In an interview, the head of charging infrastructure at ABB announces new products in the AC and DC segment
With over 14,000 DC charging stations installed, the Swiss group ABB is one of the most important suppliers of charging infrastructure. This is a market that has recently developed strongly and will continue to change at a rapid pace in the coming years. In this interview, Frank Mühlon, Head of ABB's Global E-Mobility Infrastructure Solutions, talks about new products in the AC, DC and HPC sectors - and changing needs of B2B customers and drivers.
Mr Mühlon, ABB has also been offering AC wall boxes for some time now, but - as is not difficult to see - these are based on the wall box from Keba. How satisfied is ABB with this development?
The AC segment is a completely different number to the well-known DC segment, we were aware of that. We also wanted to learn what is different in this segment. We have been able to take some lessons with us and have recently launched our new Terra AC wallbox on the market. The wallbox has been developed to meet the increasing demand for high quality and at the same time affordable connections of charging stations in homes and companies. Also, the growing number of users of renewable energy who want to manage their energy consumption on their responsibility will be accompanied.
The new Terra AC Wallbox is available in versions up to 22 kW to ensure compatibility with the electrical systems of homes and buildings around the world. It is equipped with a high-precision consumption meter that can be integrated into intelligent building energy management systems and enables advanced load management functions.
Can you give examples?
For us, DC charging is a project business directly with the respective partners. In the AC sector, the number of chargers and the number of customers is significantly higher, so a direct business with the customer is difficult to scale. Here, sales are also made through middlemen. However, there are also individual large-scale projects in the AC sector that we handle directly - that's not mutually exclusive. Sounds simple in theory, but everything must first be established and adapted again and again.
And for quantities?
The quantities were subordinate in this project. Nevertheless, it led to ABB's decision to invest in the AC segment and to continue to grow with it. As a result, we looked around for acquisition and took over the ChargeDot company in China. The acquisition strengthens ABB's relationship with China's leading electric vehicle manufacturers and expands the company's e-mobility portfolio with hardware and software designed specifically for local requirements.
In October, the acquisition was announced to be completed "in the coming months. Has that been accomplished in the meantime?
Yes, the closing was a few weeks ago. In a short time, we have already received two important orders. Firstly, several thousand wall boxes for a construction project in China, and secondly, we are a charging partner of a Chinese OEM joint venture. The focus of ChargeDot is currently still clearly on China, but they're too we have to adapt the product range to our needs.
At the moment? Will that change?
Of course, we are working on developing further products on this technology platform that are designed to meet European and North American requirements. But I cannot give a date.
There are countless AC wall boxes on the German market. How does ABB intend to stand out from the competition there?
In the AC sector, differentiation is much more difficult than in the DC sector, that's true. But we know that at ABB - it's no different with surge contactors and circuit breakers for domestic installations, to name just two examples. As an engineer, I can think of a few arguments, but for the customer, other things count. For example, the distribution channel and cooperation with partners. This is exactly our strength and this is what our wallbox will stand out from the rest: a good product at a reasonable price and customers can rely on the large ABB network for sales and service.
ABB also offers DC wall boxes. What is the demand there? The devices are much more expensive than an AC wallbox.
We see quite good and increasing demand in the 20 kW class! With such products, we bypass the AC-DC converters in the vehicle, which are usually designed for a maximum of 11 kW, and with 24 kW charging power we achieve a reasonable charging speed, while at the same time the requirements for power connection and installation are manageable. It is still a wallbox that can be mounted on the wall quite easily. This is much cheaper than a DC charging station, which needs its foundation.
Will DC wall boxes become established in the long term and the AC onboard charger fly completely out of the electric car?
No manufacturer will go that far at present. Then I wouldn't even be able to charge with the emergency charging cable at a household socket if I were stranded somewhere. But we do see the desire to keep the onboard chargers as small as possible. This, of course, limits their power and that is the determining factor for the speed of AC charging.
What target group do you have in mind with the DC Wallbox?
It is a separate application: In city-centre car parks, shopping centres and restaurants I can recharge more than enough power or even fully charge it during a normal two to three-hour visit. But we are also seeing demand from car dealers who want to hand over fully charged cars to their customers after changing or repairing tyres - or for demonstration cars after a test drive. All with the advantage of easier installation.
