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Schneider Electric buys EV Connect to open up its EV-charging options

Charging an EV needs to be as simple as filling a gas tank or using an ATM card. Open-standards-based software can bridge the technology gaps.
By Jeff St. John

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EV Connect Network chargers at a Love's rest stop in Ripon, Calif.
EV Connect’s software manages about 10,000 EV charging points across North America. (EV Connect)

In the past, proprietary electric-vehicle charging technologies competed for market share. But in the future, the winners in the sector will be the equipment manufacturers, network operators and software providers that can provide the most open and interoperable EV-charging environment possible.

At least, that’s how Jordan Ramer, CEO of EV Connect, sees the evolution of EV charging. On Tuesday, the El Segundo, California–based startup was acquired by global electric equipment and services giant Schneider Electric, giving it financial backing to expand its open-standards-based charging platform.

I think the main thing that Schneider is bringing to us is global reach,” Ramer said of the acquisition. EV Connect’s software now manages more than 10,000 EV-charging points across North America, but in the past few months, it has begun working with Schneider in 14 countries in Europe, he said.

EV Connect will remain an independent business within Schneider, Ramer said. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. EV Connect has raised about $50 million since its 2009 founding from investors including Mitsui & Co. and Ecosystem Integrity Fund.

EV Connect’s customers include companies, municipalities and owners of multifamily properties that install chargers. It also includes EV-charging network providers that operate public charging sites, electric utilities that own or support charging infrastructure, and, most recently, companies deploying chargers to support their fleets of EVs.

EV Connect’s business model differs from that of companies such as Blink, ChargePoint, Electrify America, EVgo, Tesla and Volta that own and operate charging points across the country. We’ve never been a hardware manufacturer or an asset owner,” Ramer said.

Instead, EV Connect’s cloud-based software platform integrates with a variety of EV chargers and charging-network platforms and shares that information with drivers via mobile and web-based apps. The software also monitors chargers to ensure they’re working properly, manages multiple pricing and billing structures, and supports a variety of smart-charging” features like managing the flow of power to vehicles to mitigate stress on the grid.

EV Connect integrates with chargers from manufacturers including ABB, BTC Power, EvoCharge, FreeWire, JuiceBar, PowerCharge, Tritium and Wallbox, giving customers a range of options to choose from, he said. We can come to them and say, Here are five different charging station options that work for you; here are the benefits and drawbacks. You can choose the ones that are right for you.’”

That kind of flexibility is important for customers who don’t want to be stuck with one company’s chargers or charging network — a major concern given the risk that these companies may go out of business, as has happened in the past. It also allows EV Connect to keep up with changes in the technology standards that have evolved over the past decade to make once-proprietary charging networks increasingly interchangeable for EV drivers.

Underlying all that is standards,” he said. If you’ve looked across other industries that have adopted technologies, the winners are the open-standard ones. It just takes time.” 

The evolution of standards for EVs and charging 

The role of standards in EV charging has expanded dramatically in recent years. In the early days of the industry, drivers were forced to subscribe to individual companies’ public charging networks, complicating the task of finding charging they could use out on the road.

That’s changed in the past few years under pressure from regulators and automakers to give EV drivers a smoother, simpler and more reliable charging experience. Charging-network providers have inked roaming” agreements with each other to allow customers of one network to use and pay for charges at the stations of their competitors. They’ve also partnered with automakers in nonexclusive arrangements with the goal of ensuring that the availability of public charging can keep up with automakers’ rapid EV growth plans.

Last year’s federal infrastructure law has supercharged this trend by requiring standardization for charging stations funded through its $7.5 billion in EV-charging grants. Earlier this month, the Biden administration issued guidance on how it intends to set standards for projects that use those grants, including standards for ensuring that EV chargers can interoperate across states and between different companies.

Several standards developed by the Open Charge Alliance industry consortium could provide the starting point for this interoperability. These include the Open Charging Point Protocol, or OCPP, a global standard for communications between charging stations and the back-end systems of the companies that operate them, and the Open Charge Point Interface, or OCPI, which supports connections between charging networks for roaming agreements and other forms of data-sharing.

OCPP is the more widely adopted of the two standards so far, Ramer said. Today, we’re working with pretty much every charging-station manufacturer that’s truly accepted OCPP.”

OCPI is a bit further behind in implementation, but it has picked up steam with the flurry of roaming agreements announced between network providers over the past few years, he said. We are roaming partners and have signed roaming agreements with the five or six major networks, and implemented [OCPI] with half of them,” he said.

EV Connect’s utility customers — a list that includes Avangrid, Avista, Consumers Energy, Dominion, DTE, Evergy, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the New York Power Authority, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — are also interested in the standards that support the alignment of charging with grid needs. Those standards include OpenADR and the Open Vehicle-Grid Integration Platform.

Then there’s the ISO 15118 international standard, which defines communications between EVs and charging stations for more complicated features like automatic plug-and-charge” payment methods and bidirectional EV charging. That’s less well developed, and work is underway to align it with standards from auto industry group SAE, said John Halliwell, senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute.

Standards can lead to interoperability, but they’re not one and the same,” he said. Standards groups do their best job to describe the operations of the system…[but] it’s a challenge because you have vehicles that are built by different companies than the companies that build the charging equipment.”

It takes a lot of tests in the lab and in the field to ensure that individual pieces of equipment and software implementations are doing what they’re supposed to do, Halliwell said. He compared the work underway in the EV industry to the work that went into different banks enabling their ATMs to accept cards from customers of different banks — there may be a lot of things happening in the background, but from the consumer’s perspective, it just works.”

Ramer highlighted the value of software that can adapt to support these evolving needs, which isn’t necessarily the core business of companies that make EV chargers or those that finance and own them.

We’ve always been about the user experience. The market took longer to recognize the value of that,” he said. But in the last three to four years, the market has said, OK, it really does matter how the driver experiences the charger [and] that when the driver gets there, the charger works.’”

The competitive landscape for EV-charging software 

EV Connect is far from the only company looking to provide this vital software layer between the makers of EV chargers and EV-charger owners and customers. But it is one of the few with significant market traction that hadn’t been bought by a deep-pocketed international conglomerate — until this week.

Enel X, the distributed energy subsidiary of Italian utility Enel, bought EV-charger and software provider eMotorWerks in 2017. In 2019, EDF Renewables, the North American subsidiary of French utility EDF, bought PowerFlex, a startup with EV-charging management software that’s now being extended to control batteries and controllable loads at office complexes and microgrids.

BP, the British oil multinational, gained a European EV-charging network with its 2018 purchase of Chargemaster and a software platform for managing fleet vehicle charging with its acquisition of Silicon Valley startup Amply last year.

Shell New Energies, the Royal Dutch Shell subsidiary focused on distributed energy, acquired its own charging-station network with its 2017 acquisition of Dutch company NewMotion, and in 2020, it bought Greenlots, a San Francisco–based startup that, like EV Connect, focused on designing EV-charging software around open standards.

Beyond expanding the scope of its software business, EV Connect finances EV-charger installations for customers through a charging-as-a-service” offering backed by investor Mitsui. The deal bundles the costs of charging hardware and software over a five-year extendable contract to reduce the upfront capital cost for companies like Dell, Marriott and Verizon.

This too is an increasingly common way for EV-charging providers to gain customers, whether to help property owners provide public charging in advance of drivers switching to EVs or to support companies with their fleet electrification plans. It’s also in line with Schneider Electric’s multiple energy-as-a-service joint ventures, which include large-scale microgrid projects and distributed energy packages for corporate campuses, Ramer noted.

Last month, Schneider announced a new business line specifically around integrating EV charging into buildings. Its announcement highlighted forecasts from Bloomberg NEF that 70 percent of EV charging will occur at commercial, industrial and multifamily buildings by 2030, a significant shift from the predominance of single-family home charging in today’s much smaller EV-charging market. EV Connect works with hotel chains including Marriott and Hyatt, corporate customers including Dell and Verizon, and a number of multifamily-housing owners.

Bloomberg’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2022 report also highlights the gap between existing EV-charging deployment and the amount of charging infrastructure needed to support the rapid growth in EV sales it forecasts. The U.S. in particular will need to see a sixfold increase in average annual public charging installations over the next four years compared to installations in 2021 to meet the charging demand from what Bloomberg forecasts as the rate of EV sales.

The Biden administration has set a goal for the country to have 500,000 public EV-charging stations by 2030, more than 10 times the number available across the country today. The investment required to hit that goal could exceed $85 billion, according to independent studies, more than 10 times what the federal government has made available through the infrastructure funding.

This indicates plenty of room for competing EV-charging providers to grow. But it also emphasizes the risk of deploying EV chargers that can’t be adapted to changes in technologies or use cases, EPRI’s Halliwell said.

The idea that equipment that’s standardized can be more flexible in its use — that if the company goes bankrupt, it won’t be stranded — that’s important for everybody,” he said.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.