EV charging infrastructure gets close look at NextEnergy

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NextEnergy worked with Coritec of Royal Oak, MI, to develop this sophisticated bidirectional-power-flow and conditioning unit that is used to explore vehicle-to-grid technologies. The Dual Bidirectional Charging Module can emulate any grid in the world while managing large voltage fluctuations. It evolved from work NextEnergy did with the U.S. Department of Defense on micro-grid power management.

Michigan’s NextEnergy is conducting several research programs related to charging of electric vehicles, and it possesses a great store of knowledge about it. But the so-called “technology and business accelerator” organization doesn’t have a crystal ball when it comes to exactly how the EV charging infrastructure in North America will be built out.

"There are just way too many unknowns" to confidently predict how big the charging pie will be and how it will be sliced among the different charging types and levels, said Director of Business Development Gary Gauthier during a recent AEI tour of NextEnergy's Detroit facilities.

One of the biggest unknowns, in his view, is future sales volumes of EVs. (For the purpose of this article, EVs is a generic reference to any vehicle employing traction batteries charged via connection to the grid.) An unknown inside that unknown is whether plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) will continue to dominate over full battery-electric vehicles (BEVs). "If so, the infrastructure is much different," he said. Specifically, "it is very likely [PHEVs] will not require as much infrastructure and not require fast charging to attain range."

Another unknown is market penetration of natural-gas-fueled vehicles in the fleet segment. "If it delays the fleet [EV] user market, the types and styles of charging infrastructure fleets use will be delayed and will impact the personal vehicle market," explained Gauthier, whose work history includes two stints as vice president at auto parts companies.

The pace at which battery technology evolves is another unknown. "Range and storage capacity are unknowns, let alone how the new developments will impact charging rates and the supporting infrastructure," he said.

Mixed in with the many unknowns are some important "knowns," such as the fact that "in North America more than 80% of EV owners get by fine with an ac Level 1 charger because the car sits for 10 to 12 hours at home every night," Gauthier said. That's enough time for a full charge even for a BEV. Studies show that 80% of commuters in North America drive less than 40 mi (64 km) a day; in Europe, the figure is 30 mi (48 km). That distance is well within the range of a BEV such as the Nissan Leaf.

Those figures raise questions about the value of higher levels of charging, even though there have been some major recent developments in that area. One of those developments is SAE International's update of its J1772 standard to expand its scope from ac Level 1 and Level 2 charging to also address dc fast charging (see "EVs get boost from new SAE standard for dc fast charging"). And Tesla recently announced that it is installing a number of fast-charging stations in Arizona, California, and Nevada for its new Model S using a technology different from J1772 and CHAdeMo (the fast charge system developed in Japan and deployed to a small degree in the U.S.).

Dc fast charging is a tough sell, and even ac Level 2 charging at 220 V has some questions marks in Gauthier's mind. That's because ac Level 1 is a convenient and comparatively inexpensive option not only at home overnight but also during the day at a workplace.

Moreover, he said, range anxiety among EV owners is overblown, Gauthier said. Some studies on the subject are based on surveys of people who do not own an EV, "and so of course they want 300-mile range." But other studies conducted globally indicate that range anxiety dissipates very quickly among actual buyers of EVs, he noted.

Given that an ac Level 1 charger costs a couple hundred dollars, an ac Level 2 charger up to about $1500, and a dc fast charger up to $50,000, "I think we're going to see a lot more Level 1 charging than a lot of people think we are," Gauthier concluded without providing volume figures. In support of that conclusion is the reality that much of the ac Level 2 charging done today outside the home is offered free (to a large degree because of government subsidies). Demand for ac Level 2 charging is likely to decline when charging station operators begin imposing fees, he believes.

All of which, Gauthier says, makes for an interesting debate should there be major advances in battery technology/performance without an increase in battery costs: Should automakers maintain battery size and offer more range, or should they reduce battery size and lower EV purchasing prices while maintaining range? For Gauthier, it's a no-brainer: Reduce battery size.

"The major hurdle in EVs is the cost," he said. "It's not infrastructure, and it's not range anxiety."

Providing such insight is one of NextEnergy's services. Born of the Michigan Economic Development Agency in 2002 and supported with state, federal, philanthropic, and industry funding, its root purpose is to create energy-related jobs in the state. In addition to understanding the energy market and sharing information about it, the nonprofit state research and development organization collaborates with fledgling Michigan companies to cultivate promising ideas into profitable products and services. It carries out its mission with a staff of 25 (including close to 20 with technical degrees), eight indoor labs, a nine-bay outdoor facility for testing micro-grid technologies, and other resources at its location in downtown Detroit.

It has eight EV charging stations on-site, two of which are powered in part by solar energy generated via rooftop photovoltaic panels. The solar power is also used for lighting and other purposes in its building at 461 Burroughs Street in downtown Detroit.

One of the companies leasing lab space there, Nextek Power Systems, is working on a technology that allows dc power generated from renewable sources to run over a building's existing ac electrical system. Now in the early stage of commercialization, the technology is being applied at the NextEnergy building using the solar power cited above.

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