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5 trends this decade that will shape Singapore’s switch to electric mobility

Singapore’s switch to clean transport is moving into full swing.

With its decision to phase out vehicles with internal combustion engines within two decades, the city-state has joined a host of other countries—from Sweden to Sri Lanka—in a global shift away from four-wheeled gas guzzlers.

Electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts have long argued the tiny island nation is an ideal location for mass adoption, but is Singapore’s charging network ready for the upcoming EV wave?

There is, without doubt, work to be done. To find out how Singapore’s EV charging scene could shape up this decade, Eco-Business spoke to experts and singled out five of the most exciting tech and consumer trends to look out for.

1. Charging will become smarter

As more battery-powered cars hit Singapore’s roads, the state faces the same challenge other countries grapple with: If too many vehicles are plugged in simultaneously, they could lead to grid overloads.

But what if smart charging devices, grid operators and vehicles could “communicate” to ease the stress on infrastructure?

“The idea of smart charging has been floating around for quite some time now. Today, it has become a real solution and, going forward, we will start seeing smart chargers everywhere,” said Kumail Rashid, EV charging sales manager for Asia Pacific at engineering giant ABB.

But how does it work? Rashid explained that smart charging enables stations to monitor and manage the use of chargers to optimise power consumption. Based on energy production, consumption and the state-of-charge information from other vehicles nearby, suppliers can identify the ideal periods to provide power to cars without overburdening the grid.

Where consumers set the time of charging, time-of-use pricing systems can impose higher tariffs to discourage charging during peak load periods.

Smart systems could also be backed by on-site batteries that would serve as a buffer to flatten power consumption peaks, said Rashid. ABB has developed such energy storage systems capable of drawing and storing electricity from the grid during periods of low demand.

Smart charging technology means utilities need not invest in costly transformer and cabling upgrades, but it has broader benefits, according to Terence Siew, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of Singapore.

Specifically, if fully integrated into energy systems, EVs could be harnessed as a grid resource to help Singapore handle growing intermittent solar output. In so-called vehicle-to-grid systems, cars can return surplus power to the grid when fluctuating renewables do not generate electricity, he explained.

Smart charging and vehicle-to-grid systems are poised to further strengthen the business case for owning EVs as they enable customers to charge when tariffs are low and supply energy back to the grid when tariffs are high, observed Frost & Sullivan mobility senior vice-president and associate partner Vivek Vaidya.

“Electric vehicles will no longer just remain vehicles but become energy storage on wheels,” he told Eco-Business.

Going forward, you will not even have to pay at the charger or authenticate with apps and QR codes anymore, because the car can communicate with the charger that you have previously given permission to. So, it can start charging straight away.

Kumail Rashid, EV charging sales manager for Asia Pacific, ABB

2. Automated ports will make charging more convenient

Vehicle owners will soon be able to charge their cars without having to lift a finger. ABB is working to bring such convenience to its customers through automated connections for buses, trucks and cars.

“It will be so convenient in future,” said Rashid. “You get out of your vehicle and you do not even have to plug anything in physically. Going forward, you will not even have to pay at the charger or authenticate with apps and QR codes anymore, because the car can communicate with the charger that you have previously given permission to. So, it can start charging straight away.”

The company is currently testing such technologies on buses. Charging stations register when buses enter using sensor technology, and automatically lower down a pantograph—an overhead apparatus—to supply current to the vehicle. Once the bus signals to the system it has sufficient charge, it is automatically released, explained Rashid.

Wireless charging is another solution that could soon take off. But the technology that wirelessly rechargeable cars would require includes the embedding of chargers in the ground, which is costly, rendering it commercially unviable for now.

Eventually, it could be attractive for taxi stands and car parks, but whether ABB will be able to roll it out at scale will depend on demand, said Rashid.

3. Buses will become cleaner and, eventually, driverless

The days of buses that leave a trail of heat and fumes in their wake are numbered.

