In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
Special issue on electric vehicle charging
This month, we bring you a special issue of the EIB looking at innovations in electric vehicle (EV) charging. Not the electric vehicles themselves, not the batteries, just the charging. This issue focuses on innovations that address two of the biggest challenges:
- Connecting vehicles to power so cars can be charged where and when owners want.
- Managing grid demand and peak surges so electricity is available when needed.
In this issue, we talk about level 1, 2 and 3 charging infrastructure—with different levels delivering different charging speeds and voltage. If you aren’t familiar with these terms, skip to the bottom of the Brief for an explanation.
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news
01| On-street charging without the clutter
02| Would you like a charge with your latte?
03| VW’s robot parking attendant
04| No plug, no problem
05| Smart charging
06| Working with the grid, not against it
07| World’s first bidirectional city
08| Fast charge without a high-power grid connection
09| An explanation of level 1, 2 and 3 charging
Connecting vehicles to power
The vast majority of EV owners do almost all of their charging at home. This is easy (well, easier) if you have your own garage or carport. But what about EV owners who live in high-rises, row houses or simply don’t have areas they can dedicate to installing a home charger? In many major cities, this could be over half of the population.
On-street charging without the clutter
Berlin-based ubitricity has pioneered an approach of manufacturing and installing EV chargers that fit into existing lamp posts. The solution makes use of existing infrastructure, which avoids additional clutter on busy streets and uses the same power supply already feeding the streetlights, meaning little to no additional groundwork is required for installation. With over 5,000 charge points active, the company has quickly become the largest charging network in the U.K. and has set the ambitious goal of having 50,000 chargers online in the U.K. by 2025.
Meanwhile, another U.K. company—Trojan Energy Ltd.—has developed a flat charge point that sits flush with the pavement—like any other outlet would—and a portable pole or “lance” that can be inserted into the charge point and connected to a vehicle when charging is required. Much like the lamp post design, the Trojan Energy system aims to keep streets and walkways from becoming cluttered with additional street furniture. Trojan Energy currently has two trial projects funded: one that will provide public charging points connected directly to the grid—the STEP trial—and another that will provide private charge points for residents with streetside parking that will connect to their residential power supply—the DoorSTEP trial.
Would you like a charge with your latte?
In March, coffee giant Starbucks announced its entrance into the EV charging market. Through a pilot partnership with Volvo, Starbucks is planning to install 60 new DC fast charge terminals at 15 coffee shops along a route between Denver and Seattle. The chargers will bring fast charge capabilities to a stretch of the U.S. that lacks charging infrastructure, and will enable most EVs to fully charge in as little as 40 minutes—just enough time to grab a coffee and a bite. Starbucks will track usage patterns throughout the pilot to better understand what an expanded offering could look like.
Starbucks is just one of many restaurants and retail companies looking at EV charging as a way to attract customers. Compared to fuel stations, EV charge points are more flexible when it comes to location. An EV charging station requires only a power source—ideally 240V—which can be found in nearly every residential and commercial building. As EV ownership increases and more charging points are required, non-traditional fuel retailers such as Starbucks will play an important role in satisfying the demand.
VW’s robot parking attendant
Volkswagen has developed a futuristic solution for EV charging in congested parkades where the installation of multiple charge points is not feasible—a robotic parking attendant that charges your vehicle with no human intervention. When customers park they will be able to communicate with the robot through a mobile app to request a charge. After that, it’s all in the robot’s hands. The charging robot picks up a “trailer”—essentially a mobile battery storage unit—from a central charging station and brings it to the vehicle, opens the charging port, plugs the trailer in and leaves the trailer with the vehicle as it charges. Once charging is complete, the robot retrieves the trailer and returns it to the central station where it can recharge its own battery and prepare for the next customer. Have trouble picturing it? Check out this video.
By using this robot, a parkade can effectively enable charging at every parking space while only requiring the installation of charge points at one central location. This drastically reduces construction requirements and cost of installation, while also providing control over peak power demands by using battery-powered units rather than direct grid connections. While no release date for the technology has been provided by Volkswagen, technology like this has huge potential in electrifying high-density areas.
No plug, no problem
Perhaps the best way to address the need for public plug-in locations is to remove the need to plug in entirely. But is that even possible? Dr. Sheldon Williamson, a professor at Ontario Tech University, thinks so.
His research on wireless charging systems for transit systems—including EVs—suggests that not only is wireless EV charging possible, it can be even more efficient than traditional charging systems. Under lab conditions, Dr. Williamson has achieved efficiencies of up to 94 per cent with wireless charging—similar to that of commercial level 2 (240V) chargers and much better than home level 1 (120V) chargers. The wireless charging technology can support charging vehicles while they are parked as well as when they are driving. This could eventually lead to chargers being installed in driveways, parking lots and roadways, all without the need for above-ground charging terminals, plugs and cords.
