North America is at a critical point in making some decisions about its electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, and how proprietary its charging networks will ultimately be. The choices made could affect drivers for years to come. These decisions need to be made soon because of the unexpectedly rapid rate of EV adoption.
Consider this: In a late 2010 Huffington Post article entitled “7 Electric Cars You’ll Be Able To Buy Very Soon” the author notes “We’ve all heard it before: electric cars are the future, albeit a future that never seems quite near enough.” A little over a thousand days later, and we are now well into that future. EV sales have jumped from a mere 17,500 in 2011 to 53,000 in 2012, then catapulted to 96,000 in 2013, and that trend is just beginning. In the general scheme of things, the annual sale of nearly 100,000 EVs is tiny compared with the 15.6 million cars sold in the U.S. last year. But it is the direction that matters.
In 2011, there were seven EVs available. In 2014, there are 24 models available, with most major car companies putting something on the road. Of course everybody knows about the Tesla. But maybe you want a Porsche? The Panamera SE Hybrid will get you around in style. Cadillac? Try out the ELR. BMW and Mercedes Benz are entering the onramp as well. Maybe you want something a little less expensive: there are numerous models to choose from. So it looks like EVs are moving from the point of novelty to something more mainstream.
As more and more EVs enter the fleet, and annual sales continue to increase, the question of charging – and charging protocols – becomes ever more critical. While we are still in the early days of the EV adoption cycle, it’s important to sort this out. At the end of the day, EV mobility will depend upon the build-out of a network of charging stations. Drivers will want to be able to charge at home, but to overcome range anxiety they will want to charge on the road as well – quickly and conveniently.
So the questions of where drivers can charge, and how scalable the charging infrastructure is, are important to address today. These are critical issues, because at the moment the field is somewhat fractured. You have Tesla, with its proprietary network of stations, offering up lifetime charging for free. You have NRG’s EVGo, with its own network located in seven regions of the country, in which you have a base subscription for charging at home and you can use charge stations as part of the rateplan. And then you have ChargePoint, today’s dominant player, adding stations at a rapid clip. There are other players entering the field as well.
The critical issue is this: if you get locked into one network, you may have difficulty charging at other locations, or pay exorbitant costs. Imagine being a Shell customer and only being able to refuel at Shell. What if Shell went bankrupt? Or what if they had only limited penetration in a state you just moved to? What would you do then?
Greenlots – a global provider of open standards-based technology solutions for electric vehicle networks – is aiming to address that concern. President Brett Hauser notes that they are actively promoting an open standard so that drivers can charge at just about any location across North America. The company provides an EV network management solution and a platform –based on open standards – that communicates with various charging stations.
Hauser notes that the point of an open standard is so “you can mix and match various EV charging stations with any back end you choose to use.” His concern with the proprietary solutions approach is that,
we are in a nascent industry. Those putting out EV infrastructure don’t know all the use cases today. Whatever they do today might not be what they need tomorrow and they need flexibility and scalability. We are advocating open standards. I have to earn my customers’ business every day and if they don’t like us they should have the right to switch without ripping out the hardware.
He comments that the initial thinking on use cases has already changed and may continue to evolve.
One thing that I think needs to be understood is people first thought that this (charging) was going to be a key revenue stream. The truth is this will take a long time from a break-even analysis, so you have to have other reasons for doing it. The ROI for retailer is not the money on electricity – it may be the demographic of the customer spending more time at their store.
Hauser sees various business models evolving. Some parties are accessing real estate and setting up Build, Own, Operate models. Others are putting in third-party solutions, potentially operating as vending machines with minimal hands-on involvement. The key with an open standards approach is that – irrespective of the business model – it drives competition. Users know “they can switch from one back end to another back end.” If the provider is not competitive, they can be switched out.
Greenlots’ own business model is to provide a network software solution, and work with a variety of charging station manufacturers, such as Eaton, ABB, Efacec and Schneider, and they locate a lot of installations at customer worksites, such as offices. Their technology agnostic approach fits well with their role in the Open Charge Alliance.
The Alliance is a foundation dedicated to OCPP – Open Charge Point Protocol. The concept originated in the Netherlands, with a consortium of local utilities dealing with proprietary and non-scalable systems. The Dutch eventually mandated that anything put in place had to have an open protocol. This concept evolved in Europe to become the de facto standard (public tenders in the E.U. must be OCPP compliant) and is now the accepted protocol in 50 countries.
Hauser observes that OCPP is having some success in North America as well,
We’ve done a lot in North America to promote OCPP. We’ve had success in states like California, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Texas, and in British Columbia and Ontario, coming out with RFPs and mandating that an open protocol be used.
He argues that we need to really pay attention to what he calls ‘driver roaming.’
There are two different components here. One is the communication from the charging station to the network back office, and the other is driver roaming. I want to go to another network and use my same card… Whatever solution ultimately gets picked up has to be scalable, flexible, and not wind up having EV drivers incurring significant roaming charges like the ATM network.
This is about being able to swap out things as you wish. It’s like telephony. You shouldn’t have to throw out your phone when you switch providers. Once you make an investment in something it should be able to scale as your needs evolve and change. Somebody shouldn’t be locked into a system if they don’t want to be. They should be able to switch. An open standard increases innovation. It allows for flexibility, scalability and reduces cost because it increases competition.
Long-term, this would appear to be the most economically efficient and rational approach. It doesn’t make sense for gas stations to limit themselves to serving a locked-in customer base, or establishing duplicate and parallel proprietary gas stations. That would be inefficient, inhibit customer choice, and limit competition. At the end of the day, why should it be any different for EV charging?
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