The time to decentralise electric vehicle e-roaming is now

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

To date, the market’s approach for solving e-roaming—seamlessly charging your EV across a range of networks—has been imperfect, and will not scale as EVs become more popular, write Jesse Morris and Dietrich Sümmermann. [Albert Lugosi / Flickr]

Whether for personal travel or cellular phones or petrol-fueled cars, roaming is good and common. So why do we make it so much harder for EVs? ask Jesse Morris and Dietrich Sümmermann.

Jesse Morris is chief commercial officer of Energy Web. Dietrich Sümmermann is chair of the Share&Charge Foundation.

Throughout the EU, we are well-accustomed to the idea of seamlessly roaming. Current coronavirus limitations notwithstanding, under normal circumstances we can travel easily from country to country within the Eurozone. We of course bring our phones with us when we travel. And if we happen to travel outside the service territory of our primary mobile network operator, our cell phones still connect calls via other networks.

Yet electric vehicle (EVs) drivers often face charging network lock-in, or at least, added headaches and costs associated with using out-of-network charge points. We don’t impose this same limitation on petrol stations for internal combustion engine automobiles. You pull up to any station and refill your fuel tank, regardless of the brand name on the station.

Whether for personal travel or cellular phones or petrol-fueled cars, roaming is good and common. So why do we make it so much harder for EVs? EV drivers—like any drivers—just desire to easily drive where they want and refill (charge) when and where they need to.

To date, the market’s approach for solving e-roaming—seamlessly charging your EV across a range of networks—has been imperfect, and will not scale as EVs become more popular. So far, charge network operators have tackled this dilemma in two primary ways: a) through bilateral agreements between operators and b) through centralised intermediaries that handle the e-roaming issue.

The former doesn’t scale well as the number of charge points grows in the years ahead because of the complexity of peer-to-peer (P2P) connections. The latter adds unnecessary cost and a lock-in for companies connected to the platforms, thanks to a “winner takes all” model in which collaboration and standardisation are discouraged as the e-roaming intermediaries fight for market share the same way charge point operators fight to secure EV driver subscriptions. It repeats a familiar headache.

The time to solve this is now, before EVs explode throughout Europe. The number of EVs on the road globally surpassed 5 million in 2018, a 63% increase over 2017. Nearly one-quarter of those vehicles were here in the EU. Sales of new EVs in the EU are expected to grow another 35% in just the first nine months of this year, making the EU the world’s hottest EV market (although the coronavirus pandemic and a looming global recession will surely dampen some of those numbers).

This boom in EVs will help reduce the EU’s collective carbon footprint, even as it introduces a huge new source of electricity demand. Electricity consumption for EVs will go from 0.03% of EU demand in 2014 to 5% by 2030 to nearly 10% by 2050. By 2030—just a decade away from today—global electricity demand for EVs will reach an estimated 640 to 1,110 TWh of electricity. That’s a massive number, equivalent to the annual per-capita electricity consumption of 405 million to 703 million EU residents (1,579 kWh per year).

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A decentralised approach to e-roaming could be a far better solution, and exactly what the EU market needs. The premise is remarkably simple: allow EVs (and their drivers) and charge points (and their network operators or charge point operator) to work seamlessly together based on an already-accepted interoperability protocol. This interoperability protocol already exists. A decentralised approach would leverage it to great effect.

For example, a decentralised digital ‘hub’ could allow participants such as a particular EV to connect to a single peer—the hub itself—and have seamless access to all the other participants, such as the EU’s many charging networks and individual charge points. The result is an Open Charging Network that can be used freely by anyone. Meanwhile, solutions for payment, contracting, and other services can be added on top, in a competitive manner, just as we are used to from the Internet economy.

This approach has the added benefit of solving two problems at once: First, by making e-roaming easy and seamless, you remove one of the major barriers to faster EV adoption in line with European Commission targets. Second, by making the communication layer a common good, we create incentives for standardisation and collaboration that will improve the lives of EV drivers while reducing the cost of transactions.

With the split of the communication and commercial layers, we also allow fair competition on the commercial service layer such that CPOs and MSPs have the opportunity to choose the best solutions. Otherwise, it would be like one company owning the Internet and also offering all services on top.

Just as importantly, as the mobility sector increasingly converges with the electricity sector, a decentralised solution that gives EVs their own identity and makes more of the electricity grid accessible to them also puts an enormous EU fleet of rolling batteries at grid operators’ disposal, which can aid renewable energy integration and frequency management.

This is perhaps the biggest win of all. Decentralised e-roaming for EVs promises to make drivers’ lives easier, reduce overall system cost, and support the low-carbon, distributed grid already unfolding across the continent.

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