Fast-charging stations are coming: how the infrastructure for electric cars will become suitable for large-scale use

Long charging times keep some potential buyers from buying an electric vehicle. The automobile industry and government policy makers want to change this: automobile manufacturers are planning a fast-charging network, which will make recharging batteries as convenient as filling up a gas tank. The German federal government has also launched an incentive to help achieve this.    

No juice, no power: What is true for cars with internal combustion engines is true for electric cars as well. Without fuel, whether gasoline or electricity, the drive does not work. Anyone who drives through sparsely populated areas of the US, the land of the automobile, knows how drivers of electric cars sometimes feel. While petrolheads worry about an empty tank when the next gas station is 250 miles away, electric car drivers often wonder if they will make it to the next charging station.

Just as the success of the conventional automobile depended on the number of pumps available in rural areas, the success of electric cars will depend on the charging options available. Experts speak about “demand-oriented infrastructure” more and more often. What this means is not only the number of charging stations, but also their distribution and the speed at which the car batteries are charged, all of which depend on the number of electric cars that are on the road. The German National Platform for Electric Mobility (NPE) estimates that “demand-oriented infrastructure” will have 7,100 publicly available fast-charging stations and 35,000 charging stations (generally with two charging points) by 2020, making the goal of one million electric vehicles in Germany achievable.

According to the Federal Association of Energy and Water Management (BDEW), there were 7,407 publicly accessible charging points at 3,206 charging stations in Germany at the end of 2016. This means an increase of 11% compared to mid-2016, when there were nearly 900 charging points. Given that there are roughly 14,500 gas stations in Germany, 3,200 charging stations does not sound like small potatoes, especially due to the fact that electric cars make up only a fraction of registered vehicles on German roads. Yet those wishing to drive across the country will run into infrastructure gaps.

Fast-charging stations, often capable of recharging batteries up to 80% within a half hour, are still in short supply. Above all, they are badly needed along highways and state roads. According to the NPE, 85% of electric car charging is done at private charging points, such as at work or in apartment building parking lots.
More and more people are thinking about buying an electric car; hence their concerns about how to get the necessary electric power have increased as well. According to a survey done by the DEKRA vehicle inspection company, more than a quarter (26 percent) of drivers would consider purchasing an electric car; although it must be added that reservations such as “long charging times” were voiced.

For this reason, the automotive industry is no longer limiting itself to developing and selling electric cars, but is also investing in charging networks. The German companies Daimler, Volkswagen, BMW, and Ford have teamed up for a joint venture to do this. They plan to create a network of 400 “ultrafast charging stations” along the main transportation routes in Europe; these will have a charging capacity of up to 350 kW, a value that lies far beyond what is currently possible, and will therefore set a signal for the future. On the other hand, this also means that electric vehicles able to charge this quickly will have to be introduced to the market. But the vision is clear: charging should become as convenient as conventional refueling. Audi CEO Rupert Stadler explains it like this: “We want to create a network which will enable our customers traveling long distances to recharge during a short coffee break.”

According to existing plans, construction should already start this year and be completed by 2020. The automobile manufacturers consider long-range capability to be an “important step in establishing electric mobility in the mass market”. With regard to connectors, the joint venture has chosen the EU standard CCS (Combined Charging System). With CCS, electric cars can be charged with alternating and direct current. For many electric car models, CCS cables still cost extra. Nonetheless, all vehicles that are compatible with the CCS standard, regardless of their make, will be able to use the charging network. At the same time, the partners are encouraging other automobile manufacturers and regional partners to participate in the charging network.

To give more impetus to electric mobility, Transport Minister Alexander Dobrindt (CSU) has initiated an incentive program which plans to subsidize the charging network with 300 million euros. This is in addition to the environmental bonus cash incentive for electric cars. 200 million euros will go to the construction of 5,000 publicly accessible fast-charging stations (with a charging capacity of 22 kW or more) in major cities and along the interstate roads, and around 100 million euros is earmarked for about 10,000 normal charging stations (3.7 kW to 22 kW). Private investors, cities and municipalities have been able to submit applications since March 1. “The goal is to build a comprehensive charging infrastructure with 15,000 charging stations nationwide,” a spokesperson from the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure said.  

“The use of fast-charging stations along highways and at rest stops is absolutely essential,” says the president of the German Association of Electric Mobility (BEM), Kurt Sigl. The establishment of so-called mobility points would also be useful, such as commuter parking lots on the outskirts of town which have alternating current (AC) recharging facilities that function similarly to a conventional household outlet. To “significantly increase” consumer acceptance and willingness to buy, Sigl asks that “user behavior as well as the places of residence and employment of electric car owners and potential buyers” be considered during site planning for charging stations. This could also help do away with any concerns about long charging times the customers of tomorrow might have.