Tuesday 25 June 2019

Opel's home in Germany struggles to take the lead in charging

Aiming to add more: A vehicle-charging station in Russelsheim. Photo: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
Aiming to add more: A vehicle-charging station in Russelsheim. Photo: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

Vera Eckert

Car-makers and policymakers in Europe are staking their futures on a race to electric vehicles. But the vast charging network needed to sustain their vision is patchy, and it's not clear who'll pay for it.

The central German city of Russelsheim, home to carmaker Opel, wants to build 1,300 car-charging points by 2020, plans that would make it a frontrunner on the continent.

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It has advantages enjoyed by few in Europe, including a powerful local car industry player and wealthy national economy. In Germany itself the city has an edge, having won a government grant of €12.8m to fund the rollout.

Yet, even here, red tape, shortages of qualified staff and the requisite hardware are likely to delay the installation by around two years, local officials told Reuters.

The project will also need more money, said the officials who are running up against the complexity of civil engineering, potential power grid overloads and unwieldy payment processes, illustrating some of the difficulties facing cities across Europe.

"We are not doing this for profit," said Marianne Floersheimer, Russelsheim council's mobility chief. "But we cannot afford to top up the government money."

Vision: Michael Lohscheller, chief executive officer of Opel, which will help its home town of Russelsheim, Germany, to build 1,300 electric charging points by 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski
Vision: Michael Lohscheller, chief executive officer of Opel, which will help its home town of Russelsheim, Germany, to build 1,300 electric charging points by 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

The number of electric cars on German roads grew fivefold between 2015 and 2018, and have risen strongly across Europe. However, the growth in electric cars is outpacing the charging infrastructure.

The ratio of electric cars to each charging point in Europe deteriorated to 7.0 from 6.1 in the same period, consultants AlixPartners found, although Europe is better equipped than the US at 19.7 and China's 7.6.

Some analysts say a lag in infrastructure could drag on sales as customers hold off until electric becomes a convenient option.

Any logjam could prove a problem for car-makers which, faced with emissions penalties, are pumping tens of billions of euro into electric technology in an industry-wide charge.

Obstacles to electrification could also strain the European Union's plan to become "carbon neutral" by 2050 to combat climate change.

Transport & Environment, a group that promotes clean transport, says limited infrastructure is not having a significant effect on Europe's electric car sales, which still represent a fraction of the vehicle market, and the ratio of cars to points is within the EU recommendation of 10.

Given that most charging will be done at home, they add, a lack of off-street parking in some areas could deter drivers from switching to electric.

Like other German cities, Russelsheim is under pressure to roll out charging stations as environmental activists have started suing those municipalities that fail to comply with EU-wide rules for nitrogen dioxide emissions.

With just 67,000 people, it has only a few charging points, some way behind the likes of wealthy and populous Hamburg on about 880 and Berlin with some 780.

It is, however, aiming to provide one charging point per 72 people, the highest level in Europe, with the help of Opel, which will build around half of the points.

Russelsheim's electric plan won one of the highest grants under the German transport ministry's clean air programme. But local officials described some of the complications in implementation.

The installation of every charging point needs to be agreed with authorities such as those in charge of water, monument protection and civil engineering, while charging equipment makers have long lead times.

"We are chasing the same charging points, employees and supply technology as all the other cities," said city spokesman Asswin Zabel.

Hooking up inner-city charging points on low voltage lines will be relatively easy although some local people may object, said Matthias Schweitzer, head of technology at the local utility, Stadtwerke Russelsheim.

But laying 2km of medium-voltage lines and ordering new transformer substations could take up to nine months, he said.

The university aims to accompany the rollout with storage facilities to absorb green power and offer supply on demand. But it must measure whether inverters, which turn alternating current power from the grid into direct current used by car batteries, cause too much stress on the network. "We must ensure there is no overload," Mr Schweitzer added.

Yet more snags await: There is still a hodge-podge of charging and paying processes across the country as vendors are not in sync with each other, meaning people may encounter payment difficulties on longer journeys.

"There is no obligation to provide free roaming. People have to carry around far too many different customer cards," said Hanns Koenig of research firm Aurora.

Germany is doing relatively well in Europe in terms of public charging points, with 17,400 countrywide, according to data from energy industry association BDEW. But to keep up with sales, BDEW says thousands more charging points are needed in coming years, as well as hundreds of thousands of private points at homes and workplaces.

However, funding could be a big problem in Germany, as well as in Europe and beyond, particularly along motorways which do not fall under any particular municipality.

Car-makers are largely pouring much of their money into the development of electric vehicles, while energy providers hesitate to take on responsibility for the rollout as long as car sales remain too low to provide a profitable customer base.

In Germany, many of the roughly 1,500 local utility players simply cannot shoulder huge infrastructure costs, especially while commercial success is not assured.

The situation could become a vicious circle, some industry experts say, since without a large number of charging stations, customers may be reluctant to buy electric.

Reuters

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