BC has made it easier for stratas to install EV chargers

The province of British Columbia adopted amendments to its Strata Property Act in May 2023 that will make it much easier for strata corporations (the equivalent of condominium associations in other jurisdictions) to bring electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure into their buildings. Previously, three-quarter supermajorities at annual or special general meetings were needed to pass bylaw changes that enabled stratas to deploy EV charging solutions. Now the threshold has been lowered to simple majorities.

EV Charger in a BC Strata

A level-2 charger used in a BC Strata. Photo by Werner Antweiler.

‘BC stratas can now pass EV bylaws with a simple majority rather than a supermajority.’

Section 71(b)(i) of the Strata Property Act allows changes to the common property "if a resolution is passed at an annual or special general meeting by a majority vote, in the case of a change that is related to the installation of EV charging infrastructure or the management of electricity used by EV charging infrastructure." Changes to section 82 also enables strata corporations to acquire or dispose of personal property for certain purposes related to EV charging infrastructure, also by simple majority vote. The intention is to enable strata to possibly acquire a parking stall from an owner and converting it into an EV charging stall. Further changes to the Strata Property Act prohibits the strata from unreasonably refusing the request of an owner to make alterations to common property if the alteration is necessary to install EV charging infrastructure. This is what sometimes has been described as the right to charge for strata owners (which I discussed extensively in my 2018 blog BC needs a "right to charge"). Section 90.2 introduces the specific criteria of consideration for strata corporations for allowing alterations for EV charging, and requiring conditions upon installation. Owners will of course remain responsible for expenses for their own alterations for EV charging, and if stratas make alterations for owners, stratas can charge back the expenses.

What is also new is the need for an electrical planning report from a qualified person (electrician), set out in section 94.1. This requirement will be brought into force by forthcoming regulations. The cost of the electrical planning report can be paid from the operating fund (section 92).

These recent changes are very welcome, and the BC Government—and in particular housing minister Ravi Khalon—have been paying attention to the needs of stratas for the electrification of mobility.

Retrofitting EV charging into older strata buildings will remain a big challenge. Depending on the age and the structure of the building, retrofitting can be very expensive, and in some cases there may simply not be sufficient load capacity to charge multiple vehicles at the same time.

Up until June of this year, the province offered a rebate of up to 75% (maximum of $3,000) to obtain an EV Ready Plan. Resources for this program (as well as charger rebates for single-family homes) have been exhausted, however. Rebates for multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs) remain available. The program is administered BC Hydro, and more information can be found on their EV Charger Rebate Program web site.

How can stratas go about installing EV chargers in practice?

So what are the steps to install electric vehicle charging in multi-unit residential buildings with strata corporations as a retrofit? Having gone through the process for my own strata, I can share some insights and experience.

‘To use existing electric capacity smartly, many stratas will need energy management systems with load sharing for multiple EV chargers.’

The first step is the electric load study. As mentioned above, such an electric planning report will soon become mandatory. MURBs are typically serviced with 120 V and 208 V, and some amperage (e.g., 2000 A). The main circuit is often split into separate circuits for residential units (e.g., separate blocks, townhouses or apartments) and one for common strata property (parkades, elevators, exterior lighting, etc.). The load study determines how much spare capacity there is on each circuit in order to determine the load that is available for EV chargers. The load study requires data from BC Hydro to track the seasonal and diurnal pattern, and direct measurement of the circuitry in the building can determine loads on individual circuits during a sampling period. A load study is always carried out by an electrician or other qualified person. The results of the analysis determine how many EV charging stations can be connected directly, or if some load sharing system needs to be deployed.

EVOLUTE load management system

A load study can identify limitations. Perhaps not all units can be serviced with direct connections for their EV chargers. How can the required power be distributed across available circuits? In most instances, upgrading the electrical service to the building is prohibitively expensive, and thus "making-do" smartly with available capacity is the key to accommodate as many owners as possible. Ultimately, load sharing is the key solution.

Load-sharing typically comes in blocks for 2, 4 or 8 chargers, and it also comes in two flavours. With equal distributed load sharing, the available amperage is divided equally among active chargers. With first-in first-charged load sharing, capacity is allocated sequentially, and once an EV is fully charged, it frees up capacity for the next one. The picture on the right shows the locker box of a smart multi-user EV charging system, EVOLUTE, offered by EVdirect. It offers load sharing and dynamic load throttling, along with its own monitoring and billing system (time-of-use or flat rate). Stratas will need to decide whether they want to bill internally or whether they want to involve a third-party billing provider. Ultimately, owners tend to prefer volumetric charging (for the kWh) rather than charging by time, but volumetric billing is more complex and costly. The challenge is that accurate volumetric metering requires additional infrastructure, including a data connection to upload usage data to the billing provider.

The second step is an assessment of the specific charging needs of the owners, and defining a suitable business model. There are three options. The first option involves connecting EV chargers directly to BC Hydro's smart meters through an energy management system (EV-EMS) that can throttle the load to prevent overloading each unit's electric circuit. The EV-EMS prioritizes the electricity use in the home over use by the EV charger. Advantageously for the strata, the strata is not involved directly as the billing for use is directly through BC Hydro. Advantageously for EV owners, they buy electricity directly at the nominal rate from BC Hydro without any intermediary. This solution is what my own strata has done, for 25 out of 61 units.

The second and third options both involve strata acting as owner and operator of a centralized solution using a load management system that also monitors and bills for use. The difference between the two options is whether designated strata-owned parking stalls are used to offer EV charging, or whether individual owners have their own charging stations at their parking stalls, connected to the central energy management system. If a strata wants to offer Level-3 (fast) charging, then the dedicated parking stalls are really the only option. When charging is provided at individual parking stalls, it involves Level-2 (slow) charging with load sharing (also known as multiplexing).

