Electric vehicle ranges remain limited, but operators aware of the lucrative potential in refuelling them are competing to install charging stations to connect cities
Power play for electric vehicles charging network across Europe
The battle over how and where Europeans charge their electric cars is expanding from the continent's cities to its motorways.
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 – but advances in electric vehicles means where they build them is changing.
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 landgrab now to win this sector," says Tim Payne, the chief executive of the British charging start-up InstaVolt, which has raised £12 million (Dh59m) to install 3,000 charge points across Britain by 2020.
While the range of electric vehicles (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.
But Tesla, Porsche and BMW are now making battery-powered cars with enough range to drive across countries. Daimler and Volkswagen also announced plans on the eve of last week's Frankfurt motor show to accelerate their shift to electric cars.
Charging infrastructure 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?" says Ralf Speth, the boss of Britain's India-owned 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 US$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 1 million to 3 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 says.
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, they 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 the French utility Engie in March.
"We expect hundreds of millions of annual revenue from EV-Box in a few years," says Thierry Lepercq, the 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 $19.m.
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 more important for now.
That's why German utility E.ON, too, announced a strategic partnership with the Danish start-up Clever and said it had the ambition to roll out several hundred ultra-fast charging stations along European motorways.
Clever, which is owned by a group of Danish utilities and runs charging networks in Denmark, Sweden and Germany, wants to extend its network to France, Britain and Italy with E.ON.
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," says the Clever chief executive Casper Kirketerp-Moeller.
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," says Michiel Langezaal, the 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 (Dh440.8m) over the next two years to branch out in to 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 start-ups, 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.
That seems to work for some.
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 US car maker by that measure.
"Tesla has never been in the black, but had enormous growth," says Elke Temme, who co-heads the e-mobility unit of Germany's Innogy.
Of course, it is not only Europe that is embracing the car revolution.
China's Tencent and Guangzhou Automobile Group Company this week agreed to collaborate on internet-connected cars - a strategic pact that sent shares in Guangzhou Auto surging.
The development of self-driving cars and fast-changing technology set in motion a flurry of alliances between internet giants and automakers. Earlier this year, Tencent bought 5 per cent of Tesla for $1.78 billion.
Tencent and Guangzhou Auto will work together to develop internet-connected cars and artificial intelligence-aided driving, as well as explore investment in areas such as auto-related e-commerce, so-called new energy cars and car insurance, the car maker said in a filing.
Guangzhou Auto said it aimed to tap Tencent's expertise in mobile payments, social networking, big data and artificial intelligence. Tencent will also provide cloud services and other technical support.
Hong Kong-listed shares of Guangzhou Auto were trading 5 per cent higher on Tuesday morning. Tencent gained nearly 1 per cent to a record high.
Tencent has been a relative latecomer among China's largest tech firms to delve into the car sector. The e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba has a joint venture with the Shanghai-based car maker SAIC Motor, while Baidu has been developing self-driving cars.