Energy firms battling to wire Europe's highways for electric cars

PARIS/FRANKFURT • The battle over how and where Europeans charge their electric cars is expanding from the continent's cities to its highways.

Power utilities, oil majors and tech start-ups are fighting to establish themselves as the dominant players in the fast-growing business of charging stations - but advances in electric vehicles signal where they build them is changing.

Refuelling petrol and diesel cars on motorways has long been the domain of the oil companies, which typically have their own networks of filling stations. Several are now talking about setting up high-power charging networks, creating major competition for limited space at motorway service areas.

"It is a bit of a land grab now to win this sector," said Mr Tim Payne, chief executive of British charging start-up InstaVolt, which has raised £12 million (S$21.5 million) to install 3,000 charging points across Britain by 2020.

When the electric vehicle (EV) range was less than 100km, the utilities were happy to help install slow and inexpensive charging points at homes, offices and shops, often backed by state subsidies.

But Tesla, Porsche and BMW are now making battery-powered cars with enough range to drive across countries. Daimler and Volkswagen have also announced plans to accelerate their shift to EVs.

Charging infrastructure remains nowhere near it needs to be. "Where is the network of charging points that will be required? Indeed where is the power and the grid?" Britain's Jaguar Land Rover boss Ralf Speth asked last week.

Oil majors like BP and Shell have either announced plans or launched pilot projects for EV charging. But few expect them to become serious contenders for a business that will effectively curb demand for their chief product: oil.

Experts including ChargePoint and Engie are, however, making plans to build pan-European networks of high-voltage fast-charging stations which can refill a battery in less than half an hour instead of overnight.

In Britain, InstaVolt is renting land from filling station operators, bringing them extra revenue from the lease as well as increased traffic to their shops. It earns a margin by selling power through the chargers.

Oil majors like BP and Shell have either announced plans or launched pilot projects for EV charging. But few expect them to become serious contenders for a business that will effectively curb demand for their chief product: oil.

Morgan Stanley estimates that one to three million public charging points could be needed in western Europe by 2030, noting that while the utilities have natural skills in the new industry, it was too early to determine who will come out on top. "The winning business model is up for grabs," it said.

Today, there are fewer than 100,000 public charging points available in Europe, with only about 6 per cent of them fast-charging, according to the International Energy Agency.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2017, with the headline 'Energy firms battling to wire Europe's highways for electric cars'. Print Edition | Subscribe