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Solar: shedding light on a ‘10-second charge’

Tim Evans argues that solar could provide a significant advantage in the quest to close the EV infrastructure gap

There has been a motley yet vocal crowd who have repeated the same questions ever since the topic of electrification rose to prominence: “How can the grid support widespread electric vehicle (EV) adoption? How can infrastructure be rolled out fast enough? How can we make charging an electric car as quick and convenient as refuelling a gasoline or diesel equivalent?”

Special report: Electric vehicles and the grid

The simple answer is we do not: we make the experience even better. You can spend 20 minutes at the wheel of an internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle queueing at the pump, perusing confectionary and standing in line at the till, or you can spend under 30 seconds charging your EV in a state of blissful convenience. The charging technology exists to make this a reality now. Even better: it is renewable and minimises reliance on the grid.

The greatest change required to make this concept a widely adopted reality is to our mindset. EV drivers, legislators, fleet operators and EV charging equipment operators must let go of the reliance on a forecourt refuelling model and consider the potential of workplace and destination charging. How long does it take the 3ti team to charge their fleet of EVs? Usually, the time it takes to plug them in at their destination. When it is time to leave, the vehicle is normally fully charged.

By utilising solar car parks (SCPs) as a workplace and destination charging location, EV drivers can consider a future where a service station rapid charger network is required only to top-up during longer journeys.

Solar car park
Solar car parks harness locally generated solar energy

Deployment of a solar infrastructure

The best, most cost-effective place to charge an EV is at home overnight. Taking the UK as an example, only around 50% of households will be able to charge at home. Many players believe that workplace and destination SCP infrastructure is best suited to supporting real-world EV use, taking advantage of extended dwell times of several hours to ensure that EV drivers not only experience minimal disruption to planned journey times, but that they can benefit from locally generated solar energy. In the UK, vehicles spend up to 95% of their life parked—from an environmental, societal and sustainability perspective, this is when they should be charged. Fast charging from a renewable source minimises the environmental impact of EV charging and negates the rapid charge/discharge model that accelerates EV battery degradation.

Hospitals, hotels, meeting venues, sports or shopping centres, tourist attractions and workplace carparks are all ideal locations for SCP installation.

However, to fully realise their potential, SCPs should combine solar, a battery energy storage system and EV charge points. These technologies are more usually considered individually, but it is only by combining the three that you offer an optimised solution for accessible, affordable, reliable low carbon EV charging.

Fast charging from a renewable source minimises the environmental impact of EV charging and negates the rapid charge/discharge model that accelerates EV battery degradation

As a tool for effective decarbonisation of energy supplies and the transport sector, solar has vast potential. For example, a typical car park with a solar installation spanning 350 spaces would produce approximately 900,000 kWh of electricity a year, saving the equivalent of 4,100 tonnes of carbon emissions (tCO2e) over a 30-year period. This is the equivalent of powering around 6,000 homes or planting 68,000 trees.

In the UK alone, there are around 20,000 public car parks with 4 million parking spaces, and a further 9 million workplace parking spaces. At a theoretical 3 kWp of solar per space, that equals 39 Gigawatts of installed capacity: enough to meet 140% of the UK’s annual electricity demand.

Of course, this is a utopian view, but a rapidly deployable, pop-up mini SCP and EV charging hub would help to harness the potential of these underutilised spaces and help to meet EV infrastructure requirements. Taking the UK as an example, it is estimated that the country will require around 2.8 million public EV charge points by 2035. There are currently just over 56,000.

Spotlight on Papilio3

Traditional SCPs are not a one-size-fits-all solution and cannot be suitable for every location. However, a more modular solution could help to unlock the benefits of solar generation at smaller, more proliferated sites. 3ti installed its first prototype Papilio3 unit at Surrey Research Park, Guildford in May, and we have already recorded impressive results.

Papilio3 has been developed to directly combat the EV charge point infrastructure gap. Deployable in under 24 hours, it is built around a recycled shipping container, features 36 solar panels, and by boosting an existing three-phase connection with solar energy and a battery storage system of up to 250 kWh, provides up to 12 fast EV charge points, supporting a mixture of 7, 11 and 22 kilowatts.

The Papilio3 pop-up solar car park

In its first two full months of operation, the prototype unit generated sufficient solar power to drive an average family EV in excess of 22,000 miles. Solar generation at the site exceeded 5.5 MWh in only ten weeks and, across a calendar month, provided over half the electricity used to charge EVs at the site. A recent crowdfund that attracted four times 3ti’s initial investment target of £500,000 (US$568,000) will accelerate the roll-out of Papilio3 units, with a plan to install another 30-50 in the next 12 months.

Currently, EV sales are rising rapidly and infrastructure rollout is not yet ramping up at the same rate. This means that the ratio of EV charge points to EVs is actually falling as the UK nears its 2030 cut-off for the sale of new gasoline and diesel vehicles. Most recent figures suggest that there is approximately one public charge point for every 52 EVs in the country. Of the top ten EV markets globally, this is the second worst figure and compares unfavourably to the government’s 1:10 target.

With a change of industry and consumer mindset, workplace and destination solar car parks will be a crucial part of the net zero solution.

About the author: Tim Evans is Founder and Chief Executive of 3ti Energy Hubs

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