A man connects his electric car with an energy storage device in Stuttgart, Germany. Reuters
Automakers around the world are pushing hard for new networks that can charge electric cars fast. In Europe, some power companies and grid operators are testing whether it might be smarter and cheaper to move into the slow lane.
A 15-month study of electric car charging behaviour in Germany has concluded that consumers can be persuaded to accept slow, overnight recharging that could help avoid brownouts from surges in electricity demand or costly upgrades to power grids.
The prospect of millions of electric vehicles (EVs) hitting the roads as governments gradually ban new diesel and gasoline cars is seen as a major challenge for power companies, especially in Germany which is switching from nuclear and coal to less predictable sources of energy such as wind and solar.
The small study in the wealthy Stuttgart suburb of Ostfildern-Ruit though has helped alleviate the concerns of some grid operators that too many electric vehicles (EVs) charging at peak times could cause network crashes.
The engineers at Netze BW, the local grid operator behind the trial, found that all the households involved came around to leaving their electric cars plugged in overnight and only half ever charged simultaneously.
“Since the experience with the project we have become a lot more relaxed. We can imagine that, in future, half of the inhabitants of such a street own electric vehicles,” said Netze BW engineer Selma Lossau, project manager for the study.
Still, with limited EV battery ranges for now, slow, overnight charging doesn’t get around the problem of how to persuade drivers to ditch petrol cars altogether.
Without a network of fast-charging stations offering quick refuelling, drivers may be wary of using EVs for long trips - which is why some automakers want lots of fast-charging stations to encourage the widespread adoption of electric cars.
Slower, or delayed, charging has already gained traction in Norway, Europe’s leading EV market, where nearly 50% of new car sales are zero-emission vehicles.
A study by energy regulator NVE showed that Norway faces a bill of 11 billion crowns ($1.2 billion) over the next 20 years for low- and high-voltage grids, substations and high-voltage transformers - unless it can persuade car owners to charge outside peak afternoon hours. The investment cost to the country of 5.3 million people could drop to just over 4 billion crowns if cars are charged in the evening, and may fall close to zero if batteries are only plugged in at night, NVE said.
NVE is now working a tariff proposal which will penalise peak-hours charging. Tibber, a Norwegian power company, already offers cheaper electricity for EV charging if you let it decide when your car is charged while firms such as ZAPTEC offer ways to adjust charging to the available grid capacity.
Some of the 10 households participating in the Stuttgart trial said they initially wanted to keep topping up their cars for fear of running out of juice, but soon adapted to leaving the power company to handle it as it saw fit overnight.
“At the start, I did not want to take any risks and charged frequently in order to feel secure. Over time, I changed my outlook,” said Norbert Simianer, a retired head teacher who drove a Renault Zoe during the trial. “I grew used to the car and became more at ease in handling the loading process.”
Simianer and his neighbours were given electric cars and 22 kilowatt (kW) wall-boxes for their garages, alongside two charging points in the street, all free of charge.
In return, they gave up their normal cars and allowed Netze BW, which is a subsidiary of German utility EnBW, to monitor and carry out a deferred and down-scaled charging process during a seven-and-a-half-hour period overnight.
Netze BW tried various options, either slotting cars in at the maximum 22 kW charging flow one after another, or lengthening the charging time for individual cars by adjusting the power flow, or combining both methods, Lossau said.
The participants, who used apps to check the status of their car batteries, grew accustomed to the lack of instant charging capability because their vehicles could always handle their everyday commutes of up to 50 km (31 miles).
EnBW said nine of the 10 households in the trial on Ostfildern-Ruit’s Belchenstrasse had opted to keep the wall-boxes and most were exploring leasing electric car.
Lossau said monitoring 10 households did not in itself provide the “empirical mass to draw conclusions for the load profile of all of Germany”.
She also said there would need to be better two-way communication between EVs, the grid and consumers for the system to function efficiently on a large scale.