While this technology has potential, rolling it out at scale has large roadblocks. For one, there are very few cars that come equipped with wireless charging capabilities today, so owners will need to have aftermarket adapters installed in the vehicle. And second, the infrastructure development to install wireless chargers is even more intensive than traditional wired charging, as roadways and parking lot surfaces would need to be torn up to install the charging pads. On the bright side, Dr. Williamson has confirmed that the technology would not be impacted by snow and ice build-up, so if wireless charging takes off Canadians won’t be left out in the cold.
Managing grid demand and peak surges
As EVs become more popular, the electrical grid will need to adapt to a new set of conditions. Not only will there be an overall higher demand for electric power, but there will also be different and larger peak demand periods when everyone wants to charge at once. The stories below—a small sample of what’s going on in this area—show how companies are innovating to manage and manipulate the demand for power.
Smart charging is the foundation on which all innovations in this section are built. It refers to the ability to control when and with how much power an EV charges, based on the availability of electricity across the grid. Smart charging lets utilities spread demand over a longer timeframe and avoid surges, and allows EV owners to take advantage of lower power prices during low demand periods. Many smart charging trials have been undertaken by Canadian utilities, including Sask Power and ENMAX. Both trials use car-connected devices to send data back to the utility companies about how and when EV owners charge their vehicles. Phase one of ENMAX’s “Charge Up” pilot revealed that 80 per cent of EV charging occurs at 5 p.m., coinciding with the highest period of overall electricity demand and confirming the need for smart charging technology.
Working with the grid, not against it
Peak Power, a Toronto-based artificial intelligence company, has teamed up with Hydro One to pilot a bidirectional vehicle-to-home charging solution. The next step in smart charging, bidirectional charging allows an EV to charge from the grid when electricity is plentiful, and then to use its battery to power other systems like the vehicle owner’s home when electricity is not available—such as during a blackout or during periods of peak demand. The pilot will involve the homes of up to 10 Nissan Leaf drivers—currently, one of only two EVs on the Canadian market capable of bidirectional charging—and will test the technology in grid-connected and off-grid situations.
Using EVs as distributed energy sources may be an inexpensive and minimally invasive complement to building additional generating capacity and transmission lines. As noted by Matthew Sachs, Peak Power’s COO, personal vehicles spend 95 per cent of their lives parked and so can be easily integrated into the electrical grid with little impact on driving. Pilots like this one will provide the grid development data that major utilities such as Hydro One need to make strategic decisions.
World’s first bidirectional city
While Peak Power’s vehicle-to-home pilot represents a major step in Canadian EV-grid integration, the Dutch city of Utrecht has much bigger plans—to become the world’s first bidirectional city.
The Netherlands relies on intermittent renewables for over 30 per cent of its electricity needs, and the proportion is growing which means more power storage options will be needed to maintain a stable and reliable electrical grid. This is where EVs come in. Utrecht plans to use its population’s electric vehicles to store that renewable energy, making the cars do double duty as grid infrastructure.
The city is host to a pilot collaboration launched in April 2021 by Hyundai and We Drive Solar, an EV car-sharing company. The collaboration will roll out an initial fleet of 25 Hyundai IONIQ 5 vehicles this summer with plans to grow that number to 150 by the end of the year. This batch of vehicles will enable nearly 12MWh of renewable energy storage capacity for the new 2,300 home neighbourhood of Cartesius. In addition to the pilot, the Utrecht region has already installed over 1,000 bidirectional public charging units. These units will provide the backbone of the city’s ambitious plans to become a fully bidirectional city as the Hyundai-We Drive Solar partnership expands beyond Cartesius in the coming years.
Fast charge without a high-power grid connection
One of the major roadblocks to the wider adoption of fast charge systems—also referred to as level 3 or DC chargers—is the need for a high-powered grid connection and in some cases a dedicated substation. These large infrastructure requirements can make the installation of level 3 chargers complex and costly.
To overcome this obstacle, Volkswagen has developed a charging system that makes use of a battery buffer system to enable fast charging with only a standard low-voltage grid connection. The charger uses low voltage grid power to charge a battery and then uses the stored electricity to cover the deficit between the power from the grid and the power required by the vehicle. Because of the limited power requirements, the system can be installed quickly and inexpensively, and can even be used as a mobile off-grid solution by using only the stored energy. Volkswagen and BP have partnered to roll out the technology across Germany and Europe, with plans to install over 4,000 of the fast charge points over the next two years. Once installed, the “Flexpole” design will allow two vehicles to charge at 150kW simultaneously—enough to recover up to 160km range in 10 minutes.
An explanation of level 1, 2 and 3 charging
- Level 1 charging: the lowest speed charger, level 1 chargers draw from a standard 120V outlet and are most common among for home chargers and can add an average of 8 km of range per hour.
- Level 2 charging: these chargers run on a 240V connection—the same connection as major home appliances. Level 2 chargers are the most common charging infrastructure and add approximately 35km of range per hour.
- Level 3 charging/fast charging/DC charging: The highest power chargers, level 3 is capable of fully charging most EVs in 30-45 minutes. Due to the massive power requirements and cost of installation, these chargers are only seen at commercial charge stations.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .