In order to be suitable as a mobility alternative for the masses, the electric car industry needs a comprehensive and uncomplicated availability of charging infrastructure. So far, this has largely taken the form of wallboxes or charging columns on private or semi-private property – the future will, hopefully, also include public spaces. One possibility is to equip street lamps with 230-volt sockets.
The privilege of the electric car
The fact that electric cars are usually significantly more expensive to buy than comparable ones with combustion engines is one of the most frequently cited arguments against them. However, the subsidy programs initiated by the German government have succeeded in inducing bonus payments that reduce the new price of electric cars by up to €10,000 and bring the price levels closer together. Although this problem, which many lower-income households in particular faced with regard to any purchase considerations, has been resolved, there is nevertheless another one looming in the form of the availability of charging stations.
According to the German Federal Network Agency, the number of publicly accessible charging stations in Germany currently stands at just over 40,000. In parallel, almost 400,000 electric vehicles were newly registered last year , around 200% more than in 2019. As a result, the stock rose to almost 600,000 - plug-in hybrids included. The ratio shows: If all the electric cars are used to the same extent, problems will arise. Therefore, in addition to private charging options, there is an urgent need for additions in public spaces.
New strength in the old
The start-up ubitricity (made up of "ubiquitous" and "electricity"), based on Berlin's EUREF Campus and founded by lawyers Knut Hechtfischer and Frank Pawlitschek back in 2008, is pursuing an approach that is as innovative as it is simple: street lamps, i.e. ubiquitously available sources of electricity, are equipped with sockets to ensure that "street parkers" also have unrestricted access to the charging infrastructure. The advantage does not only lie here, though. Ubitricity’s model is also far less expensive than conventional charging options: While a conventional charging station costs around €15,000 and fast-charging stations are even in the six-figure range, upgrading a streetlight that has been in place for years costs no more than €1,000. The upgrade process also takes no longer than about half an hour.
Efficient and inconspicuous
The ubitricity solution scores with double efficiency - it is cost-effective and easy to implement. In addition, the lanterns retain their simple and inconspicuous appearance. All that is needed to transform the lantern from a classic light source into a practical charging station is the installation of a small additional gadget. Only on closer inspection does it become apparent that it is not a normal lantern: The small bulge for the connector blends in with the visuals. A small, luminous dot in the upper area indicates from a distance whether the charging point is free or occupied.
For easy handling in everyday life, ubitricity offers a smart charging cable compatible with the lamppost, which is purchased separately by the vehicle owner and always carried along. A built-in electricity meter guarantees user-specific billing at the end of each month. The electricity provider can thus be selected by the user. In this respect, maximum freedom of action and cost transparency are guaranteed.
Based on this “SmartCable” technology, the electric car could even become part of the smart grid in the future. Using the smart metering method, it will be possible to measure not only the energy that is charged, but also the energy that is delivered - an innovation not yet provided for by legislation, but one that represents an exciting prospect for the future: For example, customers could be credited for the electricity they deliver on their monthly bill.
Germany still hesitant
In the UK, ubitricity has been able to install around 2,700 charging points in lanterns or street bollards in recent years, making it the largest public charging network for electric cars. In Germany, development is still comparatively slow: Here, the Berlin-based company was able to install around 80 charging lanterns, which Managing Director Lex Hartman, who has been in office since 2019, attributes to the fact that other countries are significantly further ahead than Germany in the development of their charging infrastructure. Nevertheless, the company is convinced that 200,000 charging points can be created across Europe within the next five years, although to date there are barely more than 3,000. The reason for this optimism is obvious: at the beginning of 2021, Shell took over the start-up, which has since been a wholly owned subsidiary of the British-Dutch oil giant.
A promising cooperation
While ubitricity hopes that the takeover will give it greater financial leeway, which at the same time will reduce such barriers that stand in the way of expansion into other markets, Shell is focusing on expanding its greener corporate line. The goal is to become a net-zero emissions energy company by 2050 at the latest. That's why the group has been involved in the growing green mobility market for some time.
Whether the Berlin-based start-up, whose founders are now breaking new ground, will continue to operate under its old name is still unclear. One thing is certain: The new impetus provided by the financially strengthened charging pioneers should soon be felt in the German infrastructure landscape. If the number of lantern sockets planned for the next five years actually finds its way into European cities, the boom in the electric industry will probably be hard to stop.