Czech power giant prepares for electric dreams

Photo: Michal Malý

The electric car revolution is clearly on the horizon although their sales take off in the Czech Republic has been hesitant so far. Even so, one of the major stakeholders in that transformation, electricity producer ČEZ, is pushing ahead with a programme to have the required infrastructure in place when the brakes on electric car sales finally come off.

Photo: Michal Malý
For many people the writing is clearly on the wall for cars as we know them. The traditional combustion engine fuelled by petrol and diesel is at the end of the road with electric cars taking over. Britain and France have already declared a 2040 target for banning traditional cars and the woes of the big German carmakers were on public show last week as they pledged to improve their vehicles performance in the wake of the so-called diesel gate scandal.

The Czech government, carmakers, and others with a major stake in the transformation have already begun to ponder and prepare for the change. But in spite of the recent signals, the Czech market for electric vehicles has been slow to take off.

Last year the Czech Republic’s biggest electricity producer, ČEZ, released a forecast by consultants Roland Berger of how the local electric and hybrid car market would evolve. It expected sales of 2,500 electric cars and 4,700 hybrids by 2020. That would amount to 3.4 percent of total Czech cars sales. By 2025 that share of sales would rise to 11.9 percent and by 2040 23.7 of new Czech sales, or around 51,000 vehicles, would be electric cars.

Some other Europe-wide forecasts see a much faster take-off of electric cars with the turning point seen as early as 2024 when the price gap between traditional and electric cars is seen closing to almost nothing, a much wider charging network for electric vehicles is in place, and charging times have drastically improved with a 300 kilometre charge possible in around 20 minutes. According to this scenario, electric cars could already account for nearly all new cars sold by 2035, spelling the end of the era of the internal combustion engine.

ʺThe problem is that the market in the Czech Republic is still not deep enough."

Tomáš Chmelík is head of ČEZ’s e-mobility programme, largely focused on getting the infrastructure in place for the pending transport revolution. He admits though that the take off electric cars at this early stage is slower than expected with the complexities of getting the charging network in place a significant challenge.

ʺThe latest official prediction we have, which is part initial action plan on clean mobility, has been made by Roland Berger in 2014. It probably would be good to make a slight update. On the other hand, in the mid and the long-term, we still believe that the projection is valid and that we can count on figures in terms that if you want to estimate how many cars will be on the streets in the Czech Republuc by 2020 or by 2025 which is becoming relevant in the long term decision making. We think that the prediction is basically correct."

“The problem is that the market in the Czech Republic is still not deep enough and that the first years of the projection might find some differences between real development because we are still at very low figures. The prediction is planned to be updated, probably this year or next year, to give us better guidance. But so far there’s no new prediction available for the Czech Republic.”

Tomáš Chmelík, photo: Khalil Baalbaki
How are your plans proceeding then, ČEZ is still preparing on its own for the take up of the electric vehicles?

“Yes, in our business model we believe that e-mobility is coming, that we will be facing tens of thousands of electric vehicles on the streets. If it happens in 2020 or 2022 is in the long-term point of view not that important or critical. We believe the cars will be coming and taking into account what is happening in Europe, what are the activities or plans of the manufacturers. We really believe that e-mobility is an issue and our activities concerning installation of charging infrastructure are based on that. We didn’t make our plans according to the prediction but rather in a longer term belief that e-mobility will become important.”

Do you think you might have to speed up those plans? There’s news during the last week or two about bans and phase outs in various countries but not the Czech Republic yet, not Germany, to a full extent. Would you be able to react if that was the case?

“We are of an opinion that e-mobility market development could be quicker than expected because such measures like you mentioned might be implemented across Europe once the prices of the cars go down and their performance will get better, which is expected. The market could then jump relatively quickly. We should be able to react, we are preparing for the quicker development of e-mobility. On the other hand when we speak about installation of public charging stations, the process of getting permits and getting power for the locations is complicated and takes time. We are already developing maybe a hundred locations to be installed because we know that in some of the locations it’s going to take a couple of years before the charging stations become fully operational. As I said, we are making our activities on the basis of expectations of how many cars might be on the streets by 2020, 2025. We are organizing our plans according to that.

"We are of an opinion that e-mobility market development could be quicker than expected.ʺ

“The question is if the e-mobility market will speed up, where exactly will it happen. Will it be major cities or will it be spread evenly across the country? There are still a lot of questions we don’t have answers for. In case we’ll be observing that things are moving significantly quicker, we’ll of course speed up our activities as well.”

In some cases, there is problem though, with getting electricity, the distribution network in some areas. Maybe it just isn’t strong enough or it might not be strong enough for the demand.

“Yes, it is typically the case of places in the middle of nowhere, generally said, such as highways or highway rest stops, where so far there were just small restaurants or gasoline stations which don’t require such power that is needed for charging stations. Strengthening the lines and getting a connection is quite expensive because in some cases we have to build our own transfer stations and get connected to high voltage grids. It’s relatively easier in the city because in case you find there’s not enough power in one street, it’s typically better in another one so you can relocate your plans or charging station. In case you have a specific rest stop on a highway, there’s not much other alternatives of what’s available, than that specific place. These are the cases when getting the necessary connection is not impossible, but takes time and it’s a long process.”

Photo: Jan Rosenauer
A final question; if everything does roll out as predicted or even faster, how much more electricity will be consumed across the board of a normal year and will this mean much of a difference for ČEZ?

“In terms of the balance, it’s not very significant. We did some estimations that if we speak about tens or hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles on the streets, which is quite a huge number, compared to what is on the streets today as we speak about percentage in increase of annual electricity consumption. Even such a high number as a million of electric cars is taking to account a typical consumption and driving range per day, or per year. We are speaking about a few Terawatts ,so still a relatively low increase in total consumption. What is probably more important in terms of e-mobility is when and how the electricity will be delivered to cars. So not as much from the point of the view of the balance but rather a charging technology, power output of chargers and their location in the Czech Republic. Distribution of this electricity might become and probably will become a more significant issue than the amount itself.”

I mean there could be maybe a problem in peak hours, early morning, evening, rush hour. There could be some kind of new peak I suppose?

ʺDistribution of this electricity might become and probably will become a more significant issue than the amount itself."

“Exactly. It could be the same situation like the problem we have with renewables. Even if there will be a consumption pattern in e-mobility, by nature the e-mobility consumption is difficult to predict because it depends on behavior of people who can change their minds.

“This will be a similar issue that we are facing with renewables. We have to get ready for that, our distribution companies are already discussing and analyzing what the impacts of e-mobility on the grid might be so we can still keep the ability of the grid and limit the negative impacts of electric vehicles on security of supply.ʺ