Research consultancy Delta-ee talks to ElecTrans about the future of the UK’s EV charging network
Charging infrastructure will be a crucial factor in determining electric vehicle adoption. Anyone looking to buy an EV will want fast, easy to access and safe charging points, something to rival the immense network of petrol stations found around the world.
The question is then, what will national charging networks look like in the future. To help us answer that, ElecTrans spoke with Matti Kahola, senior analyst at research consultancy Delta-ee, which has launched an EV research service.
A key point of Delta-ee’s research into the UK EV market is that, despite much of the conversation centring on public charging infrastructure, only 8% of all EV charging is expected to utilise it.
Delta-ee identified four locations that early EV adopters are likely to use: Charging at home; charging at places of work and other destinations such as supermarkets; public charging infrastructure, based on the familiar petrol station model (like Tesla’s supercharger stations); and on-street charging.
“Our research clearly shows that by far customers most preferred option is charging at home and then secondly at work place,” Matti told ElecTrans.
“We don’t believe the majority of the charging will be in public spaces, but the majority will be at home, and that’s the clear customer preference we get from our research.”
This kind of charging could affect EV adoption, as it represents not only an additional expense but a logistical challenge to install it.
“I believe charging at home will still be through separate charge points that homeowners will be able to purchase and will be buying with their vehicles,” Matti said.
“Of course, for customers that don’t have access to off-street parking at their homes then they will need to rely on some kind of on-street public infrastructure.
“But, what out research shows, in the UK, customers who are more interested in and are looking at purchasing an EV in the near future, much more of them than the national average have access to off-street parking. So, in the short term, probably a lot of people who will purchase an EV will have a place to park off street and then can therefore install a charge point at their home and charge there.”
This may be a major limiting factor for EV adoption. Lower prices will open up new customer bases. However, people who dwell in flats and apartments, as is extremely common in urban areas, may find places to install private chargers extremely limited.
Show me the money
A degree of support will be needed to incentivise charge point installations.
“There are straight up purchasing available and, actually in the UK, there have been subsidy incentives from OLEV to purchase a charge point for your home,” Matti said.
“In terms of what auto manufacturers are doing, leasing is becoming a lot more popular. There are opportunities for automakers to, for example, bundle charge points, for instance, with the lease of a vehicle, so they will lease the electric vehicle to the customer and also in the same bundle they would offer a charge point and installation of that charge point as well.”
However, there will still be a role for public infrastructure. “The role for public charging infrastructure is … more around using public charging for supporting longer journeys,” Matti said.
With EV adoption still in its infancy, attracting investment for major public projects could be difficult.
“The amount of EVs on the road is still relatively small, it’s below 1% of vehicles, so that’s, of course, a challenge,” Matti stated.
“And especially for high-powered charging infrastructure … the cost of the initial investment is very significant and getting enough of a return, and enough charging and use from these charge points when there’re so few vehicles is a challenge.”
There are still some things that home charging can’t do as well as large-scale, high-speed chargers.
“There is definitely a need and also a niche demand for public charging, especially ultrafast charging,” Matti noted. “It will serve a different need that will help with those longer journeys that customers make and it might be that people are willing for that ultrafast charging to then pay a significant premium over what they have to pay when they charge their vehicle at home.”
Finding a charge point is not the only issue facing increased EV adoption. It poses a problem to the entire national electricity grid.
“EVs do pose a massive challenge for how our electricity system is structured and how we consume electricity at home,” Matti said. “Our current networks aren’t designed to handle hundred of thousands of EVs coming home at 6 PM and charging up, plugging in all at once.”
“This will potentially cause issues locally with networks, but also it would lead to very significant increase in peak demand.
“If we want to cover this peak demand, that would mean we would have to have a lot of spare capacity just to meet this demand, and of course this type of spare generation capacity would be very expensive to run.”
This poses a challenge, not just for the UK, but any country looking to gear up its EV use, to add spare capacity to its electricity system.
Energy sources such as coal are unlikely to solve this, not simply because of how polluting they are (defeating what many consider the point of adopting EVs), but also because it is a relatively slow and unwieldy power system. It can take a long time to activate a coal power plant, making it impractical to provide additional electricity in a pinch.
Renewable electricity sources are at a disadvantage as well, due to their inherent unreliability.
