In Electric Autonomy Canada’s first webinar in a five-part series about public EV charging, experts weighed in on issues surrounding charger reliability and the potential need for a national standard
In Canada, as public EV charging networks continue to expand from coast-to-coast, the issue of reliability is imperative in order to ensure a seamless and safe charging experience for customers.
A recent study by the University of California Berkley found that a major problem with electric vehicle charging infrastructure in nine counties of the Greater Bay Area in California is reliability, with fewer than three-quarters of the chargers visited for the study working properly. Additionally, anecdotal story of inoperable chargers and studies such as one from Plug In America have found that at least a third of EV owners are concerned about chargers not working, shows that the industry still needs to gain better control of EV charger station reliability.
To learn more about issues surrounding uptime and EV charger reliability, Electric Autonomy Canada this week hosted a webinar panel discussion with experts from Parkland Canada, ATCO, CSA Group and FLO, the event sponsor.
The session was the first in a five-part series on public EV charging in Canada that Electric Autonomy is holding this November.
Panelists discussed strategies the industry can employ in order to ensure that charging infrastructure is consistently reliable and accessible for the EV driver, and also debated a core question: does Canada need to adopt a charging uptime standard?
You can watch the full discussion in the video player and read the summary below.
Importance of reliability and developing standards
When it comes to evaluating how important charger reliability is, each panelist at the webinar affirmed that it is a “high priority” and “mission critical” to ensure that chargers are up and running both to create a positive user experience and also for operators to maintain a good reputation and gain profit from the infrastructure.
“Setting the bar high for reliability is what the customers expect,” says Frank Fata, global lead, utilities and energy partnership at FLO.
“Think of cell phone service: if we had a 97 per cent uptime requirement for cell phone service, we would have 45 minutes of outage on a 24-hour period. No one can live without a cell phone for 45 minutes a day. So it’s that type of expectation that the broader market, the consumer market, really is expecting from this critical infrastructure.”
And while charger reliability is crucial for the industry, Canada currently does not have any standards or regulatory frameworks around tracking charger uptime and determining who is responsible for maintaining charger reliability.
The CSA Group, an organization that sets up committees to develop accredited standards for various sectors, are in the process of developing codes and standards to support the deployment of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.
“We’re looking at performance, interoperability, accessibility, reliability and availability all related to charging equipment and we’re going to develop a guideline on these issues to support jurisdictions and stakeholders that are interested in deploying EV charging,” says Brent Hartman, director of fuel and transportation standards at CSA. “Even beyond that guideline, which will address all those topics, we do plan to start working on a standard specifically for reliability in 2023.”
For standards to be established — which typically takes 12 to 15 months — they require the key stakeholders and experts to come to the table and support standard development. In addition, says Hartman, several other considerations need to be discussed, including understanding the definitions and factors of reliability, determining the acceptable levels of reliability, deciding how chargers will be monitored and uptime reported.
Creating a standard that is in harmony and aligned with different jurisdictions internationally, but especially with the U.S., is also an important aspect to consider.
“[There’s] a lot of considerations and things to iron out before we can really understand what impact the standard might have, but ultimately, we think a standard can help increase reliability and uptime,” says Hartman.
“We’ve mitigated a lot of other threats, and technologies commercialize, and charging and battery experience continues to improve. Reliability is really the logical next step to address.”
Strategies for ensuring reliability
Once the industry has reached uptimes in and around the high 90 percentile, William York, senior engineer for EV services at ATCO, thinks operators should then focus on setting up as many ports as possible.
“I think we need to focus on redundancy rather than reliability,” says York. “We need to see more ports per site, rather than targeting 100 per cent uptime. At the end of the day a cord could get cut or you could experience some random episodic failure of the component inside a charging station, but if there’s more redundancy and there are more ports per site — I think that would go a long way to fixing this issue.”
This is something that retailer Parkland is doing with its new EV charging network in British Columbia.
“We also believe that redundancy or multiple ports, multiple charges per location can help mitigate the impact of downtime and allow more customers to charge their vehicles,” says Donna Sanker, president of Parkland Canada. “If the chargers are not available, then we’re not generating revenue and we’re also creating a negative experience for our customers.”
The company monitors the uptime of its chargers in a couple of ways. Remotely, it monitors the chargers through its technology provider as well as through its loyalty app called Journey, where the app is capable of running proactive detection on the infrastructure.
Parkland also has an onsite staff at all its locations who are trained and will check on the chargers routinely.
“If they discover a problem that can be resolved with a simple re-boot, they will submit a ticket to our technology providers support team who will first try to troubleshoot the issue and remotely fix it,” says Sanker. “If it’s a hardware issue that can’t be fixed remotely then we have a service provider that has a 24-hour service available that will be dispatched to the site to repair the issue.”
Overcoming hardware challenges
In some ways, fixing a charger’s hardware problem can be more challenging than a technical one because it requires a trained engineer and technician to physically go to the site.
The Alberta-based utility company ATCO deployed the largest network of fast chargers in southern Alberta in 2019. ATCO choose FLO as its network operator, and FLO trained ATCO’s electrical technicians to get them familiar with fixing problems with the chargers.
York says that the most significant lesson they learnt from deploying EV infrastructure was to buy a large inventory of spare parts so that “whenever we do experience a failure, we’re not at the mercy of FLO or the supply chain.”
The challenge, however, is that when dispatching a technician to fix the problem, it is often the long travel to the site that “drives up the cost for maintenance,” says York.
Hardware challenges also oftentimes require the wider EV community to notify the operators that an issue is present.
Since remote monitoring software systems are unable to detect every issue that might arise for a charger, companies like FLO also rely on the broader community of users and passers-by to report whether a charger has been vandalized or a cable is down, says FLO’S Fata.
Looking to other jurisdictions that have made significant progress with charger reliability, Fata points to New York City, where unusually high uptimes between 99 to 100 per cent are being recorded.
“I’ll tell you what the secret sauce is for that — and for those who are considering an RFP or deploying chargers — you can’t expect even a quality charger to deliver that type of uptime if it’s just installed and forgotten about. It really needs to be maintained,” says Fata.
“We can all succeed if we all partner through this together. Reliability is the topic of the conversation today, but it’s more of a collaborative approach, not so much a brand-specific strategy.”
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