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Will plug standards be China’s perestroika?

January 18, 2011

A favorite phrase among China’s leadership these days is building a harmonious society.  http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/200506/27/eng20050627_192495.html

 If China hopes to supply electric vehicles to the world, the leadership needs to also promote a harmonious electric vehicle plug standard.

Recharging is a major concern for potential electric vehicle consumers, in China just as in the U.S. http://www.zpryme.com/

Without a widespread universal plug standard, a consumer could end up having to carry lots of plug convertors around, just as I already do when I go to China. (An aside: Hong Kong has four different kinds of plugs. I am not making that up.)

Just kidding.  It’s unlikely that a convertor would be robust enough for an EV plug. So, if no standard is implemented, a driver could have the ability to recharge in, say the southeast China city of Shenzhen, http://www.shenzhen-standard.com/2010/11/08/electric-charging-stands-to-be-installed-thoughout-shenzhen/ which is already building out a recharge network using its own standard. But if the EV owner decides to drive to Fujian, a city in a neighboring province, he wouldn’t be able to “refill.”

Making a plug that is internationally compatible is an even bigger issue, if China’s EV makers want to one day export their vehicles. The cost of producing a compatible car for each country would be huge. Utilities and charge station producers have a stake in the game, too.

“To the extent that we can harmonize anywhere in the world, it is cheaper for the automaker,” says Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV solutions for AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, CA.  http://www.avinc.com/  Also, “the infrastructure providers can build business models based on higher volumes.”

AeroVironment produces charging stations as well as systems to test EV batteries. It is supplying home recharging stations for the Nissan Leaf electric car, and eyeing China for future business. “We’re spending a lot of time there,” says Helsel.

The J1772 standard for Level 1 (120V) and Level 2 (240V) charging was developed in the U.S. and is accepted by many in Japan and Europe. J1772 was issued in by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in 2010. http://standards.sae.org/j1772_201001

 As for Level 3, or DC fast charging, there is currently no standard though a Japanese standard known as CHAdeMO has achieved some acceptance (and is used in the Nissan Leaf electric car). http://www.chademo.com/

Given that there are very few electric cars on the market, and very few Level 3 charging stations yet being built, that hasn’t been a problem.

To get ahead of the issue, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is spearheading an industry group attempting to come up with a next generation J1772 standard that combines Level 2 and Level 3 plugs, says Jack Pokyzrwa, SAE’s director of ground vehicle standards.

 China wants to be part of the group and has met with SAE several times, he says. Frequent communication is tricky given the language and time differences, says Pokyzrwa. But it is important that China be included. So SAE is going to create an official liaison position with the China Automotive Technical and Research Center, he says. CATARC sets automotive standards in China. http://www.catarc.org.cn/

“We see a trend of (China) trying to adopt a more Western-type process,” Pokyzrwa told me. “They are much more involved with us.”

That is not as “well duh” as it might sound.  China is famously secretive about its decision-making process, and that extends to plug standards.  Generally, there is a lot of consultation (such as the industry group meeting now on the next-gen J1772); a proposed standard is released; then a government can chose to adopt the standard in part of full, says Pokyzrwa.

In China, he says, it seems a standard is developed and adopted, then announced. “Our process is more transparent,” he says.

China released a Level 1 and 2 standard last year, but the standard does not seem to be widely used in the country. At the EVS25 forum and conference in Shenzhen last November, a dozen or more Chinese companies displayed recharging stations with unique plug standards.  

The Chinese standard resembles the German standard, says Ted Bohn, a power electronics engineer, at the Advanced Powertrain Research Facility in the Argonne National Laboratory.  www.anl.gov  But the Chinese standard cuts out an interlocking circuit, he says. The circuit is an extra safety measure; without it, the car could not be sold in the United States, says Bohn.

The committee working on the next gen J1772 plug standard has some 130 international members. Within that, a task force of 20 or 30 meets twice a month. Pokyzrwa says his best projection (or perhaps his hope) is that a year from now there will be a new standard that combines AC and DC charging capabilities. Implementation wouldn’t start until as late as 2020, Pokyzrwa figures. China may be on board.

“China is coming to the table,” says Pokyzrwa. “They do have a different standard, but the next release can be harmonized.”

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