All in this together: the challenge of building Europewide EV infrastructure
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All in this together: the challenge of building Europewide EV infrastructure

By JP Casey 19 Jan 2021

While electric vehicles have seen increased usage in Europe in recent years, a fragmented mess of national legislation and technological diversity is stifling growth. We speak to car manufacturing joint venture IONITY about its plans to replace these overlapping systems with a single charging network for the whole continent to use.

All in this together: the challenge of building Europewide EV infrastructure
Figures from the European Environment Agency reveal that the number of new electric vehicles on the roads of the EU-28 countries has jumped from 22,986 in 2012 to 294,352 in 2018. Credit: Aschroet

An optimist might suggest that there has never been a better time for electric vehicles in Europe. Figures from the European Environment Agency reveal that the number of new electric vehicles on the roads of the EU-28 countries has jumped from 22,986 in 2012 to 294,352 in 2018, and the number of battery electric vehicles registered increased by 50% between 2017 and 2018.

However, a pessimist may argue that electric vehicles remain a relatively new technology in an industry that is dominated by conventional internal combustion engines. A report from the International Council on Clean Transportation found that in 2019, despite the impressive relative growth of electric vehicles, battery and plug-in hybrid cars accounted for just 3% of new passenger car registrations in the EU, compared to the 59% from gasoline-powered vehicles.

The issue, as is often the case with newer technologies, is not a lack of interest in electric vehicles, but a lack of functional infrastructure that makes investing in the technology unviable for the majority of people. In this case, a lack of effective charging stations remains a significant barrier to electric vehicle rollout. Even the recent dramatic increase in sheer volume of charging points – from 17,501 to 161,189 between 2012 and 2018 – does not take into account variations in brand of station and technology used, which mean not all stations are available for all vehicles.

In response to this, IONITY aims to tackle both the relative lack of charging stations, and the discrepancy between brands and styles of charging technologies. A joint venture co-ordinated by some of the world’s biggest car manufacturers, the project has the ambitious aim of creating a charging network that is both comprehensive and homogenous, and uniting Europe under a single charging system.

A single network for a single goal

Founded in 2017, IONITY is an ambitious project to homogenise Europe’s charging station infrastructure.

“Our belief is that e-mobility will work only once people can travel long distances and leave cities in their electric vehicles,” explains Pia Bretschneider, UK and Ireland manager at IONITY. “Given that most of the fossil fuel cars and vans will be replaced by electric vehicles by 2035, it is crucial that the appropriate charging infrastructure is in place to enable the future of mobility. “

The initiative has already seen the construction of 325 operational charging stations across Europe, and plans to build at least 400 in the future. Its approach has been both broad and deep, with countries such as Slovakia and Lithuania receiving their first charging stations in the third quarter of 2020, alongside a total of 90 installations in Germany alone.

The project also brings a key technological innovation to its charging stations, namely a much more powerful current than is used elsewhere in the industry. While the majority of high-end commercial charging stations offer around 100kW of power, enough to charge around half of the smallest Tesla battery in 15 minutes, IONITY’s stations provide a massive 350kW of power. The initiative achieves this by enabling its charging stations to convert alternating current, that which is drawn from the grid, into direct current, that which is more efficient for long-term storage, allowing for a more efficient transfer of power from grid to vehicle.

Much of this technological sophistication comes from the project’s supporters, who are some of the world’s leading car manufacturers. With BMW, Ford, and Mercedes among its members, and having added Hyundai as recently as November 2020, the project has both the shared technical expertise and financial muscle to develop solutions such as a charging station with a built-in current converter, and roll out such a system at all of its facilities.

Bretschneider suggests that companies would have to put aside competitive differences to work collaboratively on goals for the benefit of all, with the IONITY organisational structure a potential blueprint for others to follow.

“It is essential that the major players in this heavily competitive industry commit to joining forces and pave the way for the most advanced charging infrastructure in the market, working together to one purpose and vision of electric mobility in Europe and beyond,” Bretschneider explains, highlighting the need for a significant range of actors and collaborators to deliver meaningful change in the sector.

