Imagine your car’s gas tank is fed by a straw, using fuel it pulls from the power outlet in your garage. It’s cheap to fill up, but it may take all night to do so -- and if you’re on the road at the end of your battery’s range with somewhere to go, you’re going to need a refill that can push power through that straw a lot faster, or harder, than your garage extension cord can handle.

That’s where fast-charging systems come into play. Using higher voltage direct or alternating current (DC or AC), fast-charge systems can pump enough electricity to put a Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Mitsubishi MiEV or other plug-in vehicle to an 80-percent charge in about half an hour.

There aren’t nearly enough plug-in cars on the road today to give these gas station or parking lot fast-charge kiosks much business, of course. But for the intrepid all-electric car owner who wants to make sure she can get to her grandma’s house 200 miles away without being stranded, they’re a lifesaver.

In that sense, they’re an important linchpin to government-backed plug-in infrastructure projects underway across the globe, from Denmark and Estonia to China and Japan. In the United States,the $230 million Department of Energy-backed EG Project is putting fast-chargers up and down the California-Oregon-Washington I-5 corridor and in a 425-mile stretch of highway between Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga that's known as the Tennessee Triangle.

Companies in the EV charger space include heavyweights like ABB, Schneider Electric, Siemens, Eaton, Nissan, Fuji Electric, Aker Wade and Tokyo Electric Power Co., the utility that developed the standard fast-charging technology known as CHAdeMO now in use in almost all the DC fast-charging systems out there today.

Smaller-scale players like AeroVironment and ECOtality have deployed fast chargers, along with startup Coulomb Technologies, with the latter two companies also focused on networking and software that links cars, drivers, utilities and other third parties to manage charge monitoring, payment methods and other such functions. Tesla is promising its own network of "supercharging" stations, along with batteries that swap out instead of waiting to be refilled, a method that startup Better Place is trying to push into the market. 

It’s a confusing landscape, but its basic organization boils down to two principles, according to Cal Lankton, director of EV charging infrastructure for Swiss-based grid and power equipment giant ABB.

First, “Long term, hardware becomes more and more of a commodity,” Lankton said in an interview last week. Sure, there are some uncertainties over which charging system standards will dominate, with notable tensions between Japan’s CHAdeMO, the Society of Automotive Engineers’ SAE J1772 fast-charging work and a German system using an adapter from Mennekes Elektrotechnik, known as VDE-AR-E 2623-2-2. Still, there’s only so much companies can do to differentiate the equipment that goes into charging a car, besides compete on price.

Secondly, the technology and software that monitors, manages and controls these fast chargers are going to become more and more critical as time goes on, Lankton said. In other words, the brand of gas pump doesn’t matter nearly as much as how it interacts with driver (and vehicle) at the point of sale, and how it relates that back to the utility, private power provider, or other businesses seeking out new models for delivering electrons to push cars down the road.

Hardware’s Competitive Landscape

ABB’s Terra 51 fast DC charger pumps as much as 50 kilowatts directly into a car battery, with typical fill-up speeds of 15 minutes for a half charge and 30 minutes for a full charge. It’s been deployed in Europe since earlier this year, and just won Underwriters Laboratories (UL) certification to clear its sale in the United States as well.

ABB’s charging system incorporates technology from Epyon, a Dutch startup it acquired last summer for an undisclosed sum. It also makes 120- and 240-volt chargers for garage or office parking lot use, and in March launched a 20-kilowatt DC charger, known as the Terra Smart Connect, that can charge an EV battery in about an hour -- about the time it takes to visit the doctor, attend a PTA meeting, take a trip to the mall and other such daily activities.

ABB has more than 200 of its fast-chargers deployed so far, Lankton said. Big projects, like its project to blanket the Baltic nation of Estonia with 100 DC-AC fast chargers at gas stations and 500 Level 2 chargers at office and government parking lots, will likely double that figure by year’s end, he said.

In the meantime, the competition is fierce for the fast-charging market, or perhaps we should say “pre”-market. To name a few examples: Schneider Electric launched its own fast charger in May to complement its Level 2 charging line; Eaton’s fast charger is being deployed in projects from Hawaii to Washington, D.C.; and AeroVironment has deployed DC fast chargers with NRG Energy’s eVgo network in Dallas and Houston, Texas.

There’s room for some hardball competition here. Notably, while NRG’s $120 million settlement deal with California to deploy up to 100 fast chargers across the state is under legal challenge from ECOtality, which says that it would create a monopoly for charging services in the state, NRG has yet to say which brand of fast charger it might use for the project.

Software to Deliver Different Business Models

On the software front, ABB’s charger network management platform keeps a close eye on critical equipment factors like power converter conditions and battery status, to make sure the chargers aren’t about to fail, Lankton said. Of course, he conceded that this kind of basic functionality will be expected out of other major manufacturers of power electronic equipment like DC vehicle chargers.

ABB also tracks power consumption and allows communications of various signals, like turn-on, turn-off, and variable charge speeds to help mitigate grid stress, he said. It’s helped along in that task by the software smarts of Ventyx, the grid IT firm it bought for about $1 billion in 2010. But again, it’s far from unique in this regard, with industrial giants and startups alike exploring the potential for “vehicle-to-grid” technologies that turn plug-in cars from a liability to an asset for utilities.

ABB’s charger software also serves as a networking platform for various partners, like ECOtality and its Blink charger network, to interface with, to deploy different business models via a set of APIs, he said. That’s important, because just who’s selling charging services to drivers varies considerably from market to market.

 

In Europe, for example, the business relationship is usually between the EV driver and his or her utility, Lankton said. But in the United States, state regulations out of California that bar utilities from directly setting up EV charging businesses are expected to push the industry in a different direction, opening the doors for different business models.

“We are not going to play in that B2C [business-to-consumer] space, but we want to enable our customers to do it,” is how Lankton put it. Ongoing development of back-office standards to support this charging apps world, such as the OCCP (open charge point protocol) out of the Netherlands, can help this process along, he said.

Today’s charging platforms like Coulomb’s ChargePoint, ECOtality’s Blink, and the various government projects underway are closed networks, he said. Each requires drivers to sign up in advance and get an RFID card in the mail, or a passcode that’s uniquely tied to them, or some other such time-consuming process.

But that can’t last long. While early entrants like Coulomb, ECOtality and NRG seek to gain market share and put their stamp on the way charging networks are built out on a broader scale, other business models are sure to emerge. For example, ABB is already working with credit card companies to integrate simple card-swipe payments into EV charging, Lankton said.

Likewise, GE and PayPal joined up to provide online and mobile payment options in July, and GM has opened its OnStar system to apps developers to give charging location and status data to drivers via their Volt dashboard. We’re sure to see more such models emerge in the coming years.  

Tags: abb, aerovironment, car charging, chargepoint, chevy volt, coulomb, dc charging, ecotality, electric cars, energy storage, epyon, fast charging, general electric, general motors, mitsubishi