Think electric vehicles (EVs), think chargers. The plug-in charger has become a very visible symbol of the move towards cleaner propulsion, but there’s a world of technology at play behind the scenes. Managing much of it is Schneider Electric, which provides not only chargers but also the energy management software for power distribution, the electrical protection equipment and the metering. The company counts some big-name players among its customers: in the US, it provides all the power and energy from the grid to Tesla’s supercharging locations. In Europe, it handles power distribution for most of Ionity’s motorway sites.
Apart from corridor charging, though, much of Schneider Electric’s focus is on home, work and destination charging where vehicles are parked for longer periods. These charging situations will generally involve a connection between the charger and a building of some sort, opening up new opportunities to innovate with energy management. It’s a challenging job that will only becomes more so as EV numbers take off. Mike Doucleff, Schneider Electric’s Global Head of e-mobility, shares his vision of how to successfully manage the coming energy demand.
Broadly speaking, how do you see EV charging developing?
Within the passenger vehicle segment, we think the majority of charging will happen when the vehicle stops, versus stopping the vehicle to charge. That means that the notion that we’re going to put electrons into our battery EVs the same way we put molecules into our internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is just not the case. You’re still going to have the 5% of cases where there’s a long drive or an emergency, but most of the use cases on charging the consumer segment can be solved when the car is stopped at home, at work or at destinations, such as a commercial centre, retail centre, restaurant or hotel. And those are all connected to a building.
What considerations need to be taken in light of that connection?
With a standard office building today, it’s OK to add ten chargers. You won’t massively impact the energy consumption of the building. But as you then go to electrify all of the parking spaces, you will need something that is connected, smart and well thought-out, or you can potentially get yourself into trouble. You don’t want to have the building turning off, tripping the breaker or incurring penalties from the utility because you’ve over-consumed your electricity. Power distribution and energy management are essential. You also need connectivity to the entire system to make sure that it stays on.
Talk me through an example of balancing energy requirements of a building with those of EV charging.
Start with the simplest building: a single-family home. Imagine you live in France and have a 9-kilowatt service. You buy an EV that can charge at 11 or 22 kilowatts. As soon as you plug it in you’re going to trip your main circuit breaker and have an outage in your house. It’s essential to coordinate between what the car is using and what the rest of the house—the hairdryer, the tumble-dryer, the oven—is using. This is where smart energy management comes into play. It can give the maximum available power to the car when necessary. As soon as the hairdryer or the washing machine clicks on, it will lower the charging rate to the vehicle.
Is it a similar approach at commercial locations, with numerous customer EVs parked out front?
The problem just scales because here you’re starting to coordinate various other loads inside the building. You really need to have a good connection between the building energy consumption and between the vehicle consumption.
Do you expect commercial retail companies to invest in the chargers and the smart power management themselves?
Not only are companies demanding sustainability but employees are demanding sustainability, customers are demanding sustainability, and EVs play right into that. When it comes to commercial retail space, EVs will be integrated into the business plan. Free charging becomes a way to attract customers, and could be connected to the loyalty system: the more you buy the more free charging you get. For employees, charging can be offered free or at a discount. More and more companies are going to use EV charging to attract customers.
Is this sort of approach already underway?
There’s a great example with US company Volta Charging, which installs EV charging infrastructure for free at commercial and retail sites. They give away the electricity to customers in exchange for advertising on the charger itself. The charger is essentially a large screen with changing ads.
What role do you see for governments in supporting infrastructure?
Governments are probably going to spend a bit more time on ensuring that corridor charging is set up. Even if the majority of use cases aren’t going to charge on the highway, you still need to have it in place.
As Global Head of e-mobility, what is your specific focus for the coming 12 months?
We are preparing for the wave. Things have really started to accelerate over the past six months but it’s nothing compared to what’s going to come in two years when electric passenger cars reach price parity with ICE. When we hit the S-curve, it’s going to take off and that’s going to be a challenge for many companies.
What is your advice to them?
There is much more behind charging than just the charger, whether it’s in the audit and the commissioning, the power distribution, energy management, cybersecurity or safety. It’s not good enough just to go buy a charger and hire an electrician and install it. You need to really analyse and understand what the charge curve will look like, what the other loads in the home or the building look like. You need to do some homework before putting in the charger. As you get to a building, that problem is just going to scale and be more complicated.