The third step involves assessing the technical feasibility of retrofitting an existing building. This requires an electrician or installation company to inspect the site and provide a tentative quote for costs to be borne by the strata corporation (for the common infrastructure) and by individual strata owners (for their chargers and connection).

In the fourth step, the strata presents the preferred solution to the owners at an annual general meeting along with a suitable bylaw proposal. A sample template for an EV bylaw is provided by Plug-in BC, which also offers many other useful resources. Getting the bylaw approved has often been the most daunting step, and it is here that the amendments to the Strata Property Act lower the hurdles. For a strata-operated EV system, the strata will need to figure out a system for cost recovery. Some stratas use accurate metering, but that requires specialized hardware. Other stratas have implemented fixed user fees (typically a monthly flat rate) for access to the chargers.

BC Hydro advises that there are three ways for monitoring and paying for EV charging in a strata building. Using an existing common account requires stratas to set up their own metering and billing. Setting up a separate meter for all charging makes it easier for the strata to keep track of the overall EV use, allowing attribution of this cost to owners through user fees.

Having completed the preceding four steps, the strata is now ready to contract with an installation company for the common-property components and work, whereas individual owners may also need to contract separately with the installation company for their individual chargers and connections (either to their own meters and energy management systems, or to the strata-circuit energy management system). Lastly, individual units can set up separate meters with BC Hydro individually, but this solution is not compatible with load management (i.e., load sharing).

Installing the required equipment is not cheap, especially if there are long conduits needed through a parkade to get electricity from the utility room to individual parking stalls. The larger the distance, the more expensive the connection. (My own parking stall, it so happened, was among the furthest from my strata's utility room.)

What challenges remain?

Perhaps the trickiest point for stratas to come to terms with is not overall cost, but the most suitable business model. Some stratas may be inclined to install one or two fast chargers in available (common property) parking stalls, outsource the management and billing, and be done with it. That is unfortunately not the most forward-looking approach. As EV adoption grows, one or two fast chargers will quickly lead to waiting times for owners, as well as dealing with owners who don't remove their vehicles after charging is completed. Solving this "loitering" problem will require adding a hefty "loitering charge" to any time-based billing to incentivize owners to share fast chargers responsibly. But this does not work if a strata uses flat (monthly) access fees for using chargers. The fast-charger business model for a strata essentially competes with public fast chargers. It provides preferred access for strata owners, but ultimately it is not operated any differently than a public EV charger. Fast chargers also require significant power capacity, typically 25 kW. One or two fast chargers quickly exhaust the available capacity in many older buildings.

Most strata owners will prefer the convenience and certainty of having a charging option right at their own parking stall, and ideally without any intermediaries. The "gold standard" for EV charging in stratas is a direct connection to a BC Hydro smart meter. Other than permitting the installation, there is no direct involvement for the strata. This is exactly the solution that my own strata adopted. The downside of this option is that it has an early-adopter benefit. Connecting the remaining parking stalls will require more sophisticated solutions.

If direct charging is not possible logistically, the next best solution in my view is load sharing through a centralized energy managment system connected to a strata smartmeter, ideally through a separate (new) meter to keep accurate track of EV charging separate from other electricity use for the strata. Load sharing is also ideal to manage limited power capacity in a building, and ultimately limited power capacity may be the most important concern to address.

‘Load-sharing solutions will be needed to use existing power capacity in MURBs effectively and prevent straining BC Hydro's power grid.’

It is very useful to understand the overall charging needs of strata owners to plan for deploying EV charging solutions. According to Natural Resources Canada, the average car in British Columbia travels about 13,100 kilometers per year (although this data is more than a decade old). That is roughly 36 kilometers per day. An EV requires about 25 kilowatthours per 100 kilometers (more in the winter, less in the summer). This means that per day, an EV needs about 9 kWh of electricity on average. A level-2 charger providing 3.3 kW of power can charge this load in less than three hours. Assume a building has been assessed to have 60 kW spare capacity for EV charging. Over the course of nine hours during the night, that could provide 540 kWh of charging for EVs, enough for sixty cars! The problem is not the overall energy (kWh) supply, it is the maximum power (kW) capacity. If sixty owners returned home at 5pm and wanted to charge their cars all at the same time at 3.3 kW, the building would need 198 kW spare capacity, not 60 kW. This simple calculation makes an enormously important point: as EV ownership scales up, our MURBs will eventually need smart load sharing solutions. And it will keep BC Hydro happy too. BC Hydro can comfortably generate the energy we need to run our EVs, but they are not keen on a bulging early-evening peak in electricity demand that would require new transmission and distribution infrastructure.

What does this all imply for developing public policy on EV charging infrastructure in stratas in BC? The recent changes to the Strata Property Act are a great start. The required electrical planning report will enable strata corporations to make informed decisions as EV charging is ramping up. But these reports need direction to be forward-looking. Today's demand for EV charging is just the beginning. To be future-ready, the electrical planning reports need to be focused not merely on today's needs, but also the expected needs by 2035 and beyond. For that purpose the forthcoming regulations that provide the detailed requirements for electrical planning reports need to specifically address how to satisfy future demand, not just what is minimally technologically feasible today. The focus needs to be on providing convenient and ubiquitous level-2 charging options for many owners, not level-3 charging options for a few owners. Leave the level-3 charging to public charging stations that can be deployed in more favourable locations, also ensureing better utilization.

Further readings and sources:

Posted on Sunday, October 8, 2023 at 14:30 — #BC | #Environment | #Transportation