“When it comes to our site partners, potential sites per country are assessed on an individual basis, and therefore, we do not limit ourselves to one partner per country, which is why we are working with site partners such as MFG, Shell, and Extra in the UK alone.”

Diverse challenges for a diverse continent

Yet a project of this scale and ambition does not exist without challenges, and the very nature of trying to implement a single system across a continent’s worth of borders raises all manner of logistical and legal obstacles.

“In building and operating a pan-European network, we deal with operations in over 20 jurisdictions,” says Bretschneider. “And even within the countries we work with local authorities and the local distribution network operators who can have very different requirements from each other.

“Compared to many other markets, the EV charging landscape in the UK is very fragmented. Multiple operators provide home, workplace, and destination, as well as public rapid and ultra-fast charging.”

A 2020 report from Transport and Environment found that there were at least four types of charger in place at stations across Europe, leading to different charging types and charging times across the continent, the opposite state of affairs to the one-network approach favoured by IONITY. Furthermore, these charging types are unequally distributed across Europe. Countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, and Denmark boast a much higher proportion of “rapid” chargers, those that provide between 11kW and 22kW, than countries such as the UK and Spain, which rely more heavily on chargers with a power capacity of less than 7kW.

“Another key challenge is available land,” continues Bretschneider. “Land used for charging has to be given priority, otherwise we will continue to see fragmented networks. The process starts with finding the right locations, ones that benefit the EV driver and where there is enough space, both for the current demand and ideally also for the future.”

The Transport and Environment report suggested, for instance, that shops and businesses that are already commonly-used be adapted to include public charging stations, with “large shops, leisure and sports facilities … as well as petrol stations” among the recommendations. Yet this approach is in contrast to IONITY’s work in expanding its charging network across locations such as motorways, which are physically closer to most vehicles but boast far fewer existing points of infrastructure.

While both approaches have merit, this difference of opinion is emblematic of the fragmented nature of European charging infrastructure that Bretschneider has highlighted.

Electric vehicles and the clean energy mix

Bretschneider is optimistic that charging technology and infrastructure will become more aligned in the future as actors, from equipment manufacturers to political leaders, come to recognise the importance of electric vehicles to the world’s clean energy mix.

“The availability of standardised charging infrastructure in-line with EU and national regulations plays a significant role in this and should therefore not be forgotten in the political dialogue and decision-making process,” says Bretschneider. “A dedicated harmonised regulatory framework for charging infrastructure would support pan-European charging networks and give charge point operators a legal framework upon which they can base a long-term business.

“A continuous joint effort from manufacturers, energy utilities, grid operators, and politics, as well as many more stakeholders, is required in order to move the needle in e-mobility.”

The role of electric vehicles in the world’s energy mix has been up for debate in recent years, with some scientific studies concluding that the vehicles produce less harmful emissions than conventional cars, and others suggesting the opposite, chiefly due to the environmental costs associated with mass-producing electric batteries.

However, figures from Carbon Brief suggest that a 2019 Nissan Leaf would produce around one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of a conventional car over a 150,000km lifespan, the majority of conventional emissions arising from pollutants released by the car directly. Considering that electric vehicles produce no harmful gases while in use, Bretschneider is optimistic that as industrial processes improve, and the battery manufacturing industry itself becomes less environmentally damaging, electric vehicles will be a key part of a future clean energy mix.

“The mobility sector accounts for a quarter of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions,” says Bretschneider. “Decreasing these emissions and increasing the use of renewable energy sources will play a pivotal role on our way into a greener future. That is where e-mobility comes into play.

“However, it will be equally important for government and energy infrastructure professionals to take action to drive the change too. By investing in research and developing incentives to stimulate innovation in the field of energy storage, governments can aid this shift. It will be particularly challenging for energy infrastructure professionals, as there will need to be reskilling within the industry to move from coal-fired power to renewable sources.”