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Lack of vehicles and infrastructure hampers effort to switch federal fleet to EVs

Around 17,000 vehicles need converting
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tries his hand at driving an intelligent electric vehicle during a visit to the University of Trois-Rivieres, Wednesday, January 18, 2023 in Shawinigan, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

By Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Canadians keen to get themselves into an electric vehicle aren’t the only ones facing delays.

A lack of vehicle availability and charging infrastructure is slowing down the federal government’s efforts to transition its fleet to electric vehicles, according to a memo to the deputy minister of natural resources that Canada’s National Observer obtained through a federal access-to-information request.

The federal government is aiming for its light-duty vehicle fleet to be comprised entirely of zero-emission or hybrid vehicles by 2030. These vehicles are used for a wide range of purposes across all federal departments, like mail delivery or transporting equipment and employees for work duties (for example, to meetings and conferences).

The federal government defines zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) as those that can operate without producing tailpipe emissions and include battery, plug-in hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

Currently, there are limited ZEV options for the larger vehicles that make up the majority of the federal government’s light-duty conventional fleet, such as vans, pickup trucks and large SUVs, according to an emailed statement from Public Services and Procurement Canada, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and Natural Resources Canada.

“Supplies are limited due to ongoing global supply chain issues,” the statement to Canada’s National Observer reads. “ZEV purchases will increase rapidly as more suitable options become available in the market over the next one to three years.”

As of March 31, 2022, the federal government’s approximately 17,200-vehicle conventional light-duty fleet was made up of roughly three per cent plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, 0.5 per cent battery electric vehicles and more than seven per cent hybrid electric vehicles, the statement said.

“Most ZEVs currently have lead times in the range of six to nine months, with some exceptions beyond nine months due to industry supply issues,” it explained. “We expect a return to more conventional lead times (around four months) as industry resolves supply constraints.”

A March 2022 study commissioned by Transport Canada surveyed dealerships across the country and found 82 per cent had no ZEVs available at all and 38 per cent of those dealers reported wait times of six months or more.

In Toronto, Canadians in the market for a new ZEV will face 11-month wait lists on average, according to a Toronto Star investigation from October.

From April 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, just over 72 per cent of new unmodified vehicles purchased by the federal government were hybrid electric and zero-emission vehicles. This fell just short of the 75 per cent federal goal that existed at that time.

The federal government has since upped the ambition. In March 2022, the Greening Government Strategy was updated for new purchase targets to apply to all conventional fleet purchases — not just unmodified vehicles — and increased the previous ZEV goal from 80 to 100 per cent by 2030.

Despite the challenges outlined in the memo, the Treasury Board Secretariat “does not anticipate that current delays will impact achieving the 2030 target” based on a market analysis of ZEV availability by Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors.

To address vehicle availability and charging infrastructure barriers, the 2030 ZEV Pathway Initiative was launched in January 2022 to identify challenges, opportunities, costs and options for achieving the 2030 goal, according to the memo. This initiative will complete its work this spring.

Natural Resources Canada is heading up efforts to transition vehicle fleets and helping other departments plan to adopt zero-emission and low-carbon vehicles. Budget 2022 provided an additional $2.2 million over five years for the department to continue work to transition the federal fleets.

According to the September 2022 memo, Natural Resources Canada’s 212-vehicle fleet included nine ZEVs and eight hybrid electric vehicles. At that time, almost 1,200 vehicles that could be replaced with ZEV alternatives were identified across 17 departments.

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