As governments wake up to the need of establishing an infrastructure of charging points for electric vehicles (EVs), commercial players are offering anything from the expertise to set up the network down to the individual chargers.

Some innovations will clearly make life a lot easier for those with the job of making the EV marketable. Others may bring problems of their own alongside their benefits.

Deciding how and where to set up a network is crucial. The UK-based Future Transport Systems designs the layout of electric vehicle charging infrastructure based on criteria provided by regional organisations, vehicle manufacturers, infrastructure suppliers and distribution network operators. The company models scenarios to understand how usage might develop and impact upon the electrical distribution network.

There is, too, the question of standardisation. In Japan, a business consortium including Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Fuji Heavy Industries and the Tokyo Electric Power Company is working on standardised EV charging units that any vehicle can use. This CHAdeMO (Charge de Move) coalition is trying to involve international business and governments in its plan for an EV outlet and voltage standard.

“With standardised charging, EVs have a much better chance of customer acceptance and success,” a CHAdeMO note said.

The standardisation message was reinforced recently at a Eurelectric (the European electricity industry federation) conference on EVs in Brussels, from September 28-29. Ivan Hodac, secretary-general of the European auto-makers association ACEA said long recharging times and lack of standardisation meant e-mobility was not an immediate solution. He was critical of what he called “fully fledged fragmentation” -  a lack of co-ordination on the issue within the European Union (EU), and said electric vehicles made no sense in green terms if they were not powered by low carbon electricity.

At the same conference, Fulvio Conti, CEO of Enel, Italy’s biggest power company – saw EVs as a social revolution posing a challenge for distributors to develop smart networks that can integrate intermittent renewables such as wind power, and allow spare capacity to be fed into the grid.

Using green power is clearly on the global wish list of the energy and auto sectors, and the US-based Eaton Corporation has recently teamed up with Tennessee Valley Authority and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to develop a prototype integrated solar-assisted electric vehicle charging station at EPRI’s research laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee. EPRI members represent more than 90% of the total electricity generated in the US, and the institute collaborates with 40 countries. The prototype station is a Smart Modal Area Recharge Terminal, called simply a SMART station. It will give information on energy use, the time when the equipment is used, the amount of solar-generated electricity produced and stored by the system, and the potential impact of load clusters on electrical distribution system reliability.

Some companies are already well ahead of the game. In Britain, Brighton-based Elektromotive, founded in 2003, makes the Elektrobay, a recharging station for on-street or multi-storey car park use. London has installed more than 100 of these already, with a further 130 in cities and shopping centres throughout the UK. They have also been exported to Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Iceland and Saudi Arabia. The latest venture involved setting up a network in Copenhagen.

The chargers have a power output of 240 volts AC and 13 amps in the UK, or 230 volts AC and 16 amps in Europe, and are sold as being compatible with all fully-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

This is progress indeed. But what about pricing? What are the typical costs of individual charging points?

California-based Coulomb Technologies’ Charge Point station comes at a cost of USD7,872 each, whereas ECOtotality North America’s internet-linked charging station comes in at an average cost of USD2,495.

Not all carmakers have been prepared to sit back and wait for the market to supply charging infrastructure. Japan’s Nissan decided to develop its own chargers in-house, and has now used the expertise gained to produce a quick charger, at a cost of USD16,299.

“It works with other carmakers’ EVs as well as our own,” a company spokesman said. “We also offer variants for hot and cold climates.” Nissan is planning to install the new quick chargers at 200 selected dealers in Japan, along with its standard chargers at 2,200 Nissan dealers there, before December 2010.

Meanwhile, Coulomb, in partnership with Aker Wade Power Technologies, is also grabbing their share of the emerging market for quick chargers, which promise to refuel a vehicle in under 30 minutes.

“We expect to have them ready for installation by the end of the year (2010) at a cost of between USD20,000 and USD40,000 a unit,” the company said.

There is a growing market, too, for home-charging units. A UK study now underway at Aston University, Birmingham, published interim findings this October showing the cost of recharging at home ranges between GBP0.25 and GBP1.00 (USD0.39 to USD1.57) a day, according to the electricity tariff and the range of the vehicle. Said project leader Neil Butcher: “Concern about battery life when undertaking long journeys is falling as drivers become more familiar with their vehicles, and the low cost of recharging in relatively short periods of time reinforces this.”

Is there help for drivers who run out of power in the road? Swiss green energy company Nation-E used the E-Car-Tec exhibition in Munich this October to show off its new Angel Car – a mobile powerhouse claimed to be able to charge up a stranded EV within 15 minutes.

Although fast charging will be popular with EV drivers, electricity companies are concerned existing grids may not be able to cope with the demand. Utilities such as the San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) expect most buyers will want a 240-volt charger that can charge a modest-sized EV at home in two to three hours. That is four times as fast as a standard 120-volt charger. A charger like this, it warns, can draw up to 6.6 kilowatts at a time. What is more, drivers will not necessarily be charging their vehicles overnight, using otherwise idle generating plants and power grids, as was originally thought.

Saul Zambrano, director for clean air and transportation at PG&E, said: “You’ve got to manage the runway. And from our perspective, we think the runway is getting short relative to the launch of these vehicles.”

Deirdre Mason

More: November 2010 management briefing: EV battery charging networks and roll-out issues