Editors note: This article is a summary of a panel discussion among industry stakeholders in February, sponsored by SWTCH Energy and hosted by Electric Autonomy Canada.
There is no shortage of choice in the marketplace when choosing electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Industry experts discuss why OCPP may be the right choice for some site hosts
In the digital age consumers are accustomed to flexibility and freedom of access across most of their devices. As the global EV charging infrastructure industry grows and more options and considerations for customers become available, awareness is growing about the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP) debate and what it means for the owner and operator experience.
OCPP is the charging industry’s response to the desire for device freedom, or, more technically, inter-operability. Created in 2010 and approved in over 78 countries worldwide, OCPP is, essentially, a universal system that allows charger A to be compatible with operator network B, C, D or E. But not all chargers or all networks support OCPP. Those closed charger-network loops are referred to as “proprietary networks.”
There are several perspectives on OCPP being debated in the industry-wide conversation. Some experts view proprietary networks as more beneficial because of the vertical integration and operators having specialized knowledge of their compatible brand of chargers. Others see it as a fragmented way to approach an issue that needs a high degree of coordination and open communication to succeed fully. The topic is hotly contested because the steps that are taken now will determine for many decades the type of charging ecosystem Canada has and how future-proofed it will be as the industry continues to cycle through rapid advancement and changes.
What is OCPP?
The easiest way to explain the OCPP issue is through an analogy. During a recent panel hosted by Electric Autonomy Canada tackling this issue, SWTCH CEO, Carter Li, compared OCPP to another device-network relationship most people are familiar with: a cellphone.
“When I see a charging station I look at it like a cellphone. A charging network is similar to a cellphone network provider. When [prospective clients] pick a charging network and want to put in a station they have a selection of chargers,” explains Li. Buying a charger and linking it to a network is on par with an individual going to a Bell, Telus or Rogers store and selecting the phone they would like to use. But therein lies the issue, Li says, as buyers — of both cellphones and chargers — then need to do their homework and ask their prospective network provider, “is the hardware locked to that network provider? Can I take investment, that hardware that I purchased, and switch it to another network?”
Often in North America the answer is no and charger buyers end up owning a device that is permanently tethered to one provider. It’s not the optimum situation for the customer, says Li: “Having unlocked hardware give you the flexibility of choice.”
For buyers wanting to maximize the lifespan and usability of their hardware, Li’s cellphone example demonstrates the primary benefits of OCPP. For networks, OCPP promotes a more integrated industry and facilitates better communication between grid-side technologies and infrastructure. It’s intended to increase productivity in the larger zero-emissions ecosystem.
An eye to future-proofing
It’s impossible to know what the future of EVs and charging will look like, but based on the progress that been made already it’s likely that things are going to keep evolving — rapidly. Future-proofing is critical when clients are making large investments in technology.
Network operators experience service issues, they change terms and conditions of their service arrangement, some are more or less up to date on the latest technology than others and networks can sometimes even go out of business. A customer may buy a charger (or several) because they like a particular network operator at the time of purchase, but circumstances could change.
“When you have a network that drops a machine and that machine can’t work on any other networks you end up with stranded assets, which are very expensive metal boxes sitting on the side of the road,” says Shannon Gilchrist, program coordinator at Plug In BC, a company dedicated to supporting EV adoption through education on topics ranging from infrastructure to incentives and an advocate for OCPP. “We wanted to make sure people weren’t stuck with a machine that could only work on one network.”
Open standards allow for future-proofing of assets that accommodates for software and network updates, ensures there is always a network option and gives an alternative for clients who could face steep network fee hikes down the line. It’s that eye to the future that is motivating many to push for OCPP-compatible systems.
Explains Ivy Network’s general manager, Keegan Tully, on Electric Autonomy‘s panel, about his network’s choice to go with open standard: “It was all about flexibility for us. We are a network operator, but there is also the opportunity to take advantage of software evolution too.”
Europe setting an example
Industry stakeholders in North America looking for a model of what a widely adopted open standards protocol could yield in terms of flexibility and competitive service are turning to Europe.
OCPP is the “de facto network protocol” on the continent with the trend growing as adoption rises, according to the Open Charge Alliance — a global consortium of electric vehicle infrastructure leaders promoting open standards. OCPP is approved throughout North America, but there is not as robust of a movement as in Europe to unite all the networks under the protocol. Instead it’s left to the networks to decide if they will participate or not.
For those charger providers or network operators who have made the choice to go open source the prevailing wisdom seems to be simply a suggestion for each company or individual considering installing a charger to be mindful of their needs and expectations for their investment well into the future.
“There is no one-size-fits-all for every site,” says Maxime Charron, president and founder of LeadingAhead Energy in response to his colleagues. “It’s not just the charging station you are putting in at the time of construction, it’s also going to have an effect on the future chargers that are going to be able to be installed.”
Adds Tully: “You need to do your research. You don’t want to pay for this down the line.”