Driving electric in Europe: The challenges of the electric car (2/2)

Part two: Charging stations

, by Corentin Delsard, Translated by Anna Walthew

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Driving electric in Europe: The challenges of the electric car (2/2)
Signage for an electric car charging point Photo credit: Pixabay

Electric vehicles (EVs) have seen their market develop significantly in 2020. However, among the problems this expansion has uncovered is the disparity of charging stations available across the continent.

The stakes are high for a response to the practical issues surrounding electric car usage. For example, electric cars need to be plugged in to recharge their batteries. Establishing a network of EV charging stations is key to promoting their use. Oslo, the capital of the European country most invested in the development of the EV, aims to reach 8,000 stations in 2025. It had 400 in 2020 for a city with approximately 680,000 inhabitants. This initiative is part of the Norwegian government’s larger goal for 100% of vehicle sales to be electric by 2025.

One major reason it is important to develop a network of charging stations is to support EV users on long journeys. Rolling out fast charging stations in France, for example, “must be carried out with a view to territorial coverage, while ensuring a range of diversified uses”, according to the French Minister of Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari. A budget of €100 million is planned for this roll-out in the 2021-2022 motorway network and state highway recovery plan.

It is also a question of distributing charging hubs in urban centres, especially near train stations and airports. This is already the case in Scandinavian countries. Hubs must be able to allow a wide variety of technologies to recharge simultaneously, which has meant larger recharging infrastructure in those areas.

European regulations allow countries to receive a subsidy of up to 40% of the installation costs. But certain conditions must be fulfilled for countries to access this budget: the charging stations must offer at least four fast-charging points, and stations offering a minimum power of 150 kilowatts (kW) are prioritised for funding.

The question of standards

There is a lot of detail required when it comes to EV charging stations because there is a multitude of plug socket standards for electric stations. Several fast-charging technologies exist, each with their own separate plugs. This lack of standardisation could even become a source of economic challenges in the long term.

The most widespread fast-charging socket is the CHAdeMO standard, which is the trade name of a technology that a Japanese consortium (including among others: Nissan, Mitsubishi, Fuji Heavy Industries, Tokyo Electric Power Company and Toyota) has developed over the past fifteen years. It is the most widespread technology on the European continent, with around 16,000 terminals in place at the end of 2020, up from to 2,755 in 2015. For instance, the first Renault Zoé models (the best-selling EV in Europe) were only compatible with this type of socket. The second most common technology is a European standard. The CCS standard, meaning Combined Charging System, is a charging technology standard offered since 2012 thanks to the cooperation of seven car manufacturers, mainly German.

Since 2014, European Directive 2014/94/EU requires that when installing fast charging stations, at least one connector based on the CCS standard should be offered. Therefore, this initiative does not prevent the installation of multi-standard charging stations, although it makes the CCS standard an essential European standard, with a clear desire for standardisation.

Oil interests

Oil group investment in the energy transition is no secret. Some would even say that their contribution to the development of EVs is creating new financial interests for them. The example of Total allows us to better understand the situation. This French group aims to use a “multi-energy” strategy to maintain its place in the automotive sector and the electric transition. Total has already announced a target of 150,000 charging points by 2025. Its network currently consists of 20,000 points in five countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany). In addition, Total’s objectives are underpinned by a desire to anticipate future charging technologies. This manifests itself in their construction of high-power stations that offer up to 175 kW.

The company’s charging station construction strategy can benefit from its strong presence along major traffic routes. Their network will go on to establish urban charging hubs and personal, individual charging stations.

However, their strategy causes a dilemma. By presenting themselves as energy suppliers for EVs, oil groups could begin to be viewed as competitors to traditional suppliers of domestic electricity. This increase in the number of suppliers could cause the current price of electricity to fluctuate, regardless of which sources of electricity production were used. The current kW-per-minute tariffs in France will sooner or later come up against distributor demand for a kW-per-power price. In the future, will this lead us to a change in the pricing of electricity, or even a differentiation between its usages (home or car)?

The cost of roll-out

In addition to potential domestic electricity cost consequences, the roll-out of additional charging stations requires connecting to existing electricity supply networks. Since this connection is made up of copper cables, the cost of raw materials required to manufacture said cables easily makes this project a highly ambitious one. The more the demand for charging stations increases, the more the demand for copper will rise. To date, it is estimated that humanity has produced between 800 million and one billion tonnes of copper since mining began. Based on current rates of demand, including all the needs for the energy transition, forecasts show we will need to produce the same amount again – but this time in just 30 years.

Across the Atlantic, in the Chilean Chuquicamata mine, 330,000 tonnes of copper were refined and offered for sale in 2019. The forecast for 2020 was 460,000 tonnes, which would be a record for the largest open-cast mine on earth, representing an estimated 13% of the world’s copper reserve. But in this business, which has already disfigured mountains, the raw material has started to become scarce. The deeper miners dig, the less copper they find.

There is no doubt that the EV market is key in the era of energy transition. However, we must be aware that all energy production, whether it aims to limit polluting emissions or not, takes a heavy toll on our ecosystems and planet. Contemplating the meaning of the energy transition does not mean we should not act to slow climate change. Nevertheless, we must certainly not forget the reality of grabbing planetary resources to the detriment of biodiversity. Perhaps the energy transition should go more in the direction of reviewing our needs, rather than replacing their sources of supply.

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