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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Volvo backs electric car charging firm as BP network grows

Swedish firm's investment in FreeWire would allow it to play an influential role in designing products with FreeWire and to work with UK energy major

Volvo aims to get on the electric car charging bandwagon. Getty Images)
Volvo aims to get on the electric car charging bandwagon. Getty Images)

Volvo is investing in a start-up called FreeWire whose rapid charging systems for electric cars are being installed across BP petrol stations in Europe this year.

Fast charging is a crucial factor in luring customers to electric cars, reflected in moves across the sector. BMW , Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen, for instance, have jointly pledged to open 400 ultra-fast charging stations in Europe by 2020, aiming to close the gap with Tesla.

Yet Volvo, owned by China's Geely Holding and whose XC40 4x4 will be its first all-electric offering in a strategy to generate half of its sales annually from fully electric cars by 2025, has said it does not see itself owning service or charging stations.

Through its Volvo Cars Tech Fund, the Swedish company said it had bought a stake in FreeWire, although it gave no further details.

The fund's CEO Zaki Fasihuddin said Volvo expected an already visible shortage of charging points to grow in magnitude as a wave of electric cars hits the streets in five years.

"With electrification there's going to be a lot of pressure not only to build infrastructure, but also to help consumers get over the range anxiety they feel," Mr Fasihuddin said. "We think FreeWire is attacking that problem is a good way."

He said Volvo's investment would allow it to play an influential role in designing products with FreeWire and to work with BP, which invested $5 million in FreeWire in January.

"If you look at the possibility of piloting an innovation, [BP's involvement] just makes it all the more possible because we get to utilise our and BP's retail networks and that gives us a bigger, global sandbox to play in," Mr Fasihuddin said.

The announcement came the day after Nissan said its Leaf became the first electric vehicle (EV) to secure regulatory approval as an energy backstop for Germany's electricity grid, something the Japanese car maker hopes will attract corporate fleet customers.

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So-called vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology is a connection between the EV and the grid through which power can flow from the grid to the vehicle and vice-versa. That potentially enables car owners to sell energy to the network, while utilities could use electric cars as a backstop if demand rises.

Nissan said it would initially target corporate clients with fleets of more than 60 electric vehicles, adding that services based on V2G technology would be offered in Germany from next year onwards.

There will be 280 million electric vehicles by 2040, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency, compared with more than 3 million last year.

"We strongly believe in an emission-free future," Guillaume Pelletreau, vice president and managing director, Nissan Center Europe, said. "Leaf batteries could make an important contribution to energy transition in Germany and a sustainable future."

The initiative was also supported by Daimler-backed The Mobility House, local utility Enervie and German transmission system operator Amprion, which is co-owned by RWE and infrastructure investors including Munich Re , Swiss Life and Talanx.

Nissan is relying on the CHAdeMO charging standard, which has been jointly developed by several Japanese companies as a competitor to Tesla's supercharger system and the European-backed Combined Charging System (CCS).

That puts Nissan at odds with European car makers, including BMW and Volkswagen, who are pushing to have the CCS, which is also capable of V2G services, established.

"Nissan is ahead for now but other technologies, including Tesla's supercharger can theoretically do the same thing," said Thomas Raffeiner, chief executive and founder of The Mobility House.

Nissan has so far sold about 370,000 electric vehicles and, along with top shareholder Renault, has been very active in exploring how car batteries can be integrated into the wider power system.

While a mass uptake of EVs is expected to put a major strain on the power grid and require billions of euros in infrastructure investments, car batteries have already proven that they can become part of the network.