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Charge ’er up fast, please: Why public fast-charging infrastructure has to kick into high gear now

  • 6 months ago (2021-05-13)
  • Junior Isles
Electric vehicles EVs 4
Birgit Dargel

By Birgit Dargel,

We’re in the mobility transition from fossil-fueled combustion engines to clean emission-free electric motors. The only problem: It still isn’t going fast enough to keep up with our climate goals. Why, then, are people still holding back from buying and driving electric vehicles?

Although there are a number of government incentive programs, there is one major consideration that has prevented people from going electric so far, aside from the still limited number of models and the comparatively high price: the fear of running out of power while on the road, potentially far away from any charging infrastructure. Drivers want to be able to complete long journeys without lengthy recharging breaks. Furthermore, this is often a fundamental prerequisite for ride-hailing and similar services to work reliably when using electric vehicles because these fleet vehicles have to be back on the road as quickly as possible.

In short, the kind of reliable, flexible mobility that a close-knit network of gas stations affords is needed. This is where fast-charging infrastructure comes into play: As a study by RWI – Leibniz Institute for Economic Research shows, the expansion of conventional charging stations by 10 percent would lead to a 5.4 percent increase in the purchase of electric vehicles, and additional fast-charging stations could even quadruple the demand for EVs (https://www.rwi-essen.de/presse/mitteilung/429/).

Public access is critical

As this example illustrates, to alleviate the anxiety drivers have about the range of EVs, boosting public access to charging infrastructure and enabling higher charging speeds will be vital.

So where are we at the beginning of 2021?

Let’s take a look at the European Union. Currently, about 11 percent of the installed public charging infrastructure are fast-charging points: ~25,000 charging points over 22 kW vs. ~200,000 below 22 kW (https://www.eafo.eu/electric-vehicle-charging-infrastructure).

But there are hints that things aren’t going quite as speedily as planned and needed: In a recent letter to the EU climate, transport, industry and energy commissioners, for example, carmakers, environmentalists and consumer groups are calling on the EU to target one million EV public chargers by 2024 (https://www.automotiveworld.com/news-releases/acea-eu-should-target-1m-ev-public-chargers-by-2024-say-carmakers-environmentalists-and-consumer-groups/), including the definition of targets for fast and ultra-fast chargers in urban areas.

In Germany, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) had dedicated €300 million to the expansion of the e-mobility charging infrastructure by 2020, €200 million of which was earmarked for fast-charging points with a capacity of 22 kW or higher. As for now about 14 percent of the approximately 40,000 public charging points in Germany are fast charging points (https://nationale-leitstelle.de/). On February 11, 2021, the German cabinet adopted a fast-charging bill to support the installation of 1,000 fast-charging hubs in locations that promise medium- to long-term viability – but might not be currently attractive (https://nationale-leitstelle.de/news/). This top-down impetus was designed to remedy the slow expansion of public charging options. Meanwhile, in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe the establishment of the charging infrastructure has been even slower (https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/Charging%20Infrastructure%20Report_September%202018_FINAL.pdf); in these regions, the market for electric vehicles is expected to lag behind those of the front runners, such as the Scandinavian countries, by roughly a decade.

How to fast-charge

Ideally, charging hubs will be situated in city centers, mobility hubs, or along highways, providing multiple charging solutions for the different needs of EV drivers: both slow charging for park-and-ride customers and fast charging for those eager to hit the road again. Such fast charging hubs or plazas – electric versions of traditional gas stations that feature coffee shops or retail options – are already operational along highways in Scandinavia the US, and Germany (https://www.designboom.com/architecture/cobe-charging-station-ultra-fast-denmark-05-31-19/; http://www.westcoastgreenhighway.com/electrichighway.htm; https://fastnedcharging.com/hq/fastned-and-tesla-open-germanys-largest-fast-charging-hub/).

The crucial element for the long-term success of fast charging is the right, scalable charging technology that can support the future innovations in battery technology. Siemens recently launched one of the most efficient DC chargers (for IEC markets) currently available on the market (https://press.siemens.com/global/en/pressrelease/siemens-launches-one-most-efficient-dc-chargers-currently-available-market), capable of a voltage range up to 1,000 V, scalable charging power up to 300 kW, and peak efficiency of 96 percent. While supporting the lower-voltage charging rates of today’s mainstream models, this charger is future-proof, enabling full power loads for future 800 V electric vehicles.

With widespread adoption of electric vehicles, public charging hubs will have to charge several hundred cars per day. In terms of grid infrastructure, this will require more power to support DC fast and ultra-fast chargers. Currently, gas stations usually only have a low-voltage grid connection. In the future, a medium-voltage connection with a much higher power range will be needed. Operators such as Aral AG, who are kicking off with the installation of ultra-fast charging infrastructure at several gas stations in Germany, have turned to Siemens for intelligent grid connections to enable their growing power demand (https://press.siemens.com/global/en/pressrelease/siemens-and-aral-ready-gas-stations-mobility-future).

Public fast-charging infrastructure as game changer

I believe that fast-charging infrastructure is the missing link that will facilitate widespread mainstream adoption of e-mobility. However, a stronger commitment is required from all stakeholders to install and operate this infrastructure. While the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Denmark already benefit from a fairly good coverage (https://www.transportenvironment.org/sites/te/files/publications/01%202020%20Draft%20TE%20Infrastructure%20Report%20Final.pdf), it’s clear that there is still plenty of room for improvement.