Then there are the teams of people who are working to create a seamless experience for the new electric vehicle driver. This challenge includes everything from informed sales staff to inspectors for charging station permitting to utilities and electricians. And now, there’s Gridtest Systems.
Gridtest Systems does not test the grid, but rather EV charging stations. It's not that the bevy of charging station manufacturers weren’t testing their stations before now. However, testers were built in-house and varied between every lab and company. Local electricians have also been stymied by rules that can require testing the charging station, which is often installed before the car is parked in the driveway.
“There are no commercial test tools out there,” said Neal Roche, CEO of Gridtest Systems. “There are already 70 companies building charging stations and all that new technology has to be integrated into other systems.”
The Los Angeles-based company was founded a year ago and is already doing a brisk business. Customers include national labs, utilities, re-seller integrators (who subcontract to electricians), and the charging station manufacturers. “It’s very expensive to develop a box just for your own [use],” said Roche. “They’d prefer to just buy it off the shelf.” He noted that one prominent EV charging company was hounding him to buy the testing box last year, before it was commercially available. The company is also a finalist in the California region for the Cleantech Open.
The box, which is about the size of a small, chunky briefcase (or a cell phone case from the 1980s), is currently equipped to test Level II charging stations, although the company is also developing a DC fast-charging test box for 2012. One version designed for a lab now costs about $8,000; the other test unit for installation and maintenance costs $3,000 to $4,000. The boxes are flying out the door, said Roche, with labs and companies calling to order the product sight unseen.
The difference in price between the two units is due to the sophistication of the equipment. For the electrical contractor, Gridtest Systems wanted the device to be as simple as possible, but also robust enough to meet the requirements of utilities, carmakers and any other concerned party. To get started, electricians push a “run” button. The box then does its magic.
The tester runs 32 tests in under two minutes, including tests for power, communications and safety. The contractor then gets a “pass” or “fail” report that details any problems and produces a serial number for the test that can go back to the manufacturer. The other issue is preventative maintenance, especially for charging stations in public places like city streets. Many charging companies are assembling a set of best practices, which include preventive maintenance schedules -- but that means having something that can be used for that task.
For utilities, it’s all about interoperability. Whether it’s testing that the charging stations can work with emerging standards or receive a demand response or dynamic pricing signal, electric vehicles will need to talk to the utility back-end systems. In California, for instance, the state’s Public Utility Commission is discussing submetering for EVs, which would require that a submeter embedded in a charging station is receiving and sending the correct pricing and usage data.
It’s not just California entities and big national labs that are placing orders. Gridtest is currently talking to venture capitalists for its first round of funding, but the company is already working in the U.K., Ireland, Germany and Taiwan. Roche knows the space won’t be all theirs for long -- he's aware that large engineering companies like Tektronix will eventually move into the space.
But for now, Gridtest Systems is confident it can stay ahead of the game by anticipating and meeting the industry’s needs. “People don’t just need to test the charging station,” said Roche, “they need to figure out what’s coming down the line in terms of smart grid communications.”