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Are we exaggerating the potential impact of electric vehicles on power demand and charging point networks, even in the case of fast growth of EV sales?

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In total, in Europe and as of mid-2017, there were nearly 120,000 charging points on public roads, including nearly 13,500 superchargers. Three countries are largely above the European average:  the Netherlands, Germany and France, with respectively 30,500, 20,300 and 16,100 charging points installed, i.e. one point for respectively 4, 5 and 7 electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. Sweden is the country where the percentage of superchargers in the total number of charging points is the highest: 47%, to be compared to c.11% on average in Europe.

Of course, the charging infrastructure is closely linked to the sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, and governments are logically seeking to develop these networks. This said, motorist needs will also change, depending on the increase in plug-in electric vehicle range, and charging technologies themselves, including fast charging. The location of these superchargers is also important. For information, in France currently half of the 370 motorway service stations are equipped with at least one fast charging device.

In this context, the management of the charging infrastructure and the over-consumption of electricity potentially generated by the progressive electrification of the European car fleet rises questions. However, an analysis of some key figures enables to mitigate the alarmism of some experts about the inability of the current power structures to provide the extra energy required.

If we take the example of France, a very optimistic hypothesis would be to get to 12% of plug-in electric vehicles in the total light car parc, by 2030. That would mean about 5 million vehicles circulating in the market, based on current fleet figures for passenger cars and light trucks and their natural trend. According to RTE (Réseau de Transport de L’Electricité, the French company operating the electricity transmission network), such a parc would generate an additional total electricity consumption of about 12 to 15 TWh over one year, equivalent to the production of a medium-sized nuclear power plant, or to 2 to 3% of the total annual French consumption (around 470 TWh today). And this, without considering the possible improvements regarding the efficiency of battery packs and electric motors. The use of technologies such as the "Vehicle to Grid" one, enabling to restore the energy of an electric vehicle into the power network, and policies to promote a more rational use of the automobile in general, would also help to limit the additional demand in electricity.

So, the energy transmission structures will have to go through necessary improvements to cope with the increasing number of plug-in electric cars in the parcs. But most of the efforts will be focused on the management of demand peaks, particularly locally, nearby superchargers, for example. In this case as well solutions exist, facilitated by the low intensity of use of personal vehicles at present:  they remain parked somewhere between 95 and 98% of the time! Smart/ variable charging pricing can therefore, among other measures, facilitate a smoother demand for electricity…

Concerning the market coverage by public charging stations, the increasing range of EVs may lead to various plans of development. Charging at home (via a "Wall Box" or not) may be sufficient in most cases to meet the mobility needs of motorists in a relatively short term. For example, a typical French driver travels 250 km per week - this is an average for all types of cars. Various recent surveys tend to show that an effective range of 300 km for an EV is a threshold above which most potential customers would consider it as “acceptable”, and a number of new EV models are now reaching or exceeding this limit (even for ‘non-Tesla’ cars !). For people living in apartments, a policy focus on the development of ‘residential chargers’ - located at dedicated slots in residences’ parking or on public roads – would be necessary.

On the other hand, if the future superchargers are as promising as stated (i.e. enabling the recovery of several hundred kilometers in a few minutes), their massive implementation may not be necessary. In fact, most plug-in electric vehicle owners are using these chargers for long journeys only. If the technology enables very fast charging, then, the current charging point density might well be more than sufficient. In other words we may talk here about thousands of public charging points for Europe, but certainly not millions.  To get a feeling of the future needs for EV owners to access power charging stations on public roads, ask yourself the question: “If I could refuel my ICE car at home, how frequently would I use ‘public’ petrol stations ?”.

Sources: Eafo, RTE, TCG Conseil

Written by Thomas Chieux

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