Plug-in Hybrids: Friends and Foes in Canada’s Climate Quest – International Council on Clean Transportation

Last time you stopped here in Canada Corner, we were talking about how the Canadian Federal Government is easing some Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) policy by extending the National ZEV Purchase Incentive Program ​​and committing to implementing ZEV regulations will require reaching 100% of new electric passenger vehicle sales by 2035. This big ZEV push is a central part of Canada’s strategy to to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline and to net zero GHG by 2050. As we at ICCT are likely To do so, we went in search of all the demons hidden in the details of this transition to ZEVs and what it means to achieve these GHG emission reduction goals. One of the most interesting findings from the analysis is that the prevalence of plug-in hybrids has a large impact on trends in GHG emissions over time.

So what’s the deal with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)? Cars that plug in are always a good thing, right? Actually it depends. As their name suggests, PHEVs can recharge their batteries by plugging into the power grid. But, they can also be used as conventional hybrids if the driver chooses not to plug in. Plug-in hybrids use a combination of power from the electrical grid and the fuel tank, and for the most part, the more electricity used, the lower the vehicle’s overall GHG emissions.

Ok, back to calculating the numbers. We modeled four different scenarios for the evolution of Canada’s passenger vehicle fleet to 2050. The baseline scenario reflects the growth in ZEV adoption based on provincial and national policies and goals as of April 2022, and three alternative scenarios represent possible regulatory pathways to achieve Canada’s goal of selling 100% electric vehicles by 2035. Assumed ZEV sales percentages for new vehicles are shown in the figure below . An important point to keep in mind is that the Government of Canada assumes that any vehicle with all-electric capability is considered a ZEV. Thus, for accounting purposes, sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles and all-electric vehicles are included in ZEVs.

Figure 1: Assumptions on the share of zero-emission vehicle sales by scenario for new passenger vehicles in Canada.

As shown, the benchmark achieves 100% of ZEV sales by 2050, while the three alternative scenarios achieve this target 15 years earlier. In Alternative 1, the government achieves 50% ZEV sales by 2030 and 100% ZEV sales by 2035. Alternatives 2 and 3 reflect more provincial and national goals. ambitious, resulting in higher ZEV sales before 2035 compared to Alternative 1. The main difference between Alternative 2 and Alternative 3 is the split between sales of plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEV). In Alternative 2, we cap the PHEV share at 20% from 2026, and in Alternative 3, the PHEV market share declines further to zero by 2035.

Well-to-wheel carbon dioxide (CO2) the emissions results for the four scenarios are presented in the figure below. Each of the three alternatives significantly reduced emissions compared to the baseline, and we can also see the marginal benefits of alternative 2 over alternative 1, as well as alternative 3 over alternative 2 .

Chart illustrating well-to-wheel emissions from Canada's passenger car fleet under various reduction scenarios.

Figure 2: Well-to-wheel CO2 emissions from Canada’s passenger vehicle fleet between 2020 and 2050. Data labels in 2050 indicate percentage reduction from 2021 emissions.

So, in the end, are ORVs good or bad for Canada? Well, both! In the short term, we want to see as many Canadians as possible buy vehicles that can plug in. Whether it’s a PHEV or an all-electric vehicle, increasing the percentage of all-electric kilometers is critically important to reducing the trajectory of GHG emissions. . This is especially true in Canada, which is home to a very low carbon electricity grid (76% less carbon intensive, on average, compared to the US grid). For example, in 2025 we estimate that well-to-wheel CO2 emissions from an average PHEV and BEV in Canada are 52% and 82% lower, respectively, than an average conventional vehicle. So trading a PHEV for an internal combustion vehicle is still a net emissions benefit to Canada. But, over time, as PHEVs and BEVs dominate the market, the continued use of fossil fuels by PHEVs becomes increasingly important, as evidenced by the diverging results for alternatives 2 and 3. 2050, Alternative 2, where PHEVs account for 20% of EV sales, has 50% higher emissions than Alternative 3, in which PHEVs are forced out of business by 2035.

Of course, every little bit counts as we strive to achieve the ultimate goal of net zero emissions. It is clear that Canada – and the rest of the world – must work simultaneously to maximize the number of fully electric vehicles on the road and to decarbonize the electricity grid. But, for now, trading fossil fuels for electricity is still a smart game. Canada, PHEVs are our friends! …but we’re going to have to revisit the relationship as we get older.

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