BC Hydro is the electricity supplier for about 95 percent of the Canadian province of British Columbia. It’s government-owned and vertically integrated, meaning that the company owns and operates everything from production and transmission to distribution to customers. The company’s 30 hydroelectric facilities meet 78 percent of its electricity requirements, with the balance coming from three natural gas-fueled thermal power plants and other sources.
As part of a $14.3-million provincial Clean Energy Vehicle Program, BC Hydro has begun to connect Canada’s west coast for EV drivers. The goal is to install 30 DC fast charging stations in the Pacific Northwest by March 2016 – seven are currently up and running.
“Governments take responsibility to support any kind of opportunity for economic development and greenhouse gas reductions,” said Alec Tsang, Senior Technology Strategist at BC Hydro.
Tsang’s group, from the office of the Chief Technology Officer, is overseeing the installation of the stations. The program is not a new business opportunity for BC Hydro, but rather a project to help facilitate the “critical EV infrastructure” necessary for the market to grow.
Creative business models
As a government-backed regulated utility, BC Hydro is not as nimble as some investor-owned utilities, which could quickly decide to get into EV charging as a new business opportunity. So, the team had to be a little creative to get the ball rolling as fast as possible.
“We struggled to find the right business model,” Tsang told Charged. “This is not a demonstration project, where we would deploy the chargers for a fixed amount of time and then pull them out. It’s something that will have a legacy, and we had to seek out a viable business model.” The team considered three possible scenarios:
1. Utility owned and operated
The chargers could be an extension of BC Hydro’s infrastructure. The company could deploy, own and operate, just like any other asset in the public space with a right-of-way or public land lease.
The problem with this scenario is that EV charging is considered a new class of service. It’s a point-of-sale transaction, and there is no active tariff that would be applicable. All the current tariffs are based on a user-account model, with a specific customer name and classifications attached. But EV charging is like an energy vending machine, and BC Hydro would have to file for a new tariff. In a heavily-regulated industry, that could take years.
2. Public-private partnership
The private sector could own and operate the charging stations. Could there be some kind of public-private arrangement that fills the installation, maintenance and billing needs associated with long-term operation of the chargers?
Again, this scenario presented some regulatory issues that could not be resolved quickly. The provincial utility regulations do stipulate that a private entity can act like a utility and provide electricity as a billable service. However, it must first register as a utility, which is no small feat. It’s doable, but it’s not something that companies will take lightly and quickly jump into, because there is a lot of legal work involved.
Tesla Motors has announced plans to install, own and operate a handful of its Superchargers in British Columbia by the end of 2014. However, Tesla provides free use of the Superchargers for its customers, forever. Tsang says that this has allowed it to move much more quickly, because the company doesn’t have to register as a utility that sells electricity to customers. But unlike this rare example – in which a vehicle OEM builds free fast charging into its overall business – most other public charging suppliers need to find a sustainable business model by billing their users in some way.
3. Locally owned
In the end, BC Hydro found one workable solution consistent with the Utility Commissions Act. In British Columbia, local governments, or municipalities, can provide electrical services to constituents within their jurisdiction. They are allowed to resell electricity with a few minor constraints that protect customers from being gouged with huge mark-ups. Basically, they buy the electricity from BC Hydro, provide a service and then recoup their costs with a small margin for profit.
So, BC Hydro set out to make partnerships with municipal governments to host the 30 chargers. It installs the hardware and has a lease-to-own agreement with the host government that operates it.
There are currently seven DC fast charging stations installed and operational in the following communities:
Compared to the very high-voltage systems that BC Hydro is familiar with, these charging stations are relatively simple to install. However, Tsang reports that, “it’s been a challenge to balance site selection for high visibility, near highway corridors and access to power.” If a site has to be upgraded to meet power needs, the cost of installation can be much higher. “We’re trying to manage a balance between the cost of installation and the ideal site.”
To find the best sites, Tsang’s team started at the map level. The stations need to bridge the range limitations of currently available EVs, which means “about every 50-75 km or so, that was the first rule of thumb,” explained Tsang.
The next step was to look at potential early adopters: Which communities contain the most EV owners, and which are likely to be fast followers? “We don’t want to deploy the chargers in remote areas where everyone drives pickup trucks,” said Tsang. “Then they’re going to sit and collect dust.”
By targeting the right communities, BC Hydro hopes to create a kind of placebo effect. “The stations may not get a lot of use, because people who drive EVs will charge at home for the most part and only use public chargers in a pinch,” explained Tsang. “But these community stations will create a sense that the infrastructure is there. A ‘build it, and they will come’ kind of approach that follows along with the data seen in Japan. When they installed fast charging networks, they found that drivers would go longer distances and come back with a lower state of charge. Not necessarily using the stations, but taking advantage of that safety net.”
