28,000 charging stations for electric cars is possible - but where? Industry players weigh in
SINGAPORE: At this year’s Budget, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said Singapore will aim to phase out vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) over the next 20 years.
It is part of a bigger vision under the Land Transport Master Plan 2040 to make the country’s land transport sector more environmentally sustainable. At the core of this strategy are electric vehicles (EVs).
In fact, after 2030, Singapore should see no new purchases of ICE vehicles, according to Senior Minister of State for Transport Dr Janil Puthucheary at the Transport Ministry’s Committee of Supply Debate.
That will be no mean feat, given Singapore has more than 900,000 of such vehicles today.
To incentivise electric vehicle adoption, the Government is dangling several carrots such as the EV Early Adoption Incentive (EEAI) – essentially a rebate on Additional Registration Fees (ARF) capped at S$20,000 starting next January.
If this gets the needle moving, then the gradual growth of the electric vehicle population should rise in tandem with the intended construction of up to 28,000 public charging points by 2030. It will be an incremental exercise from the current 1,600 chargers now publicly accessible.
Existing players in the industry say the 28,000 goal is realistic, but tell CNA that significant effort will have to go into readying Singapore's infrastructure.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
Over the past two years, BlueSG has built 1,291 charging points for its electric car-sharing service. A total of 239 of those charging points are accessible to third-party users – in other words, non-BlueSG vehicles can use them.
Commercial and Network Director Jenny Lim described the factors that affect whether a charging point can be built at an existing parking lot.
"Other than the 4.8m by 2.4m size of the lot, there needs to be ample space around the lot so that we can install the equipment,” said Ms Lim.
Surrounding features such as trees and underground cables also matter. For instance, trees cannot be cut down to make way for construction and installation work.
“It’s also important not to disrupt construction halfway," said Ms Lim. "After you set about the construction process, if you realise there are underground cables, you will delay the whole construction process. And sometimes you may even have to abort it."
It is also generally more expensive and time-consuming to build a charging point outdoors, because regulations dictate that trenching work has to be done to hide electrical cables underground.
Ms Lim said an outdoor project can cost 50 per cent more than one in a sheltered, multi-storey car park – and take twice as long.
“We need to do trenching, digging, and then we need to do casting – weather permitting,” said Ms Lim.
“From the moment we select a station to when the station is fully functional with all the approvals and applications in place, this will typically take four to six months.”
Access to power is another important factor. Commercial players such as BlueSG have to tap available power sources to draw electricity to its charging points.
If the parking lot is outdoors, it has to be near an overground box, and there might only be one on an entire street. For multi-storey car parks, proximity to electrical rooms is key and these switch rooms are usually on the ground floor.
Simply put, the further the charging point from the power source, the more expensive the construction and installation.
NEW VERSUS OLD
It is generally more cost-effective to build charging lots from scratch by including them in new car park designs, according to Assistant Professor Raymond Ong, who researches transport infrastructure at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the National University of Singapore.
But it is more likely than not that the conversion of existing car park lots will have to factor into the numbers game.
BlueSG’s Ms Lim has a similar view that it would be easier to install charging points in newer developments such as public build-to-order flats. She thinks getting to 28,000 charging points will not be a problem.
“For the landscape in Singapore, there are 4,000 public car parks – HDB, URA, various agencies' car parks – altogether,” said Ms Lim.
“If you take away a good proportion that are older car parks, and you spread the rest across newer car parks, community areas near transport hubs, (with) easily between seven to 10 parking lots (for charging) per car park, the Government should be able to fill up (and get to) the 28,000."
However, Ms Lim also pointed out another challenge – that many car parks in Singapore are older and tend to only be equipped with just enough power for lights, elevators, and electronic gantries.
Property developers such as City Developments Limited (CDL) are already addressing this problem.
Chief Sustainability Officer Esther An said even older buildings such as Republic Plaza can be made ready for electric charging, as long as they are properly maintained and upgraded to meet energy efficiency auditing standards.
“In every building, you have to maintain an upgrading schedule,” she said. “So, we don't see it as a problem if you have continuous efforts to maintain building performance."
Republic Plaza is more than two decades old and has six lots for electric vehicles, two of which are for public use. The other four are for BlueSG’s car-sharing service, and are not among those BlueSG has opened to private car owners.
The building will add two more public lots by the second quarter of 2020.
CDL has also committed to installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure at its new residential developments moving forward.
In 2016, it provided isolators for 97 units at its landed property development in Serangoon Gardens, giving owners the flexibility to plug-and-play EV chargers if and when they decide to get an electric car.
Charging facilities provider Greenlots – which is wholly owned by Shell – said more developers are showing interest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
“Condominiums and commercial buildings in Singapore have been quite slow to adopt EV charging stations, but the awareness is starting to grow amongst the building and facility management sectors,” said a Greenlots spokesperson, who added that charging locations are becoming more common because tenants, businesses and visitors are creating demand.
