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Electric-vehicle charging network sparks Europe-wide power struggle

Power utilities, tech start-ups and oil majors are fighting to establish themselves as the dominant players in the fast-growing business of charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs).

Refuelling conventional 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 Tim Payne, chief executive of British charging start-up InstaVolt, which has raised £12m to install 3,000 charge points across Britain by 2020.

While the range of EVs was less than 100km, Europe’s utilities were happy to help cities and companies install slow and inexpensive charging points at homes, offices and shops, often supported by state subsidies.

However, with the likes of Tesla, Porsche and BMW now making battery-powered cars with enough range to drive across whole countries and Daimler and Volkswagen also announcing plans at this week’s Frankfurt motor show to accelerate their shift to electric cars, the demand for a charging network has come more sharply into focus. 

The charging infrastructure currently remains nowhere near what it needs to be. “Where is the network of charging points that will be required? Indeed, where is the power and the grid?” asked Ralf Speth, boss of Britain’s Jaguar Land Rover.

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 additional revenue from the lease as well as the increased traffic to their shops at the sites. It earns a margin by selling power through the chargers.

InstaVolt struck a deal in May with ChargePoint, which itself is on a $125m expansion spree in Europe, to install about 200 of the US group’s ultra-fast chargers close to popular roads across Britain.

Morgan Stanley estimates that between one and three million public charging points could be needed in western Europe by 2030, adding that while utilities have natural skills in the new industry, it was too early to determine who will come put 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, according to the International Energy Agency.

Almost none of these is super-fast, a term usually used for charging stations with an output of at least 150 kilowatts. More than three times faster than current-generation chargers, these are now being targeted by those trying to become market leaders.

Contenders include Dutch EV-Box, one of Europe’s biggest makers of charging stations, which was snapped up by French utility Engie in March.

“We expect hundreds of millions of annual revenue from EV-Box in a few years,” said Thierry Lepercq, head of innovation at Engie. He sees Engie’s EV charging revenue growing by a factor of 20 in three to five years. Last year, EV-Box had sales of €16m.

EV-Box Chief Executive Kristof Vereenooghe said that unlike most of its competitors EV-Box has been profitable from the start, a claim that makes it stand out in an industry where gaining scale is considered initially more important.

That’s why German utility E.ON, too, announced a strategic partnership with Danish startup Clever and said it had the ambition to roll out several hundred ultra-fast charging stations along European motorways.

Clever wants to extend its network to France, Britain and Italy with E.ON. The company is owned by a group of Danish utilities and runs charging networks in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, .

The firm, which unlike EV-Box and ChargePoint does not make its own hardware, is also still looking for other partners. “We want to connect cities so that you can easily drive across Europe in an electric vehicle,” Clever chief executive Casper Kirketerp-Moeller said.

Among the oil majors, BP, Shell and have all either announced plans or launched pilot projects for EV charging. Few people, however, expect them to become serious contenders for a business that would effectively curb demand for their chief product: oil.

BP did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Shell said it did not make economic sense yet to equip petrol stations fully with EV charging points.

“People like Shell and Total talk a lot, but nothing happens. We are putting the grid connection in place,” said Michiel Langezaal, founder and chief executive of Fastned, which has 63 EV charging stations in the Netherlands.

Leasing plots of land, the group wants to raise €100m over the next two years to branch out into Germany, Belgium, France and Britain. So far it gets the stations from Swiss ABB, but is also in talks with ChargePoint.

Unlike utilities and charging station startups, electric vehicle makers see fast charging networks not as a profit centre, but as a loss-leader needed to persuade customers that electric vehicles can drive across continents.

Tesla, for example, operates a proprietary charging network throughout Europe, mainly in hotels, but it is stretched thinly - in the Ile de France region around Paris it has just a handful of “superchargers”. This year, the group’s market valuation surpassed that of General Motors, making it the biggest U.S. carmaker by that measure.

“Tesla has never been in the black, but had enormous growth,” said Elke Temme, who co-heads the e-mobility unit of Germany’s Innogy. “Going forward, however, the business must pay off.”

Energy consulting firm DNV GL recently predicted that EVs will reach cost parity with petrol vehicles by 2022 which could significantly boost adoption rates. 

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