The Singapore government has announced all new public buses will either be electric or hybrids, in line with its target to have the entire fleet of public buses, which numbers around 5,400, running on cleaner energy by 2040.

Deploying fast charging at bus depots and interchanges is relatively easier than at office buildings downtown, making public transportation the low hanging fruit in the clean mobility space, said Assistant Professor Raymond Ong Ghim Ping of the National University of Singapore’s department of civil and environmental engineering.

Experts have also argued that governments should promote more sustainable public transport over electric private cars to avoid traffic congestion. Traffic jams cost the world US$460 billion in 2017 and this amount is expected to double by 2030.

Last year, ABB secured contracts to supply charging infrastructure for 40 electric buses that will hit Singapore’s roads from this year. The four 450kW chargers at key interchanges will provide buses enough power for 35km in less than 10 minutes, news outlet The Straits Times reported.

ABB is also helping autonomous buses become a viable form of transport through its collaboration with Swedish automaker Volvo and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

4. Ultrafast charging will dispel road anxiety

Only a handful of years ago, EV owners had to brace for a long wait once their cars ran out of juice. But those days are fast becoming history as charging facilities shift to higher power.

“It is happening much more rapidly than people realise. Today, we are deploying technology in various countries that can provide enough power for up to 200 kilometres worth of range in five to eight minutes,” Rashid said.

“Just two years ago, we would talk about fast chargers being equipped with 50-kilowatt (kW) outputs. But the chargers we have now come with 350 (kW) outputs, and we are already looking to ramp that up to one megawatt (MW) or even two. It will be exciting to see what opportunities that will bring also for industrial applications or in aviation,” he continued.

As batteries improve, the time required to charge could be cut even further, said Ong.

Beyond convenience, ultrafast charging will enable car owners to bid farewell to range anxiety—the fear that an EV will run out of charge mid-journey—which has traditionally discouraged private EV ownership, said Rashid.

5. There will be many more charging points

One of the greatest obstacles for greater uptake of EVs has been the lack of charging points.

Singapore aims to raise the number of charging points from 1,600 today to 28,000 at public car parks island-wide by 2030. But to design a charging network as economically as possible, the city-state will also need to be savvy about how it distributes chargers, as customer needs vary depending on the location.

In places like homes, offices and hotels, where users are more likely to linger, offering costly fast-charging services may not be practical, as lower-power alternate current stations are more cost-efficient.

On the other hand, ultrafast, high-power chargers that can juice up vehicles in less than 20 minutes must be provided at locations where users are likely to be pressed for time—and may be willing to pay a premium.

Falling somewhere between the two extremes are direct current chargers boasting 24-kW outputs and capable of providing a full charge in less than four hours. They may be suited for places such as shopping malls, where users likely spend an hour or more.

Last year, ABB clinched a contract to install 50-kW charging infrastructure at 10 Shell stations across Singapore. In 2018, the company was also selected to be part of utility SP Group’s deployment of 500 EV charging points across the island by the end of this year.

According to Rashid, the charging stations springing up across Singapore will give consumers more choice and bring down costs. This, along with more affordable EVs and batteries, will reduce the cost of ownership.

Consulting firm Deloitte estimates the global EV market will reach a tipping point by 2022, bringing the cost of owning an EV on par with that of owning a fossil fuel car.

While Singapore dangles various carrots to incentivise EV purchases, investment in infrastructure is still lacking although there has been more interest among investors and network operators, observed Rashid.

As of last month, there were 1,147 fully electric cars on Singapore’s roads, comprising less than 0.2 per cent of the car population. But by 2030, they could make up 60 per cent of the mix. “Unless investment grows, charging infrastructure will not be able to keep up,” Rashid said.

The issue is currently a chicken-and-egg problem, said Ong. At present, there simply is not enough consumer demand to drive installations, while the lack of charging facilities deters potential EV buyers.

“We have to start somewhere. Only if consumer needs are met will EVs really become a logical choice. This requires reducing the cost of ownership for EVs, as announced in Budget 2020, as well as increasing the supply of charging infrastructure,” he said.

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