“The Government may help to alleviate these concerns by implementing requirements for buildings to be EV-ready," the spokesperson said. "In Singapore, the Green Mark Award is a good example of how EV-readiness can be promoted.
"This building benchmarking scheme will encourage the construction of environmentally friendly buildings and features that align with the long-term goals of sustainability and liveability. EV charging stations definitely fall within the category of a green feature.”
IMPACT ON THE GRID – GRIN OR GRIMACE?
Also very much a part of the debate are concerns about what impact 28,000 charging stations will have on the national power grid.
Greater electric vehicle adoption will inevitably lead to greater electricity demand, something the Transport Ministry has assured it can manage through the construction of new power generation capacity and the reinforcement of the grid network.
“We will also incorporate innovations such as smart charging and energy storage solutions that store energy from the grid during off-peak periods,” said Dr Puthucheary at the Committee of Supply debate.
Energy provider SP Group said it has progressively upgraded the grid infrastructure over the years to keep up with changing consumer demand. The company is also confident of handling the additional load.
"It's likely going to be highly distributed across the whole of Singapore. Therefore, the impact on the grid, in our view, will be highly manageable,” said Goh Chee Kiong, CEO of New Energies at SP Group.
“That said, SP Group will undertake all measures to ensure there's no adverse impact on the grid arising from EV charging.”
SP Group is also building and operating its own charging points and has a mix of fast- and slow-options available.
Right now, it has 166 chargers, with 86 of them accessible to the public.
By the end of this year, the company has committed to 1,000 charging points and will run Singapore’s largest public EV charging network, with a quarter of them fast-chargers.
Mr Goh said SP Group is working with property owners and managers to get these rolled out.
“There are three types of charging locations. The first being the workplace, the second would be residential areas, and the third being general public areas such as shopping malls,” said Mr Goh.
“A lot of the districts that will work with SP Group in the coming few months will be a combination of those three types of areas.”
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
So, where exactly will the 28,000 charging stations be located? And how many will be fast- or slow- chargers?
These considerations will depend on demand projections, according to Dr Ong.
“Most of the time in transportation planning, we will estimate where the demand nodes are for drivers," he said.
"In the case of electric vehicles, we would usually estimate the proportion of drivers who would switch from an internal combustion vehicle vehicle to an electric vehicle.
“Based on that, we have some numbers to estimate where around Singapore these drivers would be distributed, and based on that, we would estimate potential locations to plant the charging stations."
The Transport Ministry is conducting studies to better understand the different factors that affect the demand for charging and is studying potential solutions to guide its roll-out.
For a start, it will prioritise public car parks and work with the private sector to improve the availability of electric vehicle charging.
“If you are considering an electric vehicle over an internal combustion engine vehicle you must be convinced that access to a charger will be as convenient as access to a petrol station,” said Dr Puthucheary at the Committee of Supply debate.
Dr Ong said location will also depend on charging technology. Under the national EV charging standard TR25, there are two standards – Type 2 (AC) for slow-charging and Combo 2 (DC) for fast-charging.
Slow-chargers can fully charge a car in six to eight hours and are more useful for overnight charging.
“It would make more sense to actually have these (slow) charging stations in, perhaps, HDB estates, where drivers are already parking their cars at HDB car parks overnight,” he said.
Fast-chargers, on the other hand, are more suited to those constantly on the move. For example, SP Group’s fast-chargers primarily serve drivers of fleet vehicles such as electric taxi service HDT, Grab’s electric cars, and multi-national corporation Schneider Electric’s internal-use fleet.
These can get a car battery pumped up in 30 minutes and many are spread out in areas such as office buildings, housing estates, business parks, JTC industrial estates and even on Sentosa.
On top of these two charging standards, the Land Transport Authority and Energy Market Authority have announced the addition of the Japanese fast-charging method CHAdeMO as an optional public charging standard.
This is compatible with electric vehicle models such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the Honda Fit EV, which means buyers can choose from a wider range of options.
CHARGING AHEAD – WHAT’S NEXT?
As Dr Puthucheary put it, having all vehicles run on cleaner energy by 2040 is ambitious. It will require significant changes to commuting and consumer behaviour and the necessary supporting infrastructure.
Still, economist Associate Professor Walter Theseira who heads the Master of Management in Urban Transportation programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, is not quite sold on the target of 28,000 charging points.
“What does 28,000 mean? How many EVs can 28,000 support? If you have charging technology where you can charge within 15 minutes to half an hour, then 28,000 can support a lot of EVs," he said.
"But if you are relying on overnight charging, then I'm sorry, 28,000 actually supports fewer than 28,000 EVs, maybe 28,000 at most."
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Dr Theseira added that even if people do not expect to charge every night - in other words, for a charging point to support more than one car – it would require a system of subscription and payment which has yet to be worked out.
Others, though, see the battery as half full and Dr Ong believes 28,000 is just the beginning.
"Once this demand is created, and we see there's a growth in EVs compared to EV-ICE mix, I believe strategies will be adjusted to potentially increase the locations and the charging points, iteratively, so we can achieve an electrification of vehicle future,” he added.