EU’s buildings directive should give EV owners the right to a smart plug

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

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which the European Commission will revise by the end of this year, offers a unique opportunity to help consumers switch to smart electromobility – minimising the cost for them, the power system, and the environment, write Luka De Bruyckere and Jaap Burger. [Fahroni / Shutterstock]

Smart EV charging receives little attention in the debate around the energy performance of buildings. However, with a ‘right to plug’, buildings can spearhead the transition towards clean mobility, write Luka De Bruyckere and Jaap Burger.

Luka De Bruyckere is programme manager at ECOS, the Environmental Coalition on Standards. Jaap Burger is senior advisor at the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP), an independent organisation promoting the transition to clean energy.

The electrification of mobility is in full swing. As electric vehicles (EV) become ever more popular, public charging points are spreading – their numbers have doubled in the last two years in the EU. But public charging points alone will not be enough to power the transition to electrified mobility, we need more (smart) connections in buildings.

Most users charge their vehicles at home or at work, where cars are parked most of the time. Long parking times offer great potential to optimise EVs’ electricity use through ‘smart charging’. This means charging cars when it is most beneficial for the driver and the grid – for instance, when overall energy demand is lower or cheaper renewable energy is available.

Smart charging can help prevent the transition to an electrified mobility system from requiring massive, costly reinforcement of grids, or worse, from fuelling the temptation to fire up gas plants to deliver the additional electricity needed at peak times.

To fully disengage ourselves from such issues, we need an EU strategy to install millions of smart charging points in buildings. In short, we need a ‘right to plug’ so that people can charge their vehicles wherever they are customarily parked. The flow of energy within buildings and onto the grid can then be optimised by smart standards.

Not only that, EV batteries can function as storage to help manage the network. Since a car can hold as much energy as a typical household consumes in a few days, connecting them to a smart network could change electricity grids as we know them. Smartly managed, electric vehicles not only emit less CO2 than combustion cars, but they could also reduce total grid emissions.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), which the European Commission will revise by the end of this year, offers a unique opportunity to help consumers switch to smart electromobility – minimising the cost for them, the power system, and the environment.

Turning parking places into charging spaces

EV charging is poised to get a great push in the EU. Through the upcoming Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR), the EU will set targets for rolling out public charging infrastructure to ensure seamless routes across the continent. Providing an ‘essential’ public charging network is, however, only the first step.

To achieve a clean, reliable grid with large numbers of EVs used as flexible resources for the power system, we need to tap into home and workplace charging, too, giving everyone access to a smart plug. To get there, it is important EU policy makers raise ambition of the EPBD revision in two areas.

First, the EPBD should make sure buildings are ready for EVs by setting requirements for sufficient charging points in buildings. In practice, many parking lots should simply evolve into charging spaces. For residential buildings, all parking should be prepared for installing a charging point through pre-cabling infrastructure so that when a user is ready to switch to an EV, so is their home. This is a low-cost measure that would help consumers save installation costs further down the line.

The current EPBD already has provisions for vehicle charging in new and retrofitted buildings, but the small print significantly weakens some of the requirements. For example, SMEs, which account for 99.8% of all enterprises in Europe, are exempted from electromobility provisions. Also, EU member states are free to set minimum thresholds for buildings, excluding most single-family houses and small apartment dwellings. EU policy makers should close these loopholes when revising the EPBD.

Second, we need a ‘right to plug’ for renters and owners, enabling the upgrade of existing dwellings and removing the current barriers to home charging. Nowadays, in some EU countries, all homeowners must approve the installation of a charging station in a shared building. A ‘right to plug’ could speed up the rollout of home chargers as it would include provisions to avoid a single neighbour blocking the installation of a plug.

Limited grid capacity is another argument often used against installing an EV charger. However, since smart charging can work around capacity limitations at the building or local grid level, the ‘right to plug’ effectively ensures that connecting a charger does not need to come with an upgrade to the building grid.

If the EU decides to act and ensure EV-ready buildings and a ‘right to a smart plug’, EV charging could be ubiquitous already 15 years from now.

No smart charging without robust standards

For smart charging to work properly, key legislation such as the EPBD will need to define the right technical specifications. Then, European standardisation organisations must develop robust standards, aiming to allow EVs to communicate with the building and the grid. In addition, technical standards should make it easy for users to connect their devices, and have them communicate within buildings and with the grid. Standards can serve to remove complexity for users and drive down technology costs.

Some of the necessary standards are advancing, while others are still in their infancy and need improvement. For instance, standards must allow drivers to link their cars to any building energy management system, not only those supported by the car brand. If well implemented, these standards will ensure electric cars can adjust and shift their demand, buffer renewable energy, avoid grid imbalances, and even feed power back to the building or the grid, boosting the energy performance of buildings.

With parking lots turned into charging spaces and robust standards in place, houses and workplaces can become a cornerstone for the integration of energy, mobility, and buildings. Through the ‘right to a smart plug’ the EPBD can spearhead the transition to clean mobility in a climate neutral Europe.

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