Energy is not a bottomless vessel. The growth of electric vehicles must be accompanied by sufficient charging infrastructure. Otherwise, may ration the “juice” for cars, says Jiří Nykodým of VOLTDRIVE.

The network of charging stations for electric vehicles is booming in the Czech Republic. Not only are all major electricity distributors building them, but other players are also entering the liberalized market: petrol stations, fuel retailers, or mobile operators. Developers are now not only obliged to build charging stations in buildings with parking spaces, but also their customers want them. "Increasingly, the question of how to build charging infrastructure to meet the growing demand of parked electric cars that need to be charged within a certain time interval is being addressed," says VOLTDRIVE CEO Jiří Nykodým in the Adastra podcast.

  • How are the Green Deal and the transition to electromobility linked?
  • What is needed to build a charging infrastructure with sufficient capacity?
  • What are the differences between charging electric cars at petrol stations, in residential and office buildings?
  • What are the main barriers to the more significant development of electromobility in the Czech Republic, and how to deal with them?

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Ivana Karhanová: Innovation as a search for a better way. Innovation is an optimistic view of the future — innovation is a tool for overcoming obstacles. Adastra and Innovation Week 2022 brings you a special podcast series. Are renewables and the European Green Deal an ideology being promoted regardless of its consequences, or can they become a tool to ensure geopolitical security? Is it just about ecology? Or is there another view? I will talk about this with Jiří Nykodým, CEO of VOLTDRIVE, a Czech manufacturer of charging stations and supplier of active and passive elements for grid and electromobility. Hello.

Jiří Nykodým: Hello.

Ivana Karhanová: How do you view the criticism of the Green Deal as an ideology that, in the darkest predictions, would plunge Europe and, with it, the Czech Republic into financial and energy poverty?

Jiří Nykodým: Well, that is a very one-sided view. And those who look at the Green Deal as the main culprit of the trouble we are in today – I don’t mean the Czech Republic, but the whole EU or the whole of Europe – it is certainly not the Green Deal. And the main problem that we are struggling with now is that energy prices have simply been taken off the chain and are being manipulated by Russia, whether it is Putin or Gazprom. They are trying to manipulate today and fight against the European Union, which is clearly on the side of Ukraine. So perhaps this cannot be blamed on Europe, with one exception. And that was the sort of unthinkingness of the fact that, in the transition to greater use of renewable energy sources, gas-fired power stations. But, unfortunately, need to be used in the intermediate stage as a shutdown power station, that is to say, a source that comes on quickly when there is a shortage of renewable energy and is used to stabilize the grid. This is a kind of strategic omission on the part of Germany, which has decided to go down this route on the assumption that there is a reliable energy supplier, especially natural gas. And that turned out to be a false assumption.

Ivana Karhanová: Are we talking about the original Energiewende advocated by Germany a few years ago?

Jiří Nykodým: Exactly. It was pushing it until six months ago, and only now is it starting to wake up and look for an alternative way. So the problem is not the Green Deal itself, but the problem is how to plan the right way to achieve the end state.

Ivana Karhanová: Does that mean a possible underestimation of the risks involved?

Jiří Nykodým: It is certainly an underestimation of the risks, especially geopolitical risks.

Ivana Karhanová: And how do you perceive renewable energy sources?

Jiří Nykodým: Renewable resources are undoubtedly a resource that has enormous advantages, namely that it significantly strengthens geopolitical independence. I mean, especially the geopolitical independence of Europe. And what renewables will bring in the future, in that there will be a much higher share of energy generated by renewable sources, will to a large extent, strengthen the independence of the whole region, which simply does not have those raw materials like gas and oil. And the fact that there have already been some risky steps planned that led to this is something that has happened, and there is probably nothing we can do about it. But it’s not the fault of the idea of the Green Deal itself. That said, it is the right target state, but it will need to be supplemented by two elements still lacking today. Firstly, it is a relatively cheap and economically sustainable way of storing energy, which is the first thing that is being worked on intensively. It is not just batteries. It is also possible to store energy in hydrogen, the possibility of storing energy in the form of pumped storage plants, for example. There are many possibilities. They are being explored intensively and will be developed, but we are not there yet. For the interim period, we may need to use nuclear power for longer than anticipated. Nuclear power itself is probably not the biggest problem. The problem is that with the transition to the Green Deal and electromobility, which are very closely linked, it will depend more on what the grid looks like than the resources. This means that the grid will have to be much more decentralized than it is today and will have to be more resilient and autonomous to a certain extent. And that’s certainly not where we are today. This will not be helped by completing large nuclear power plants like Temelín or Dukovany but rather by constructing smaller, local, and even nuclear power plants in the future. And we are not there yet either, although small reactors have been in use for a long time. Nuclear subs are nothing more than a demonstration of where small nuclear reactors are being used, but they are not yet ready for commercial deployment on the mainstream grid.

