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Will Incompatible Standards Slow Down Electric Cars?

Competing standards for the fast-charging of electric cars could put continued growth at risk
Charging Station



Flickr/Mark Turnauckas

An emerging clash between electric vehicle quick-chargers is the auto industry's rerun of the VHS versus Betamax videotape battle.

For the electric vehicle owner, there is the Japanese-developed CHAdeMO standard. Then there is the Society of Automotive Engineers' (SAE) International J1772 Combo standard. Both are direct-current quick-charging systems designed to charge the battery of an electric vehicle to 80 percent in about 20 minutes.

But, like the videotapes, these two systems are designed to be completely incompatible.

DC fast charging is widely seen as a pivotal way to reduce the range anxiety associated with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and to expand consumer acceptance of zero-emissions cars. The standards war puts potentially billions of dollars in investments at stake and could shape the electric vehicle market for decades to come.

As of July 1, there were 283 publicly available CHAdeMO chargers installed in the United States, according to the software and services company Recargo. Japanese automakers Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors both offer vehicles in the United States today that use the CHAdeMO system -- the Leaf and the i-Miev, respectively. Toyota Motor Co. also supports the CHAdeMO standard but has yet to launch a vehicle with quick-charge capability.

Backers of the SAE Combo standard include auto industry heavyweights General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen Group and BMW AG. However, Combo chargers are not yet commercially available, and the first Combo-compatible car, the Chevrolet Spark, only just went on sale.

Tension between the two camps is palpable. At a California hearing last year Shad Balch, GM's manager of environment and energy policy, called for the boycott of CHAdeMO chargers. CHAdeMO supporters, in turn, have called the SAE Combo charger "the plug without cars." Meanwhile, experts warn the feud could kill the momentum of the electric vehicle market.

"Fast charging, however and whenever it gets built out, is going to be key for the development of a mainstream market for plug-in electric vehicles," said Richard Martin, editorial director at Navigant Research. "The broader conflict between the CHAdeMO and SAE Combo connectors, we see that as a hindrance to the market over the next several years that needs to be worked out."

A plot against Nissan?
The Nissan Leaf was the first next-generation BEV to go on sale in 2010. While more and more automakers are starting to offer all-electric vehicles, Nissan remains the only automaker committed to producing a mass-market zero-emission vehicle in all 50 states (ClimateWire, July 23). With 27,000 Leafs on the road and hundreds of chargers already in the ground, "right now, the de facto standard is CHAdeMO," said Brendan Jones, director of electric vehicle infrastructure strategy at Nissan North America.

Working with developer AeroVironment Inc., Nissan plans to install at least 600 CHAdeMO quick chargers by March next year. Tesla Motors also plans to roll out hundreds of fast chargers, but they will be exclusively available to the pool of Model S owners.

With Nissan leading the BEV mass market and next to no Combo-compatible cars on the road, some have suggested that efforts to boycott CHAdeMO are part of a ploy to slow Nissan down.

"It makes commercial sense, if you're a late entry into the market, to try and slow the development of the market by stopping the market leader from gaining greater market share," said Llewelyn Hughes, an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who focuses on energy issues.

The rival charging standards are likely going to play out in the vehicle marketplace in terms of which company can offer the best car for the best price with the best charging system, he said.

"So there's going to be that typical battle between automakers around these particular model types [of battery electric vehicles]," Hughes added. "Then there will be the non-market battle, as well, where you try and get governments and cities to sign up with your particular standard."

DOE's dilemma
The Department of Energy's EV Project, the nation's largest deployment of charging infrastructure to date, is only installing CHAdeMO systems. Infrastructure developer ECOtality Inc. is leading the project, with $114.8 million provided by DOE through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and a total budget of $230 million.

The project, now in its final months, will support the installation of 13,000 level 2 chargers for both residential and commercial use, as well as 200 CHAdeMO fast chargers. About 80 fast chargers have been installed to date.

"We're in a little bit of a spot because, frankly, if we had J1772 on all the fast chargers right now, there [would be] zero vehicles out there to use them, and even by the time our installation is done, there will be few vehicles out there to use them," said Patrick Davis, DOE's program manager for vehicle technologies.

But DOE is also sensitive to the fact that a number of major automakers are committed to the Combo standard, Davis added. DOE has discussed whether to go back and replace some of the cord sets on existing chargers or add Combo chargers to existing stations. It's unlikely, however, that the department will go back and retrofit all 200 chargers, he said.

"Certainly, going forward, [DOE officials] are likely thinking about which of these standards they want to support," said Martin of Navigant Research. "They certainly don't want to see headlines that say the DOE supports a Japanese standard over one that was developed in America."

Fast charging is not essential. BEV owners will always be able to charge using slower level 1 or level 2 chargers. Still, public fast chargers are an important tool for decreasing range anxiety and making electric vehicle ownership more convenient. If consumers feel they can't find the infrastructure they need, it will likely discourage sales and prevent electric cars from going mainstream.

"There's no doubt this isn't a positive thing for the market or for owners. It's not what anybody would plan or want if we designed it from scratch as far as a rollout," Davis said.

