In Europe, vehicles plugs, socket sand charging stations are still not standardized. As Electric vehicles are already being produced and will soon be on the market, why has Europe still not define its own infrastructure standards? Does it matter? Should Europe not hurry?
Different charging systems exist for the electric vehicle. Slow charging, can be done at home, at a parking plug or at work by plugging the car into the local electricity grid. It can take more than 8 hours depending on the battery size and the capacity of your home network. In this case the more powerful the home electricity network, the faster the battery will be charged. Domestic electricity capacity usually starts at 3KW and goes up to 12kW. Semi fast and fast charging implies a higher voltage provided either by a tri-phased alternative current or direct current. Note that fast charging relies on very strong electric power (from 30 to more than 60KW depending on the country). Under this mode, the battery is usually charged up to 80% in half an hour or less. To date, the most rapid charging system has been invented by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, whose station can recharge a small electric car up to 50% in less than 3 minutes. Last but not least, a battery swap infrastructure, invented by a Californian company Better Place, permits a “charge” in about 3 minutes just by switching a depleted for a fully charged battery. In the latter case, not only the voltage and the type of current (AC/DC) would need to be standardised but at a minimum the battery location and format.
These divergent charging systems also determine the equipment required for current up to 22 KW (slow and semi fast charge), the cable and the charger can be embarked and charging made from home; for a 43KW charge, cables need to be on the charging station, and thus stations sockets need to be harmonised. This is why the debate on charging is very much focused on fast charging stations.
Technically the charging of a battery is done by Direct Current (DC) while in Europe electric current is distributed in an alternating form (AC). A power converter -combined with a cooling system- is therefore needed to change that AC current into DC. Electric vehicles therefore require an external convertor (like mobiles phone do) unless the charger is on-board the vehicle.
In the European Union today, manufacturers have started developing projects on the basis of their national norms and contexts. Confronted to this lack of standardisation, electricity equipment suppliers and specialised infrastructure companies have ended up creating alliances nationally to promote their own plug standards. In Germany, electric equipment companies developed a special AC plug for electric vehicles called the “Mennekes plug”. This coalition is already successful. This is due to the fact that the plug was amongst the only one complete and available when car manufacturers started conceptualising their vehicles. The consortium is also developing a fast charging DC standard. On the French side, Schneider Electric, Legrand and Scame created the EV plug alliance in mid march 2010, in order to propose norms for charging stations. The EV plug alliance also proposed that the Menekes plug benefit from an additional safety protection (a small plastic cover), fitted for the French and about 12 other member states regulation on plugs.
Opinions also diverge on the charge. In Germany, a large number of houses are already equipped with tri-phased alternative current. Semi fast charge, taking about 30 minutes for an 80% charge with 22-24KW, is therefore seen as the standard. On the contrary French households usually have mono-phased plugs (up to 3KW). This also influences car manufacturers and utilities position in the debate.
These standards have been proposed while a Franco-German group on electro-mobility set up in March 2009 has been given the objective of studying normalisation and to develop pilot projects. The group includes inter alia BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen, Renault, Eon, RWE, EDF, Bosch, Evonik, Schneider Electric and Valeo.
If Europeans keep fighting one with another, they risk that standards, and hence property rights fees, may be imposed by others: China, Japan or the US. Japan has clearly established a direct current as the norm. It has already defined a standard type of slow charging, based on Yazaki protocol The US aligned with its SAE JI772 standard. A US level 3 charging (fast charging) standard has not been defined yet. This model is compatible with the Chevrolet Volt, the Nissan Leaf, the I-Miev and the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid. In Japan, a new consortium, the so-called CHAdeMO association, now promotes a higher performance standard. Named after a quick charging method, this partnership including Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Fuji Heavy and Tokyo Electric power and foresees quick charging DC of 62.5 KW via a special electric connector. Even Korea has released its own. Indeed, the Hyundai group KOPCO announced the creation of a charging interface with Korea Electric Power Corporation. Finally, China has announced the roll out of three standards to cover the technical requirements for EVs charging facilities by October 2010, in particular the use of fast DC charging stations. The Chinese government allocated a budget of 15 billion Euros, more than 5 times the EU budget (and available immediately), to establish the electric vehicle as a new pillar of the Chinese industry. The plan pools manufacturers, OEMs and utilities into a single group to set up common standards.
The lack of standards appears therefore costly, the lack of a European defined standard risky.
The necessity to have a European norm has in this respect been recognised by everyone: politicians, utilities, equipment firms, car manufacturers. In May 2010 France, Germany, Portugal and Spain issued in May 2010 a joint declaration on electric mobility, pushing for an acceleration of the EV standardisation process. It is nevertheless difficult to find a consensus on who should define them. Standards are usually a playing card to segment and protect a market. The competition is understandable: the infrastructure market has been estimated at around 55 billion by 2014 for Europe, 60% of its world value
Yet some believe that a transition period is necessary, and that the best technologies will be naturally selected. This was possibly the purpose of the European Commission 7th framework programme. This programme financed an entire patchwork of research projects for car charging that could be adapted to Europe needs and context. Meanwhile mixed solutions are being promoted. A project such as Elegie, lead by the French utility EDF, was clearly developed into that “transition vision”. It is developing a smart fast charge that recognises the type of car and offers two ranges of tensions, one fast and a slower one. This range approach allows the station to be compatible with different kind of models. There is considerable merit in this argument. In Japan, for instance, the new CHAdeMO option is already replacing the old defined standard. The technology is indeed not yet finalised, and fixing standards too early may not be adequate.
In this period of transition, the rate of EV penetration on the European market will be a decisive lever in imposing a standard. This explains why companies with announced larger production runs are less worried about finalising their standards than others. The same applies to companies not yet ready to roll out electric cars. Some companies targeting the development of plug in hybrids seem also less concerned by the development of standards for fast charging stations. The ambiguity allows them time to develop their own strategy. However, Europeans need to keep their eyes open. The Chinese company BYD which is planning to sale its massively produced EVs in Europe next year on, has signed an agreement with the German firm RWE to develop specific infrastructure .
The question is do we lead by being first or by finding the best solution? The best case scenario would be to find the best solution and to be the first to deploy it. Surely though, the risk of the European market being flooded with third parties products at the expense of European one is limited. In fact the European Commission has the regulatory powers to set up standards. It already mandated the standardisation bodies which should come out with standards by mid-2011 promoting safety, access everywhere and smart charging. One could hardly imagine the European Commission choosing a Chinese specific technology, if there is any, as European standard. Some also argue that China usually aligns on German standards and only starting to attend meeting on standardisation.
It is not the standardisation transition period that will make European car manufacturers loose or win on the European or global market, but rather what kind of EV they produce and at what price. As long as standards do not delay the roll out of EVs and the setting of infrastructure, they are of limited relevance for companies. Surely we should watch international developments closely, as it is true that standards can be imposed de facto by the dominant player on the market, as this has already been the case for EVs on board plugs.
Yet standards are currently rather an issue for French companies competing with Germans rather than Europeans competing with the Chinese.
Maïté de BONCOURT, Institut Français des Relations Internationales
P.S. A longer version of this post is available here.