Ivana Karhanová: The idea of a conventional nuclear reactor deployment is strange…

Jiří Nykodým: If these reactors can be used on submarines, where the deployment is undoubtedly much more complicated than stationary sources, then surely it will not be a problem to create a stationary variant that is many times safer than today’s nuclear power plants.

Ivana Karhanová: You have been dealing with electromobility itself for twelve years. In your opinion, where are the most significant development milestones in history, either on the demand or supply side?

Jiří Nykodým: Well, you must consider the market we are discussing. Because if we look at the European market, every country is moving at a slightly different pace. If we look at the most developed countries, they have long since passed the initial milestones. They are already at a stage where electromobility is just a normal part of the mix and vehicle powertrains. I am thinking of countries like Norway or the Netherlands, and these are also examples or models of how it can or perhaps should not be done exactly. Norway, for example, which has gone down the route of high support for the acquisition of electric vehicles in the first place, now has the highest concentration of electric cars in Europe and is starting to have a bit of a problem with this because the construction of charging infrastructure has not gone completely hand in hand with it. Maybe they were scared of their success, or maybe the success had exceeded expectations so much that they were a bit caught off guard.

Ivana Karhanová: A photo from Norway was circulating for a while of many cables hanging out of apartments, out of houses, out of windows to cars parked on the street.

Jiří Nykodým: Yes, that’s a direct consequence of charging infrastructure limps behind car subsidies. The other leader in Europe is probably the Netherlands, which did not give such large subsidies for the purchase of cars, but instead rushed into building charging infrastructure. The Netherlands builds 30,000 public charging stations a year, so the growth in electric cars goes hand in hand with the construction of infrastructure. This is very advantageous for the Netherlands, by the way, because it has a mild climate and there are no hills. Today, the country is the most dynamic in Europe. These countries are models for us; unfortunately, we are not there, and the Czech Republic is lagging behind them somewhat. There are several reasons why we are lagging. Apart from the fact that there is a little less awareness that we should save the environment by using electric cars, it is mainly the relatively high cost of purchasing them. In our country, electric cars are not usually bought by private individuals but by companies and fleets. In addition, private car users have not yet been able to obtain any subsidies. Companies have to some extent, so that is the second reason why this is the case. And another reason is that support for electromobility in this country is generally not very high. It is certainly not the type of support in the Netherlands, where it is one of the main development programs of the Dutch Government, which is promoting it at both central and municipal levels. So we are not there, and our lag is about four or five years compared to more developed markets. However, we are gradually overcoming those initial obstacles, and electromobility is also starting to develop in our country. If I come back to the Czech market, there are two important turning points for the Czech market, and we have seen two important turning points for the development of electromobility.

The first one occurred just before the epidemic of Covid, and that was the decision of Škoda Auto – or probably not Škoda Auto, but VW Group as the parent concern – that all cars in the future would be electric. So Skoda took a decision that included a plan to gradually rotate production so that there would be fewer cars with internal combustion engines and more cars with electric engines. This may seem completely unrelated to the development of electric mobility in the Czech Republic. Still, it is related because Škoda Auto is the largest employer in this country and, as such, has a huge influence on everything that any government does. This means that when Skoda Auto says that electromobility is the way forward, electromobility will cease to be seen as a completely undesirable program and will at least begin to be tolerated, which is what happened then. At the same time, Skoda Auto, with its marketing push, started to support electromobility. Or, in other words: they stopped putting the brakes on and started pushing. And as long as they didn’t even have electric cars in the pipeline, they were logically putting the brakes on because they would lose market position. But the moment they had the cars, they started to push, and the whole market for electromobility started to move again.

Ivana Karhanová: They’re just driving it from the bottom.

Jiří Nykodým: Exactly. And that’s probably right because demand is always the most important moment for any market. So the moment they started stimulating demand, that demand started to take off. And it’s not just Skoda Auto, of course. I’m talking about Škoda because it’s the dominant or the biggest car company here, but all car companies behave like that. When you hear people sometimes say that electric cars are completely unsuitable for the Czech market because who would buy them, the car company must look at it as, after all, they will not produce cars that nobody wants. And if all the other countries around us say: Well, we won’t be buying cars other than electric from 2030, what’s left for Skoda? Of course, it will make electric cars. They would be fools to make special cars with combustion engines for the small Czech market.

Ivana Karhanová: And when do you think the density of electric chargers will be such that it will allow full use of electric cars? Suppose I live in an apartment building in Prague 6, and I can’t just pull a cable down from the fifth floor.