However, gas power plants are far quicker and cheaper to bring into operation than coal power plants, and produce far fewer emissions as well, making them ideal to provide back up electricity.
Investing in large-scale battery systems is another solution. This would utilise excess capacity and save having to build additional power plants.
Building additional capacity is not the only solution however.
“We think there is definitely a need around connected and managed charging of electric vehicles, so effectively having a way to charge your electric vehicles when it is suitable and when it doesn’t strain the network when it’s also potentially cheaper for the customer,” Matti said.
Power companies could offer special tariffs and deals to encourage this. Chargers could also come with timers to charge vehicles only at specific times. This, of course, is a lot easier if you are charging your EV at home, where it can be left plugged in for a long time in order to take advantage of off-peak charging rates.
“There are already examples in the UK where energy suppliers are trying to get price signals to customers to charge their EVs when it’s more suitable for the whole electricity system and also for the customer themselves,” Matti said
Co-ordination may be a major part of creating the most efficient system for EV charging.
“I believe, there’s going to be a lot more partnerships formed between, let’s say, the automakers, the charge point manufacturers, but also the energy suppliers, who would, at the end, want to be the ones supplying the energy to that charge point,” Matti noted.
Technology investment firm NIO Capital has recently thrown its weight behind a public charging network that can be shared between different vehicle users.
To that end, it has invested in Aulton, a Chinese company that provides battery swapping technology. Aulton’s batteries are used in taxis and vehicles used by car-hailing services. It is currently working on a design to swap out an EV’s battery in three minutes.
“Electric vehicles are the black swan for the energy sector, as the whole energy landscape will change, and it provides the perfect storm today for investors to capture the best opportunity,” said NIO Capital managing partner Ian Zhu.
However, battery swapping has been tried before, namely by Better Place, a US company that trialled the concept, but had to file for bankruptcy in 2013.
However, Zhu suggested that the lower cost of batteries means that battery swapping is a more viable solution these days.
“Battery swapping makes it possible for people to buy new electric vehicles without the battery, whose cost will be lower than a combustion engine-based vehicle. Battery swapping should be a public network asset, and we are investing in that network,” said Zhu.
Delta-ee is less than convinced. “I think the charging speeds will increase and it will become hard for this technology to compete, at least in the short term,” Matti said.
“It’s of course impossible to rule it out, but, at the moment, it seems that would be unlikely in the short to medium term in terms of how charging is conducted.”
Battery swapping offers a charging solution closer to a traditional petrol station experience, where even an empty tank can be filled up in minutes.
Currently, charging speeds range for about 30 minutes to well into multiple hours. Longer charging times make home charging more attractive.
“In terms of charging speeds, still, I think in the short term, or short to medium term, a lot of the charging will still happen at slower speeds, so that’s 3.6, 7 kW speeds,” said Matti. “Most of the home chargers will be that type of speed.”
“There’ve been a lot of announcements around ultrafast charging of 350 kW, both in the UK and more broadly in Europe,” Matti noted.
For example, Tesla has said that it will be ready to release the next generation of its Supercharger fast-charging station at the end of this year, a delay from the end of this summer.
The new Supercharger will have a 200-250-kW output, down from the previously touted 350 kW, and feature off-grid solar and Powerpack batteries. Current Superchargers have a 145-kW capacity, which is capped at 120 kW in vehicles.
“Most of the vehicles in the market are not really capable of charging this fast [350 kW],” Matti noted. “Over time, we expect charging speeds will increase, but for that to happen, to get to the really fast speeds … for customers to actually use these are their full speed, that will also require a new generation of vehicles as well.”
Fork in the road
However it may look, the market for EV charging is likely to be a big one.
ReportsnReports.com has claimed that the EV charging stations market will reach US$30.41 billion by 2023, a massive rise from the current US$5.3 billion.
Their report said that this growth would be driven by government funding, subsidies, and incentives, as well as growing demand for EVs and heavy investment from automakers in EVs.
The highest growth will come from the Asia-Pacific region, with China aiming to install around 500,000 public EV charging stations by 2020.
This is in contrast to Western countries. The US Department of Energy follows Delta-ee’s model of home charging being the main form of EV charging.
However, it is worth remembering that no two markets are the same. And as the EV industry continues to evolve, there will be new challenges demanding new solutions.