Shell will trial a battery-backed ultra-fast charging system at a Dutch filling station, with tentative plans to adopt the format more widely to ease the grid pressures likely to come with mass-market electric vehicle adoption. 

By boosting the output of the chargers from the battery, the impact on the grid is dramatically reduced. That means avoiding expensive grid infrastructure upgrades. It also eases some of the pressure on local grid operators as they race to make net-zero carbon ambitions possible.

The system will be provided by fellow Dutch firm Alfen. The two 175-kilowatt chargers at the Zaltbommel site will draw on a 300-kilowatt/360-kilowatt-hour battery system. Shell portfolio companies Greenlots and NewMotion will provide the software management. 

The battery is optimized to charge when renewable production is high to keep both prices and carbon content low. The company describes the savings from avoiding grid upgrades as “significant.”

Shell is targeting an EV network of 500,000 chargers by 2025, up from around 60,000 today. Its pilot site will provide the data to inform the possibility of a wider rollout of the battery-backed approach. No timeline has been set on that rollout, a Shell spokesperson confirmed.

Using a battery to support fast EV charging can save time as well as installation and operation costs. Grid constraints are substantial in the Netherlands, especially on the distribution network. Distribution network operators in the U.K. have moved to head off potential constraints as the nation’s EV rollout has gathered pace.

In order to make money when it's not helping to ease grid stress from EV charging, the battery will also participate in a virtual power plant via the Greenlots FlexCharge platform. 

The battery-led approach is similar to that pursued by U.S. startup FreeWire Technologies. The California-based firm raised $25 million last April to commercialize its Boost Charger, which has a 120-kilowatt output backed up with a 160 kWh battery.

U.K. firm Gridserve is building 100 dedicated “Electric Forecourts” (filling stations in American parlance) in the next five years, with fast-charging supported by the companies' own solar-plus-storage projects.

EDF’s Pivot Power is building storage assets close to vital EV charging loads. It believes EV charging could represent 30 percent of each battery’s revenue.

Local grid operators facing strain from EVs

The U.K. regulator Ofgem has noted that, so far, public charging is more evenly distributed throughout the day, while domestic chargers frequently coincide with peak demand. Data from Zap-Map, which maps the nation’s network, shows that rapid public charging use actually peaks at lunchtime.

That’s a bonus for distribution network operators (DNOs) keen to avoid bottlenecks. But it doesn’t change the fact that ultrafast charging is often too great of a load for the infrastructure in place to support. The grid connection at the Zaltbommel site is small, and the filling station’s lighting, refrigeration and other loads already require 30 to 70 kW. That connection is insufficient for ultra-fast charging regardless of the distribution throughout the day.

These distribution grid operator challenges are only growing as perceived high returns and lofty low-carbon ambitions collide. On Thursday, regulator Ofgem revealed the financial framework of its next price controls for DNOs, set to kick in from 2023. Returns have been cut by one-third.

While consumer groups may rejoice at that news, the six companies affected have yet to submit their spending and investment plans. Ofgem accepts that some of these consumer savings could be eroded by the need for greater investment to support smarter, lower-carbon grids.

The next price controls for transmission companies begin next month and will run until March 2026. Ofgem’s proposals, which also reduced investor returns, have seen all the firms affected appeal to the Competition and Markets Authority on a number of details. The largest transmission operator, National Grid, is concerned about the assumed risk of investments used in the calculation and an “outperformance wedge” that grid firms claim penalizes, rather than incentivizes, outperformance.