Jiří Nykodým: It would be best to use a crystal ball for this, but we do not yet have clear signals from the Government or anyone else as to how they will support electromobility and how fast it will or will not develop. It is true, and not to be unfair to the Government, they have other things on their minds at the moment, so I understand that they are not fully committed to electromobility. However, in the long term, promoting electromobility is exactly promoting independence from geopolitical influences because electricity is the only energy for which you do not need gas, oil, or fossil fuels. For a temporary period, sure, but once they’re gone, they won’t be needed for that. Electricity is the only energy you can generate anywhere and from various sources. So the dependence on someone shutting off your gas, which is now de facto, will not happen with electricity.

Ivana Karhanová: Who is the most demanding charging station on the market right now?

Jiří Nykodým: In the Czech Republic, we are probably at a stage where many public charging stations are built. That means all the big electricity distributors are now building their charging station networks. It’s not just the biggest ones, but some smaller players are also entering the competition today. The market is liberalizing quite a lot. Just as with electricity consumption, you are dependent on a particular distribution area, and you simply have a local distributor according to the distribution area. This is not quite the case with chargers. The energy may be supplied by a local distributor, for example, Pražská energetika, but you can run a chain of chargers all over the country. Nothing is stopping you. And the same goes for another alternative supplier of electricity and gas, which is, for example, Innogy, which is also building a network that covers more or less the whole of the Czech Republic. Many companies are building networks today, and it doesn’t have to be just those active in the energy sector. They are typically retailers, petrol stations, and fuel retailers. When you have a network of gas stations today, it makes sense to build chargers at those gas stations because there will be more and more electric cars. And where else will they charge in transit other than at gas stations?
Another example would be telecommunications companies. To run a charging station network, you need some communications infrastructure, among other things. They have that, and they have the sites. So logically, the network operator can be the next one to build a network of charging stations.

Ivana Karhanová: From your perspective, what are the biggest barriers to greater development of electromobility and related charging right now if we look away from government incentives and the technology side of things? I mean, I have an office park, and companies want to charge a fleet of electric cars during the day.

Jiří Nykodým: That’s a topical thing right now because as we talked about market development, this year, the market has started to emerge in places where it hasn’t been before. And that is in the parking spaces that should be equipped with charging. But, first, the transposition of the European Union directive into our legal system makes it compulsory for developers and those who build or renovate any buildings with parking spaces. 
The second thing is that an obligation never generates demand as much as genuine pressure from below. This means that specific users – for them, customers – start asking for charging stations. This has been set in motion this year, and developers are now starting to equip new car parks with charging infrastructure, and we are feeling a significant shift here. This is the A that says we need to build this charging infrastructure. But then there has to be a B that says how do we build that charging infrastructure to meet the growing amount of demand? In other words, parked electric cars need to be charged at some interval of time. And how? How do we satisfy them with some kind of limited energy supply? That’s a theme starting to emerge here and will probably emerge more and more in the future. It is a topic that relates specifically to large car parks, whether in residential buildings or in buildings that are intended for commercial use.

Jiří Nykodým: That includes office buildings, but it can also include, for example, car parks at airports, railway stations, sports facilities, and anywhere where there is a need to park a large number of cars that need charging. And this is where we get into the need to build infrastructure other than transit. On transit, you typically need gas stations. You arrive, you plug in, you want to charge as quickly as possible, and you want to leave again because you’re not going to spend half a day at a gas station. That means that typically for gas stations, you need fast chargers, or DC chargers, or DC chargers. These are chargers that are quite capital intensive and quite power intensive as well. Now I get to the mass parking in residential or office buildings where, in short, that car sits for two hours or more, typically sometimes four hours or more, at home overnight or at the office. There you don’t need to charge extremely fast. But instead, you need to charge a large number of cars at the same time. And this is an area that will probably determine the success of electromobility in the future because the infrastructure is much less expensive, for one thing, but on the other hand, you need to handle the power properly. So all parkers who come and plug in their car to the charger need to be guaranteed a minimum power input so that they leave with a charged car.

Ivana Karhanová: Does that mean that it puts demands on the management of the building and, on top of that, builds some other optimization task? How are we going to work with energy within the building?

Jiří Nykodým: That can be implemented on two levels. One is to regulate the charging in the parking garage itself, and then the other is to be able to link the charging to the building and the energy management of the building as a whole. And as far as parking garages are concerned, there is often already a separate energy supply for the garage. So, that means that you have some guaranteed energy input from the distributor, which can be at the small consumption level, but more and more recently, it is moving to the large consumption level. So, for a parking space, whether it’s in a parking garage or an outdoor parking lot, often when there’s a higher demand or a larger number of parking spaces, they’ll build a separate substation.

