we got our boards together to learn about what it would take to do this. The more we learned, the more interesting it became.”

Initially, the plan was to focus on Highway 3. When the City of Calgary heard about the initiative, they asked if the network could extend up Highway 2 – the province’s main north-south throughfare – to connect Calgarians with southern locations. At the time, the city was in the early stages of developing its Climate Resilience Strategy and had identified moving to electric or low-emission vehicles as a major opportunity for reducing emissions in the city.

“The catch for us was that, if people wanted to go to Banff or had a business meeting in Lethbridge, we needed regional charging. Otherwise you’d be more inclined to get a gas-powered vehicle because you need it to do long distance trips,” says Eric MacNaughton, acting leader of business performance and innovation with Calgary’s transportation department.

Ultimately, Alberta SouthWest, SouthGrow and the cities of Calgary, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge collaborated to install charging stations connecting 1,400 kilometres along a network of nine highways in southern Alberta. Each organization provided a portion of the initial seed funding, while the Government of Alberta and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities then provided $2 million to take the project from the dream stage into reality.

“Specific siting was based on walkable access to amenities, attractions or recreational facilities — opportunities for drivers to entertain themselves while they’re charging or to explore the community.” —Megan Lohman, head of community energy management with Community Energy Association

But was there interest in the private sector in owning and operating a fast charging network in the province? In the summer of 2017, the collaboration led an initial expression of interest to find out.

“We got a pretty positive response and quite a few respondents,” says MacNaughton. “It allowed us to answer questions about what we were trying to achieve with the network and gave them a chance to start thinking about forming partnerships and figure out how they’d respond to a request for proposal.”

In the end, ATCO – a major Alberta corporation with a diverse portfolio of businesses that includes electricity generation and distribution – was chosen as the owner/operator of the charging station network.

At the Peaks to Prairies project launch event in Lethbridge, attendees at the event took part in EV demonstrations of a Tesla Model 3, a Chevrolet Bolt, a Hyundai Kona and a Tesla Model X.

Because the CEA had already been working on the accelerate Kootenays project, the association was engaged to help determine the ideal locations for the charging stations and get the network off the ground.

“Prior to a lot of the work that we’ve done, people thought you could just draw a circle on a map that indicates the range that a vehicle can go,” says Megan Lohman, head of community energy management with CEA. “But there are many factors that go into appropriate siting and determining the distances between stations, so more modelling is required to make sure you’re building a reliable network.”

Factors that impact how far a vehicle can travel include extreme temperatures as well as terrain — both major concerns in southern Alberta. If you have to go up a mountain pass, you’re going to use more energy than on a flat road and the effect of wind on the amount of energy needed also has to be considered.

While the positive impact of EVs on the environment is important to the various stakeholders, providing an enhanced traveller experience has always been the ultimate goal. So after identifying priority general locations, specific locations meeting specific criteria were identified.

“Specific siting was based on walkable access to amenities, attractions or recreational facilities — opportunities for drivers to entertain themselves while they’re charging or to explore the community,” explains Lohman.

All 20 of the charging stations that make up the Peaks to Prairies network are powered by solar and wind energy. Photo courtesy of ATCO.

And that’s important to EV drivers. While you can top up an EV battery fairly quickly at a charging station, you might also need to charge for an hour or more. According to York of the EV Association of Alberta, very early adopters spent a lot of time hanging around in Peavey Marts, an Alberta-based general retail chain with stores throughout rural communities in Western Canada.

“Peavey Mart put a level 2 charger in every single store and it became common knowledge for Albertans,” he says. “They’d sit there for a couple of hours.”

Now drivers can connect in Pincher Creek – a town of about 3,600 people that’s a little more than 200 kilometres south of Calgary – just off the main street and stroll over to explore its cafes and shops before continuing down to Waterton, or enjoy the antique shops in Nanton – a town of about 2,100 people that’s less than 100 kilometres south of Calgary – before heading into the mountains. Stakeholders have had a lot of feedback from people who have stopped in communities like Milk River – a town of less than 1,000 people that’s only 22 kilometres from the United States border – for the first time to use the charging station and experienced the pleasure of exploring a new place.

Having EV infrastructure throughout the province will increase the adoption of EVs.

“In the same way we love oil and gas, as we see how wealthy we are in other resources like solar, wind and lithium, we will really start to embrace these alternatives.” —William York, board member with the EV Association of Alberta

“The way infrastructure and EVs work is they happen in lock step. An uptick in infrastructure leads to an uptick in adoption and vice versa,” says York. “With networks in place, your EV becomes more than just your commuter car; it becomes your everything vehicle.”

And with an EV infrastructure like the one that’s continuing to grow in Alberta, it can also be your everywhere vehicle.

Powered by Renewable Energy

In the fall of 2019, Peter Casurella, executive director of the SouthGrow Regional Initiative, conducted a study to determine the value of six solar and three wind energy projects in southwest Alberta. He found they represented an investment of $1.56 billion and, a year later, he estimates the value of projects being built at over $2 billion.

“There are over 90 additional renewable energy projects under application as of October 2020,” he says. “It’s a portrait of an industry on the upward curve of an accelerating slope that has not yet reached its zenith.”

The region’s involvement with renewable energy and knowledge of increasing interest in the sector is a major reason that there was so much interest in building the Peaks to Prairies network. It’s also why stakeholders ensured that all 20 of the charging stations are run using solar and wind energy.

There’s also a new mining opportunity for Albertans. Currently, EV adoption is being held back by the availability of raw materials for batteries. It turns out that Alberta is home to the seventh largest lithium deposit in the world and accessing that lithium only requires tweaking processes already used in oil production.

“I think you’ll see Albertans really adopt EV technology when they start to see it be part of our industry,” says William York of the EV Association of Alberta. “In the same way we love oil and gas, as we see how wealthy we are in other resources like solar, wind and lithium, we will really start to embrace these alternatives.”