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Electric vehicles (EV) seem to be everywhere these days—on the streets and in the media. Businesses, governments, and even utilities provide incentives for people to make the switch to electric. And, particularly in some urban areas, charging stations pop up like mushrooms. It’s great news for all kinds of concerns about fossil fuels, as well as all kinds of technology innovations.
But this EV transition-in-progress also has big implications for both energy usage and the state of the power grid. Technology has a lot of pressure on it to make the former sustainable, and infrastructure has a lot of pressure on it to make the latter reliable—for tomorrow’s demands as well as today’s. Maurizio Caporali, Chief Product Officer of the developer of leading-edge solutions SECO; and Ezana Mekonnen, Chief Technology Officer of the energy systems provider Imagen Energy, join us to discuss the rise of electric vehicles and charging stations, and the industry support required to support that evolution (Video 1).
What’s driving the rise of, and the interest in, electric vehicles?
Maurizio Caporali: Electric vehicles are a solution that has changed the automotive industry a lot in different ways. In general there is a breakdown with respect to the combustion engine solution. For sure, electric vehicles don’t use fossil fuels—so there’s possibly a reduction of pollution in specific environments, and this could be very important.
Then there are many aspects interesting for the end user. For example, driving comfort. Electric vehicles are something that is very quiet, and also it’s a change from the vibration point of view. Less maintenance, because this kind of solution needs less maintenance on the part of the components and there’s less failure on the part of automotive movement.
Another very important consideration is from the technological side: Electric vehicles have a lot of technology inside. It’s a complex environment—with computers, many sensors, and more technology than, in general, is in the standard combustion car. The last point, from a technological point of view, is the improvement of battery technology.
In some ways we can think also about electric vehicles in relation to self-driving cars. For example, the possibility to interact with the electric vehicle remotely—the possibility for the end user to have all the information about the car in a smartphone application. Also the control—the possibility to turn on the air conditioning before entering the car, for example.
What is the impact of electric vehicles on the power grid?
Ezana Mekonnen: I think the impact of electric vehicles on the grid is profound. This is by way of added demand; if not managed correctly, it can add a strain on the grid. But when it comes to the grid, it’s not always a demand-side problem. We see similar issues when we introduce PV solar power into the grid, and an excess supply of energy causes the same kind of strain.
It’s the balance of supply and demand that’s critical. And this is done through smart loads—smart grids that can better coordinate the supply and demand—and then also added storage in the system so that it can better buffer the energy coming from renewables as well as the demand needed by electric vehicles.
What kind of infrastructure currently exists for charging solutions?
Maurizio Caporali: First we started with electric vehicles; now we are thinking about the infrastructure of charging stations. The key point is to permit the growth of electric vehicles, but without the charging stations, this change will not be possible.
“The key point is to permit the growth of #ElectricVehicles, but without the charging stations, this change will not be possible.” – Maurizio Caporali, @SECO_spa
Our interest is in the fast-charging station—to give the opportunity to the end user to charge the vehicle during the trip in only a few minutes. And also to give the possibility to have information about the positioning, about the availability of the charging station, and about the characteristics of the charging station with respect to the car.
To do this there are important aspects that are related to technology—technology that is not only hardware but also software. We have analyzed this aspect and defined a solution that can work with the physical space and the ambient in different ways—on the one hand, with sensors to understand the status of the ambient environment, on the other hand, having an interface for the end user and the capability to give information to the end user.
EV chargers could also be a very important point of interest in the sense of data. Charging stations can produce a lot of data for the end user, but they can also be an important point of information for municipalities. So they are not only the way to charge a car but also a data-information system.
Another important point is managing fleets of these charging stations. With the change from fossil fuel to electricity, we need to guarantee the ability to charge the car. Also to have all the necessary information ready and available immediately with predictive-analysis information about the status of an entire fleet of charging stations.
How is SECO working to get charging stations installed on highways or within cities?
Maurizio Caporali: The important aspect here is the flexibility of the solution so that we can give a company the opportunity to customize the last level of that solution. Our characteristic is to define something that is very flexible and very modular, then give the opportunity to customize.