"It's a little bit like a standards war, not unlike VHS versus Betamax," he added. "There's likely to be a winner, and it's likely to take a few years to figure out who wins, or which standard wins, but at this point we don't see how it's avoidable."

A collision foreseen by experts
Wahid Nawabi, senior vice president and general manager of efficient energy systems at AeroVironment, Nissan's exclusive charging-station developer, said his company is standard-agnostic but sees the discrepancy as a setback for the nascent market.

"I'm very disappointed, actually," Nawabi said. "I don't think it's necessary for this to be the case."

Experts did, after all, see this coming. The CHAdeMO Association -- a partnership between Fuji Heavy Industries, Tokyo Electric Power Co., Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi -- has been working on its charger since 2005. The group commissioned the first commercial CHAdeMO charging station in 2009.

In a 2011 workshop report, the American National Standards Institute identified the incompatibility of fast-charging connector standards as a top concern for the EV industry that could result in higher costs for both manufacturers and consumers. According to the report, "Roll-out of vehicles with DC fast charge capability (e.g., Nissan Leaf with CHAdeMO connector) prior to standardization is a problem. The standard development process needs to be fast-tracked."

When asked at a recent electric vehicle conference why they decided to pursue a separate standard instead of adopting the existing CHAdeMO system, American and European automakers pointed to the collaborative nature of the SAE Combo and its technical advantages.

"It isn't as if there weren't benefits at the time for an early entry market for CHAdeMO to be there, but we are working in an open process where all global automakers are involved," said Jeanette Clute, manager of global electrification infrastructure strategy at Ford Motor Co.

Waldemar Schweigert, who leads in electric drive technologies at Volkswagen, added that the Combo standard will be able to deliver charge at 86 kilowatts, versus 50 kW for CHAdeMO, and recharge a battery in a shorter period of time than its competitor.

Charging stations with both standards?
While the SAE charger won't be commercially available for months, with Ford, Volkswagen, GM and BMW committed to it, the Combo standard could one day make CHAdeMO obsolete.

If one standard does prevail, it could streamline resources and bolster the BEV market. But it will have been an expensive diversion. CHAdeMO charging stations cost between $15,000 and $25,000 plus installation costs, which can bring the total up to $150,000.

"In that sense, this is a little bit different from the VHS versus Betamax story, because everyone could just throw away their Betamax when VHS won," said Hughes. "Here, you're going to have the equivalent to gas stations all over the place that cost [tens of thousands] to put into the ground, and a lot of them are probably going to be using obsolete technology. What do you do about that? It's going to be an expensive problem."

But some don't see it as much of a problem at all.

Ultimately, DC quick charging stations could end up like gas stations in the sense that they offer both CHAdeMO and Combo chargers, just like a gas station offers both a gasoline and diesel.

"The crest of the wave has already passed where people are investing in CHAdeMO, so pretty much everything from this point on large scale in Europe and, I think, in the U.S. is going to be dual standard or have the ability to upgrade to dual standard," said Cal Lankton, director of electric vehicle charging infrastructure at ABB Inc., which offers electric vehicle charging equipment.

Because the majority of the cost is embedded in the installation process -- which includes permitting, trenching concrete, upgrading transformers and putting in hardware -- it does not cost twice as much to offer both CHAdeMO and Combo systems, Lankton said. Instead, it's a matter of adding the cost of the charger itself.

Big money rides on the outcome
At an additional $25,000 a pop that, could still add up to a multimillion-dollar difference. But developers are, indeed, moving forward with dual stations. The NRG Energy subsidiary eVgo, for instance, plans to offer both types of chargers at its "Freedom Stations" once the SAE Combo passes all safety certifications.

"We believe it's a financially viable sustainable business market," said Arun Banskota, president of NRG Energy's electric vehicle services.

The CHAdeMO organization itself acknowledges that dual charging stations are the best route. "Many charger manufactures will be coming out this year with this dual charger and we are pleased to see that this will help service the full market," Kiho Ohga, a representative of the CHAdeMO Association, wrote in an email. "Whether it makes business sense to adopt both versus one is not a difficult decision to make by the investor."

Unfortunately, standards issues for electric vehicles don't end with fast charging. There are interoperability issues between charger payment systems, which prevent drivers from using all of the available infrastructure. There are also discrepancies emerging in the wireless-charging space.

Tesla's proprietary Superchargers add yet another layer of complexity to a situation in which millions of dollars are being invested in fast chargers that only a select group of vehicles can use.

A standards war in the fledgling BEV market that only moves a few thousand units each month may seem insignificant. But the market is growing. Navigant Research predicts that the global market for all plug-in vehicles will hit 3 million units by 2020, representing 3 percent of the global market. The standards conflict in itself lends credit to the potential of electric transportation. Whether motivated by consumer needs, larger energy trends or regulations, it shows that automakers and the supporting industry are clearly taking electric vehicles seriously.

"Look at the value chain and how much has already been invested and how many people have so much stake in making [electric vehicles] successful," said Banskota. "There's a lot riding on it. There are a lot of people's success stories riding on it. So there's no going back this time around."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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