But the private customer will stay with AC?
For the most part yes. But we also see demand for even smaller DC wall boxes that are bi-directional. Such devices in the 11 kW power class will then again be interesting for private customers. I'm not just talking about Vehicle2Grid, but also Vehicle2Home if I have my photovoltaic system and stationary battery storage. This is still a very young market - also due to the lack of appropriate vehicles - but we see the topic as being very much on the rise. And this field runs better via direct current if I want to connect the two batteries in the car and house.
Where is the journey with DC charging stations heading? In recent years there has been a lot of talk about high power charging and 350 kilowatts. But there are still very few vehicles on the market that even come with over 200 kilowatts of charging power.
There was and is a demand for 350-kW chargers from some charging providers and car manufacturers - we have developed our charging station accordingly. There will be more vehicles with 800-volt technology, the advantages are clear: voltage is cheaper than electricity. At the moment, however, it's still Economy of Scale, there are simply few 800-volt components for BEV on the market. I can well imagine that other OEMs will have to follow suit as soon as a volume manufacturer goes to 800 volts and a market develops there.
And when a market for the vehicles is created, the market for the corresponding charging infrastructure will also grow. We still see the trend, yes. But we also see the demand to make the products cheaper. How long does it take for the great mass of vehicles to be able to charge with such services? The market is fanning out somewhat at this point.
Do you want to meet this demand?
We are expanding our range. The question is, how high can I go with the charging power without needing a liquid-cooled cable? Then the cables are more expensive and heavier and I have to integrate a cooling circuit above all. Besides, the maintenance effort increases with cooling. With this in mind, we will be launching a new charging station on the market that is designed for a maximum of 180 kW and does not require liquid-cooled cables.
The current generation in the 150 to 175 kW class already has liquid-cooled cables. So how can a 180 kW column manage without them?
It's all about electricity again. A 175 kW column with liquid-cooled cables can handle up to 500 A charging current, so I can constantly charge vehicles with 150 kW even at 400 V. Without liquid-cooled cables, the cables become either too hot or too thick, so that the current limit here is currently 200 A, with derating or cables with a larger diameter, even for a short time up to about 300 A. However, the main application of a 180 kW column is the parallel charging of two vehicles with 90 kW each. This is currently sufficient for most types of vehicles, especially in urban environments.
What do I need as a CPO today in order to be well positioned in the coming years?
That depends on where the CPO wants to build the station and what his use case is. The customer doesn't want to spend a lot of time on the motorway or other thoroughfares, where high charging performance is very important for the operator and users. At a location where the users stay longer, the situation looks different and I can rather build more charging points with the same budget. Of course, the CPO does not have to commit to one type.
So charging points with different charging capacities at one location?
Exactly, we are seeing an increasing number of such requests in projects. Some 350 kW columns can be combined with a 100 kW charger or the new 180 kW model.
Is there still a market for 50 kW DC pillars?
Yes, on parking lots with slightly higher retention time. For example, supermarkets, where our products are already in use today. I don't need 350 kW there, but I park for a much shorter time than at the shopping centre with the DC wallbox. This segment is still in demand.
What is the focus of development?
We are currently closing the gaps in the portfolio, where we also see demand. That's why we are not developing a 1-megawatt charging station, but rather the cheaper 180 kW charger or the bidirectional DC wallbox. On the other hand, it is about the further development of the technology as such. One example: The liquid-cooled HPC chargers were launched on the market at an enormous speed. There is a lot of potential here to use better technology to make products more reliable, more efficient and less expensive.
ABB has been a sponsor of Formula E since 2018. Is electric motorsport a development laboratory for you? The participating manufacturers regularly complain about this for their racing cars.
This is an exciting discussion. What is technically possible for the engineer's heart? And what is commercially viable? Formula E is a testbed for us to try things out - for example, in the Jaguar I-Pace Trophy. There we are close to series production, but still freer than against the background of large-scale production. We learn a lot here.
What do you think of the discussion about the fact that Gen3 cars in Formula E also include pit stops for reloading?
The requirements for a pit stop in a Formula E race, for example, are completely different from the standardized charging protocols for large-series electric cars. An OEM may be able to use developments in his powertrain in series production, but charging is different. We don't want to invest in something that is just a gimmick.
Mr Mühlon, thank you very much for the interview!