Taking EV chargers off-grid could slash costs for drivers and suppliers

Audi E-tron at Freewire charger 2022

Freewire’s Boost Charger uses a battery for electricity rather than a costly grid connection

Battery-storage tech could be key to expanding UK’s rapid charging network, says incoming US firm Freewire

EV charging infrastructure is in the spotlight. Costs have increased, new chargers aren’t being installed fast enough and maintenance contracts aren’t being renewed. But a company that’s about to roll out in the UK could prove the answer to infrastructure shortcomings. 

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Autocar spoke with Arcady Sosinov, founder and CEO of charger manufacturer Freewire. The American firm has received significant investment from BP, Chevron, Geely and others, with one charger already installed in Milton Keynes under the BP Pulse umbrella and orders for 64 more.

The chargers utilise battery storage using cells from Envision AESC – the same ones used in the Nissan Leaf and Renault Zoe.

Sosinov claimed that in the latest Freewire Boost Charger, they have 85% better energy density than a Tesla Powerpack and can provide a 200kW rapid charge throughout the normal daily needs of a public charger.

The idea is simple: using batteries means there’s no need for an expensive direct grid connection. They’re quicker and cheaper to install and, because they can run off a normal supply, they can be placed in rural areas that are currently poorly served. They can also be moved more easily if a property lease comes to an end and could potentially be used to bolster capacity at a location during times of higher demand, as we saw during the recent holidays.

“Utility infrastructure is incredibly difficult to bring out,” said Sosinov. “It’s costly, and I don’t believe that utilities are going to be able to keep up with demand, as we need to move to ubiquitous, widespread fast and ultra-fast charging.”

He admitted that when Freewire began, the idea of using battery storage was a bit odd. At the time, batteries cost around £1250 per usable kWh, but the costs have declined significantly since then, in 2019 reaching the point where it was more cost-effective to use a battery than to install a transformer and switchgear, according to Sosinov.

That’s one of the reasons why the solution is proving attractive to the oil companies, which Sosinov said are currently in a “cold war” with the utility companies as they stop oil exploration and instead invest in decarbonisation and alternative energy.

“These oil and gas companies have a real threat to their business ahead of them,” said Sosinov. “If they can’t supply hydrocarbons, they need to start supplying electrons. That’s very uncomfortable for the oil and gas players, because traditionally they controlled all the way from exploration to extraction to refining and downstream to your vehicle. They controlled the whole thing.

“Costs were in their hands, and now all of a sudden they’re supplying this new commodity: electrons. They don’t control anything upstream from that. They don’t control the production of electricity or the distribution of it; that’s a utility.”

The utility companies get to fix the electricity costs, and it takes time to change their tariffs. EV charging means power demand spikes, which can trigger higher tariffs.

One way to deal with that is to buy the utilities, which we’re already seeing, with Shell buying First Utility in the UK. Another is to use a solution that allows you to manage the charging costs in a way that suits you – and that’s where battery storage comes in.

“Companies are saying that if utilities don’t want to price the energy the way they want it priced right now, they will store it in the batteries and just grab energy from the utility in the middle of the night,” Sosinov said.

That might all seem like a smart decision for the oil companies, but it could also mean good news for EV owners. Instead of those charging spikes, battery storage means consistent electricity usage, which makes costs more predictable and avoids the high demand rates. That could mean more competition between charging facilities in the same way as fuel prices are displayed at forecourts today.  

Another factor is reliability. Many councils and businesses invested in chargers, but with costs rising, they aren’t renewing their operation and maintenance contracts, leading to many chargers becoming redundant.

A Department for Transport spokesperson confirmed that legislation is still pending to require 99% reliability at rapid chargepoints, but enforcement will only begin at least 12 months after the legislation is passed, meaning it won’t be until at least 2024.

Because there’s no direct connection to the grid and no transformer with Freewire chargers, less maintenance is required and the costs are significantly lower.

It all sounds promising and, with the roll out set to get underway shortly, could prove to be the answer not just for the providers of public rapid charging but also, more importantly, for the EV drivers who are reliant on it.

Mark Smyth

Source: Autocar

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