The other important aspect is to make this customization available from the hardware point of view and also from the software point of view. Then we give customers a set of tools to define the right service and right solution for different levels of user. There are the parts that manage the maintenance of the infrastructure, and there is also the marketing side—the possibility to manage remotely the information, the pricing, the advertising system. We give the opportunity to add a large screen for information, to add a payment system, to add many sensors that can enable different levels of service depending on the place where the device will be installed.
How can we ensure today’s efforts continue to scale and evolve?
Ezana Mekonnen: I think there are two parts to that. The first one is that it’s very crucial to have a long-term view of what we’re actually deploying. For instance, we are developing our charger to be bidirectional—not because that’s needed now, but because we’re making sure that the infrastructure is in place for not only charging a vehicle but also being able to pull the energy back to the grid. This will turn EV from being a liability to the grid into an asset for the grid, where we’ll have what are essentially batteries on wheels, right?
The second aspect is that EV charging owners worry about what they call “stranded assets,” where they have charging stations that don’t get enough usage. So we have an architecture that can allow us to deploy a charging station and then add charging ports to it as the utilization goes up. This will help the infrastructure keep up with the adoption of electric vehicles, and it can continue to grow.
What is the relationship between SECO, Imagen, and other companies?
Ezana Mekonnen: At Imagen we realized that these chargers won’t just be chargers: They’re multifunctional units. It’s similar to how our phone is not just a phone but also a camera, a GPS system, and more. So while we were focused on making a compact converter that’s sufficient for power conversion and delivery, we looked to SECO for added functionality. And that’s functionality such as its CLEA AI—the capability for image processing and audio processing, and then being able to drive a large screen for advertisement that could potentially either offset the cost of charging or provide functionality. And not just functionality for the user of the EV charger but also for the business around it. Basically we think that having this infrastructure out there with a lot of processing capability could evolve to something else beyond just charging.
And Intel has also been just great in terms of the technology that it’s offering us—specifically an FPGA that we’re using for our power conversion. It’s a very reliable and robust method of developing power conversion, especially as we try to make it efficient and extremely compact. It takes more than any one single company to develop this future infrastructure, and we’re happy that we’re working with both SECO and Intel.
Maurizio Caporali: Yes. The core part of our technology is based on an Intel chip. In particular we are using the last generation of industrial solution from Intel—the low power consumption that is based on the Atom® series processor. These processors are very flexible, very powerful, and with very, very low power consumption.
Another important point is that, with the possibility of analyzing a lot of complex data that is coming from different kinds of sensors, all this data can be analyzed in real time. That gives also the opportunity to not have to send all the data to the cloud, but instead it can be pre-analyzed directly on the edge device. And this is possible thanks to the technology also of OpenVINO™. Our solution also has industrial-grade efficiency in the sense of temperature and also long life—the possibility to maintain the solution for more than 10 years.
Also, as I mentioned before, there is the possibility to define this solution as a modular one, and the possibility to have a series of interfaces and IOs. For example, we have a direct connection with the electronics of Imagen Energy to exchange the data between the two systems in the right way, in the perfect way.
This collaboration—the solution of Imagen, related to the power efficiency of the energy conversion; and our solution, managing all the data on top of the creation of energy—has given us the opportunity to interface with the current, the infrastructure, and also the managing of all human interface, all based on a big screen to provide all the information for the end user.
Any final thoughts for us?
Ezana Mekonnen: This is just an exciting time—this big, big revolution happening with the conversion of transportation into electric. It can bring about a lot of new opportunity, new markets, and a more sustainable future.
Maurizio Caporali: Yes, and the change will happen soon—the possibility of using electric vehicles in the right way, with a new generation of more efficient EV charging. It’s more simple and more smart for the future of charging and traveling. And this could be very important for new possibilities related to the interaction between the end user and the environment.
To learn more about electric vehicles, read AI and CV Power Up the EV Charging Station Boom and listen to Powering Up EV Technologies: With SECO and Imagen Energy. For the latest innovations from SECO, follow them on Twitter at @SECO spa and LinkedIn, and follow Imagen Energy on LinkedIn.
This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.