Ivana Karhanová: I use the small consumption to run the building itself, and the rest I have…

Jiří Nykodým: In such buildings, the total consumption is usually at the level of wholesale consumption, and the question is whether the parking space has a separate wholesale consumption or whether it is a common wholesale consumption with the building itself. For residential projects, it’s more likely to be more separate, and for office buildings, it’s probably more likely to be interconnected, but that’s more of a guess.

Ivana Karhanová: Isn’t this what you’re already providing me as VOLTDRIVE?

Jiří Nykodým: We focus on the charging port, the charging infrastructure. For us, it starts from where we have low voltage. We are not involved in planning the construction of substations for our customers. We certainly don’t. We start by delivering infrastructure from that point onwards. We have power at the 400-volt level three-phase, then we try to distribute that optimally for all the parked cars. Because we’ve been in electric mobility for quite some time, and because we’ve gone through various stages like building master/slave systems such that you have a large number of chargers doesn’t put a huge strain on your communications infrastructure, for example. With our master/slave system, each charger can serve up to 10 charge points from one master or control unit. We have come up with a more innovative system specifically designed for parking garages in large buildings, where the control unit is at the switchboard level, and from there, all the chargers in the building are controlled so that they act as output charging points for the parked electric vehicles and as part of one big charger. In other words, the entire garage or parking lot infrastructure is controlled from one point. This gives us a big advantage in that we can properly divide the power as needed between those parked cars. There are, of course, a number of algorithms for dividing the power, and the most commonly used so far is simply to take power and divide it evenly among the parked vehicles.

Ivana Karhanová: You mentioned energy management, and now you talked about power sharing for a moment. Does that mean that in the future, we have to prepare for the fact that there will be a limited amount of energy at a given time and place, and we will have to use algorithms to say who gets the energy now and who will have to wait?

Jiří Nykodým: Yes, that’s exactly how it will be. Energy will never be a bottomless pot. This means that at the level of the distribution network, the distributor has to manage it, and it is responsible for ensuring that the distribution network is stable and able to deliver the energy. Therefore, in the future, it will also have the tools to activate or deactivate the charging infrastructure according to its needs. It is not that far off yet, because there has to be a new level of standardization here, and it cannot usually be dealt with at the national level alone. So the standardization that I know is taking place is taking place today, and at least under the umbrella of a Central European initiative, which includes, in addition to, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Switzerland.

Ivana Karhanová: What will this mean for end users in residential or corporate buildings?

Jiří Nykodým: It will mean what I am saying: energy is not a bottomless vessel. You simply cannot rely 100% on the fact that you will always get the full maximum you can get when the grid is unloaded, i.e., when many cars need to be charged simultaneously. A typical example that is expected shortly is residential parking, where most charging is done overnight. This is all fairly easy to manage. However, the distribution companies expect a peak, especially on Sunday evening when everyone returns from the weekend with substantially depleted batteries. They will want to charge to have a full charge on Monday morning. This is probably a predictable critical moment in the case of residential charging. For office buildings, it will be much better spread out in time. There, you probably can’t expect to need to charge that many cars at once – with one exception. Where the cars have large turnouts, for example, in the car rental business, there will, of course, be reinforced infrastructure at the entrance as well. So where it’s very much based on some statistical data, for example, residential charging, that’s where we can expect Sunday night to be the biggest nut to crack for the infrastructure.

Ivana Karhanová: That said, we can think of it as everyone in the house turning on the water. Those on the top floors just flow less because the pressure is less.

Jiří Nykodým: Yes. The point here is that infrastructure – as opposed to water – shouldn’t be this unfair. It should distribute power more fairly. So far, what is being used is simply to distribute the power evenly, which is possible because there are relatively few electric cars and the power requirements are not that great. Nowadays, even in most places, you get the maximum your car can handle when charging, which is usually 11 kilowatts. But it can happen that the moment you have a building in an old part of town and the distributor gives you a small wattage there, you have to divide it among the parked cars. But we’ve seen that happen in newly constructed office buildings as well. The easiest thing to do is to take the wattage, divide it by the number of cars, and give everyone a proportional share. You do that until your wattage falls below a certain value. Your car will stop charging as soon as it gets below a certain value, specifically six amps, because the standard says it should stop charging. At that point, you have to devise a different algorithm to ensure that every car gets at least six amps. That means that you then don’t come out with simple power distribution, but you have to ration the power to the cars over time or put in a time multiplex.

Ivana Karhanová: Says Jiří Nykodým, CEO of VOLTDRIVE, on the future of electromobility. Thank you for coming to the studio.

Jiří Nykodým: Thank you.