At the moment, people charge electric vehicles one of three ways: at home, at a public charging station, or on a company network like Tesla’s cross-country Supercharger system. In the U.S., there are about 20,000 public stations currently, and about 80% of charging is done at home, according to PlugIn Insights, a research firm.
In Europe, there’ll soon be another way: mobile charging. This is when drivers carry their own charging kits, enabling them to use public outlets instead of the sophisticated charging posts you normally see. Mobile charging points can be retrofitted to lamp-posts and other everyday infrastructure, allowing power to spread.
Ubitricity, the Berlin-based company behind the initiative, claims it can install outlets that are 5 to 10 times cheaper than usual. Of course, a “dumb” outlet is also a slow outlet. But it says that doesn’t matter, because speed isn’t important in lots of cases. “Our mission is to enable charging where you are parked anyway. The most important use cases are when you’re sleeping or working,” says Ubitricity’s CEO Knut Hechtfischer.
He says the mobile model is cheaper from an operator’s point of view, because some of the technology cost is shifted to the consumer. “The trick is we eliminate intelligence on the wall. With standard charging, you have a meter and communications device where you plug in, then the clock ticks. We shift the cost burden to the mobile. Then you can have this smaller, passive, piece anywhere, even on street lamp-posts.”
Utricity’s device will cost about $600 when it goes on sale next summer. Hechtfischer compares it to a mobile phone. “You have one device to access the net, like one phone or one computer. We give you a mobile device so you can access not the data or voice grid, but the electricity grid,” he says.
The company has installed 200 sockets so far, and it’s working with the EDF electricity utility to roll out a lot more (the French giant is also a shareholder). U.S. manufacturer Tyco is making the kits. And, phone operators are interested in selling “mobile electricity” products–the equivalent of phone or voice plans.
Mobile charging could bring a convergence of energy and mobile, and a clash between utilities and telcos over the new market. Hechtfischer expects to see utilities have the upper hand in Germany and France, but for telcos to lead, perhaps, in the Netherlands or Switzerland. Either way, “there’s an interest to develop service for customers,” he says.
To turn a lamp-post into a charging station requires a little rewiring, but it doesn’t sound difficult. Essentially, it means giving lamp-posts their own switch and control systems (the important thing is the lamp can be used independently, or simultaneously for lighting and charging). Ubitricity is working with “smart” street-lamp makers about wiring lights up as chargers from the start.
Hechtfischer is betting the real charging opportunity lies in added services, not in putting out volts. While Tesla’s Supercharger network will be good for A to B travel when you want quick bursts of electricity (it’s also building 50 stations in Germany), the real action will be in overnight or workday parking, first with “mobile electricity” products, then with smart grid services as well.
“The really interesting opportunity is in the smart grid. All the big benefits of the future [grid] require a long grid connection,” Hechtfischer says.