One of the main objectives of the project is public outreach, so the company is looking for locations within communities that combine high-profile foot traffic with near-highway access. “If you’re on a major highway that is not a pedestrian-friendly area, you’re not going to get the public outreach,” said Tsang. “Vehicle traffic drives by too quickly. They might see the sign, and it may or may not register. So, ideally, we’re looking to put these in community hubs where you get a lot of foot traffic, with informational signs that tell the EV story.”
So far, site selection appears to be a success. “The feedback we’ve received from drivers has been really positive about locations and site hosts,” Andy Bartosh, EVCI Program Manager at ABB, told Charged. ABB and Eaton are the two manufacturers of DC fast charging hardware chosen to supply equipment for the project. The backend management will use Greenlot’s SKY Network, which utilizes the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP) across both Eaton and ABB chargers.
“Eaton’s goal is to provide BC Hydro with charging station solutions that enable easy access to control and monitor charging activities using an open charging protocol,” said Michael Dadian, product line manager, Electrical Sector, Eaton.
Proponents of OCPP say that its “openness” allows customers and site hosts the ability to switch network providers – offering more competition and flexibility compared to other proprietary networking solutions.
When all 30 stations are installed, the network will be one of the largest on the continent. “Next to eVgo’s Freedom Stations [and Tesla’s Superchargers], this is the most comprehensive Fast Charging network in North America,” said Bartosh.
CHAdeMO or SAE Combo Plug?
At this point, the plan is to install CHAdeMO hardware at all locations – a decision that was largely a function of timing. “We had a target of 30 stations,” explained Tsang, “and the concession was that we would install CHAdeMO to the point where SAE standards become available. It’s not a perfect project that way, but after this project is finished we’ll look at what happens to the industry standards.”
The “CHAdeMO or SAE Combo Plug” question is not an easy one to answer for someone in Tsang’s shoes. All of the European and North American automakers (except Tesla) are behind the SAE standard, but there are currently zero vehicles on the road in Canada that use it. Meanwhile, Nissan and Mitsubishi have been selling CHAdeMO-enabled EVs in Canada for about two years. And the Tesla Model S – Canada’s best-selling EV in 2013 – is expected to have a CHAdeMO adaptor someday (its web store has said the adaptor is “coming soon” since October 2013).
So, it’s hard to say what will happen with the SAE Combo Plug and the legacy fleet of Japanese EVs and CHAdeMO fast chargers. Tsang explained that they started off conceptually understanding that there is a standards risk here, “but the standards shakeout is too far down the road for us to consider for this project.”
The BMW i3, scheduled to go on sale this year, will be the first EV available in Canada to use the SAE standard, and charging industry watchers will have a close eye on its sales figures. “We have stations in the ground now that are only CHAdeMO,” said Tsang. “Moving forward, if the SAE standard becomes popular, we will look at deploying it as well – most likely it will be dual-port stations with both standards.”
Many in the industry are pushing for a peaceful resolution to the charging plug war, including the charging station manufacturers.
“Considering that auto manufacturers are currently supplying vehicles under both standards, and their understandable reliance on multi-year platforms to lower costs and increase quality, it makes sense to target coexistence between the two standards,” said Dadian.
“The standards issue does complicate the fast charging discussion,” added Bartosh. “But the availability of chargers capable of handling both CHAdeMO and SAE Combo standards in a single unit is a welcome solution for drivers and site owners.”
Free or fee?
The seven charging stations are currently free to use, but Tsang says they are “very close” to implementing a payment system. “We’re looking at different options, but haven’t announced anything officially. We have been consulting with a lot of end users to see what would be best in their minds.”
One might assume that EV drivers would be pushing for free public fast charging, but, as Tsang explains, that’s not the case. “A lot of the opinion leaders are pointing towards a time-based fee for a couple of reasons. One, they feel that it will keep people from stranding the assets – leaving their cars plugged in for longer than they need to charge. This is a big problem when you’re in need of a fast charge, because each station only charges one car at a time, and it takes up to 20 minutes to get to 80 percent charge from fully depleted. Drivers understand the mechanics around fast charging. A time-based fee would mean that as long as you’re connected, you’re paying. That will push people onward, making sure that you’ll get high utilization of the infrastructure. ‘Take what you need to get where you want to go,’ is the attitude we want to promote.”
This article originally appeared in Charged Issue 13 – APR 2014