Europe needs smart charging of all EVs now

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

Smart charging of an electric vehicle means shifting charging to a time when it is cheapest for consumers and best for the grid. [Ivan Radic / Flickr]

As sales of electric vehicles continue to rise, smart charging needs to be the standard. In fact, without smart charging as the default, costs for the energy system will increase unnecessarily, burdening all consumers, write Julia Hildermeier and Jaap Burger.

Julia Hildermeier is an Associate at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), an independent organisation promoting the transition to clean energy. Jaap Burger is Senior Advisor at RAP.

A recent pan-European survey found that consumers prefer electric vehicles (EVs) over conventional cars. In December, EV sales surpassed those of diesel models in Europe for the first time. Charging the growing number of EVs at our homes, workplaces and public parking lots ‘smartly’ is essential to lower the cost of integrating electric vehicles into the power system and capture the numerous benefits EVs offer.

Smart charging of an electric vehicle means shifting charging to a time when it is cheapest for consumers and best for the grid. This managed charging unlocks broader benefits, such as efficient grid operation and integration of increasing shares of renewable energy, by adjusting the demand for charging to the actual supply. Europe is also seeing a growing market for digital smart charging services – services that will improve its use of power systems.

By contrast, without smart EV charging, millions of euros will be lost in costly, unnecessary power system upgrades, as recent studies from France and Germany suggest. Several legislative proposals in the Fit for 55 package have opened a critical window of opportunity to ensure smart charging is the default choice, thus saving money, energy and emissions.

First on the agenda is a regulation that will establish a European framework for electric vehicle charging infrastructure on public roads, the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation. The EU Parliament and Council will soon vote on the proposal. By providing a public charging network Europe-wide, this regulation can boost the market for smart charging services, keeping pace with the benefits created by rapidly growing shares of EVs. For this to happen, the regulation needs to require smart charging capabilities at all charging points as well as retrofits of older ones.

Smart tariffs to complement technology and infrastructure

Being able to shift EV charging to cheaper hours can help consumers save hundreds of euros a year through a growing selection of smart tariffs and services. And smart charging is easy: Based on time-varying price signals, smart charging devices and apps determine when and at what speed EVs charge.

Drivers do not need to compromise their mobility needs, as they can override these settings at any time. One powerful grid benefit of consumers charging at least cost is use of renewable energy that might otherwise have been curtailed, thereby boosting the use of clean resources. Europe’s recent electricity reforms have recognised this correlation by mandating that Member States offer more smart tariffs to consumers. Transport legislation needs to follow: The time is now to build on the benefits of more dynamic tariffs and require smart charging infrastructure to be default, so that smart charging services can prosper.

Transport legislation needs to make charging smart, wherever you go

To make sure smart charging is the default option for all EV drivers in Europe, all charging points need to be ready for smart charging services with smart meters, digital connectivity and third-party access. These requirements should apply to all public charging points covered by the new Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation, including high-power chargers and not only the ‘normal,’ lower speed chargers as the EU Commission suggests in its legal proposal.

All chargers, slow and fast, for cars and for trucks, are easier to use and integrate into the grid if they are smart. This allows charging vehicles to adapt to varying grid conditions, the actual available grid capacity and local renewable energy production. As the charging market grows, intelligent fast chargers will also make it easy to share available power among groups of chargers in hubs. As a recent study on truck charging along motorways shows, managing power flows smartly is key to reducing costs without affecting service levels. In areas where grid upgrades may not be a preferable option, such as remote locations, battery-supported fast chargers are a viable alternative. Setting smart charging requirements through the Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation for all chargers lays the foundation for market growth for these and other innovative solutions.

The EU Commission rightfully proposes that existing chargers also need to be retrofitted accordingly. Ensuring existing chargers can also deliver the value of smart charging services offers consistency across the pan-European charging network.

A coherent framework for a smart clean transport eco-system

The importance of equipping charge points to deliver smart charging services also extends to private infrastructure and buildings, as most EV drivers will charge at home or at work. By increasing ambition in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the Renewable Energy Directive, decision-makers can help complete the smart charging landscape.

European decision-makers will soon consider requirements in Europe for equipping buildings and homes with charging points or, at the very least, pre-cabling them for upcoming infrastructure needs. Sufficient ambition in the upcoming Energy Performance of Buildings Directive can extend this obligation to all home parking spots, making all charging equipment smart and, therefore, future proof.

A solid definition of what smart charging can offer to Europe’s future energy markets, grids and consumers is crucial to make smart charging the default choice. The Renewable Energy Directive proposal makes a fair start, but an earlier version of the Directive’s Article 20 offered greater recognition of the potential of smart charging to create societal benefits.

Harmonising smart charging at work, at home and at public charging stations creates an EU-wide digital market for smart charging services. That makes it easier to reap the benefits of smart charging, not just for EV drivers, but also for energy markets and for grid operators that can use the inherent flexibility in EV charging to run their grids more efficiently.

While revising these files, it is important for lawmakers to pass on the benefits of smart charging to the actual end user, the EV driver. Focus on the user’s interests is crucial. This means increasing customer choice through market mechanisms and building trust, as opposed to models where EV charging is fully controlled by grid operators, such as it is currently the case in Germany.

The time is now

E-mobility should be accessible to all, wherever one is in Europe. Members of Parliament and other stakeholders have the chance to amend the charging infrastructure laws under review to make sure benefits of smart EV charging reach all, at minimal cost, and thus accelerate the energy transition.

Creating a European market for smart charging services and matching user preferences to energy system needs will drive down costs for all. These developments will, in turn, persuade even more consumers to switch to electric, turning petrol and diesel vehicle sales into relics of the past.

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