European Push for EV Charging Stations: Should the U.S. Follow Suit?

If the electric vehicle market is ever going to take off in the U.S., it will require a thorough infrastructure of charging stations. However, there are those who claim the current lack of charging stations is due mainly to poor EV sales. The challenge, it appears, is a little bit of chicken-and-egg syndrome.

The E.U. is leading the charge (no pun intended) by executing a massive, multi-country plan to build out the charging station infrastructure in a bid to help put more EVs on European streets. It’s a bold move, considering that a little over 11,500 electric vehicles were sold in Western Europe in 2011.

Most electric vehicles have a maximum range that caps out well under 100 miles. The Chevy Volt can only run 35 miles on a single charge without kicking in the gas engine to charge the battery. A robust infrastructure would help assuage “range anxiety” and give more drivers the confidence to buy electric vehicles.

The E.U.’s decision follows a three-year debate over charging system standards. There are four worldwide system standards recognized by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Type 1, which was developed in Japan and is the accepted standard in the U.S., is a single-phase vehicle coupler. Type 2 is a three-phase coupler developed in Germany by Mennekes. Type 3 is a variation of the Type 2 developed in France. Type 4 is a fast-charge system from in Japan designed for special applications.

On January 24, the E.U. Commission in Brussels announced that it would accept Type 2 as the union standard. Speaking at a preview event to the Hannover Messe trade show (April 8 to 13) in Hannover, Germany, Burkhard Rarbach, director of corporate communications for Mennekes, mentioned that the E.U. aims to install 8 million charging stations across all its member nations by 2020.

“The leading countries within Europe have been dealing with the issues in electric mobility for a couple of years. These countries include Germany, Spain, the U.K., and others. Each country will set its expectations for the number of charging points to install,” he added. “Germany is planning 1.5 million charging points.”

The Type 2 charging station by Mennekes will be the accepted standard across Europe. Credit: Mennekes.

The Type 2 charging station by Mennekes will be the accepted standard across Europe. Credit: Mennekes.

According to a press release from Mennekes, Germany also aims to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by that time. France has a target of 2 million, Austria and Spain hope to have 2.5 million each, and the U.K. is seeking more than 1.5 million.

The current challenge with existing EV battery charging technology is that it requires, at best, a half hour to get a full charge, and depending on the power supply system, voltage, and maximum current, it can take up to eight hours to recharge a battery. Who would to spend 30 minutes at a gas station filling up? E.U. officials recognize the problem, and are planning to implement charging stations differently than traditional gasoline fuel stations.

For starters, of the 8 million stations slated to be installed over the next seven years, only 10 percent will be in public places — road side stops, municipal parking lots, etc. The remaining 90 percent, according to Rarbach, will be installed in private residences or what he calls “semi-private areas.” That could include movie theaters, shopping centers, hotels, and more. While it’s unlikely that these locations will provide the opportunity to “fill ‘er up,” most drivers could top off their charge while they shop or run other errands. It would change the way we think about refueling our cars altogether.

For electric vehicles to take off in the U.S., a similar push must be made. Currently, there are only 4,150 EV charging stations in the U.S. But a report from Frost & Sullivan claims that 4.1 million stations will be installed by 2017. This figure may be exaggerated. It turns out the number includes the plug that comes with every EV and is intended for at-home use.

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