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Fastest electric car chargers waiting for batteries to catch up

Apr 04 2019 20:56
David Stringer, Bloomberg

The viability of electric vehicles depends in part on a manufacturing plant in eastern Australia, where gleaming white cabinets the size of large refrigerators are loaded onto shipping crates. They’re among the most advanced car chargers available, promising to deliver a full tank of juice in minutes.

Automakers and energy companies are spearheading the global rollout of these ultra-fast charging pumps to lure consumers away from gas guzzlers and toward vehicles powered by electricity. Thousands of souped-up stations are being installed along highways from Shanghai to Germany and California, with the capacity to charge enough for 32 kilometres of driving range in one minute.

Electric vehicles will comprise more than half of all new car sales in 2040, according to BloombergNEF, as prices come down, while battery life and driving ranges get longer. To meet the power demand, about $50bn of investment in charging equipment is needed through 2030, according to McKinsey & Co.

Volkswagen, Tesla and Ford are among the automakers spending on high-speed chargers with eyes toward that future. Current power packs aren’t compatible with the fastest chargers, and the first EVs able to fully utilise the new pumps won’t debut until later this year.

Still, car companies are nudging battery makers to catch up to help allay nagging consumer concerns that EVs can’t take uninterrupted lengthy trips and that motorists face long, inconvenient waits to recharge on the go.

“It’s about impacting that buying decision in the dealership,’’ said David Finn, chief executive officer of Tritium Pty, an Australian supplier of high-power chargers to more than 25 countries. “The main reason you own a car is for the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you feel like it. That will always be playing on your mind if you have a slow charger.’’

The push is seeding unheralded companies in atypical manufacturing hubs, including Tritium in Brisbane and Innogy SE’s BTCPower, which has plants in California and the Philippines. It’s also enticing traditional energy and engineering companies such as Zurich’s ABB and Portugal’s Efacec Power Solutions.

A typical, slow-speed public EV charger offers about 20 miles of driving distance per hour at the plug. The next level up, called a fast charger, can add about 75 miles in 30 minutes, according to Los Angeles-based station operator EVgo Services.

The ultra-fast chargers blow those away.

Tritium, formed in 2001 by members of a solar-car racing team, makes pumps that add some 350km of range in 10 minutes. Customers include Ionity GmbH - a consortium of carmakers, including Volkswagen and Ford, that’s partnering with energy giants such as Royal Dutch Shell and Kuwait Petroleum International.

Ionity is building about 400 stations - with as many as six ultra-fast chargers each - on European highways to compete with networks backed by Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co. ABB, with chargers deployed in 70 countries, is also supplying high-speed pumps. It’s “a real breakthrough in terms of convenience,’’ CEO Ulrich Spiesshofer told the CERAWeek conference in Houston in March. “We barbecued a couple of cars until we got there.’’

Electrify America, a Volkswagen unit created under a settlement in the automaker’s emissions scandal, is spending $2bn on refuelling stations in the US over a decade, installing its first ultra-fast charger in Chicopee, Massachusetts, last May.

“The charging capacities of electric vehicles have doubled in the space of a few years,’’ Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagen said in an email. “We expect that fast-charging in public spaces will become the norm.’’

Tesla, which has more than 12 000 chargers globally, is boosting the speed of its own refuelling units to cut time at the pump by as much as half. The upgrade promises to add as much as 120km of charge in five minutes - still lagging the ultra-fast models.

The speed at which current EVs can recharge is limited by such factors as the size of their battery, the voltage the pack can accept and the charger’s current.

While it may be years before battery packs able to handle the power surge from ultra-fast chargers go mainstream, some new EVs - including Hyundai’s Kona Electric and Jaguar Land Rover Automotive’s I-Pace - already can recharge faster than previous generations.

Volkswagen’s Porsche brand will introduce its electric Taycan sports car later this year. It’s the first vehicle capable of taking full advantage of the fastest chargers, with a larger battery and the ability to operate at a higher voltage.

“The cars are coming,” said Marty Andrews, CEO of Chargefox Pty, which installed ABB’s fastest units at some Australia charging stations. “The carmakers want ultra-rapid chargers because they want this to be future-proof. This is not a six-month plan, it’s a 10-year plan.”

Battery makers are starting to follow that lead. China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology - better known as CATL - is working to improve charging speeds, according to its website.

South Korea’s LG Chem, a supplier to Volkswagen, last year invested in Enevate, a University of California spinoff that’s developing cells capable of ultra-fast refuelling.

With annual EV sales reaching 2 million last year, more emphasis is being put on building a widely available public charging infrastructure, including the faster pumps. Customer experience for EV drivers is “inextricably linked to how refueling is experienced,” BNEF analyst Salim Morsy said in a September report.

By the end of 2018, there were more than 630 000 public charging points installed globally, the bulk of which were in China, according to BNEF. By 2030, there may be demand for more than 20 million public EV charging pumps, the International Energy Agency forecasts.

That’s good news for manufacturers such as Tritium, which added a production line in California and a discreet facility in Amsterdam for automakers to test future electric models, Chief Technology Officer James Kennedy said.

“We are having to use air freight as customers just don’t want to wait six-to-eight weeks,’’ Kennedy said while inspecting completed high-speed units on the Brisbane assembly line. “They need them as fast as possible.’’

ict  |  companies  |  electric cars
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