Local vs cloud-based smart charging: Should you make the switch?

Charging operator Eneco eMobility's charge station

With more than 130 million electric vehicles (EVs) expected on the roads in Europe by 2030, the demand for electricity to charge them is likely to rise. Smart charging – controlling the maximum charge of an EV by increasing or decreasing the maximum charge rate – will play a crucial role in avoiding additional stress on the low-voltage grid.

Fundamentally, there are two ways smart charging is done – local and cloud-based. By analysing and actioning inputs from the energy supply, the grid, the driver, and the vehicle, smart charging will lead to considerable savings for grid operators, charge point operators, charge point owners, and EV drivers.

GreenFlux spoke to Bart Fick, Senior Expert Chargepoint Technology & Managed Charging Solutions at Eneco eMobility NL, who recently led the switch from a local smart charging solution to GreenFlux’s cloud-based smart charging solution at one of their sites. He has worked in the industry for more than 10 years and played an active role in the evolution of EVs – from petrol-converted to fully electric cars. Fick talks about the present and the future of smart charging in transport electrification, the differences between local and cloud solutions, and much more.

We’ve selected the following insightful excerpts from our conversation to share:

How many charge stations do you have at the site where you recently made the switch?

At the main entrance, we have 174 charge points in three groups, and each is connected to a 300-amp fuse directly to the transformer station at the site. A group is a network of charge stations that connects to one fuse of the transformer station. Besides that, we have an additional 20 charge points for employees near that location who also use the smart charging solution.

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Please explain the local smart charging setup that was operational before you switched to the cloud-based solution.

The local solution managed the three groups. The solution we used for the first group was installed a few years ago. In 2020, we expanded the number of charge stations with two extra groups, which made it relevant to re-evaluate the smart charging solution used at the site. Recently, we noticed there was a necessity to have more grip on what was actually happening there to better support customers when they have questions and optimise the uptime of the charging infrastructure. We realised we needed remote management possibility to make this possible.

One of the other challenges we faced was networking. For a local setup, you need a long wired local network, which introduces extra complexity, costs, and the risk of the entire location losing the data connections.

What are some of the challenges that you faced with the local smart charging solution?

Lack of insight

One of the challenges we faced is that often, it is not possible to have sufficient remote insight into how local solutions operate. For instance, users or the location manager used to contact us when they noticed that the car had stopped charging at some moments, or was receiving lower charging power.

The mobile apps of the cars are doing a great job of monitoring the charging process and notifying the driver of deviations. Unfortunately, these apps are not taking into account smart charging systems. The customer then gets the impression that the charge station is not working optimally or will have some other questions. Without insight into the correct working of the systems remotely, we would have to send a specialist to the site to investigate and try to reproduce the error involving tens of EVs, which is not really efficient.

No optimisation

It is difficult to optimise a local solution. It is tough to explain a specific behavior or a pattern or to understand remotely why it made certain smart charging decisions. You can only assume that it is functioning correctly or needs to be triggered by complaints from EV drivers, especially if you have a larger network. We do not want to go to the location every time there is a potential issue or a complaint.

Networking issues

One of the other challenges we faced was networking. For a local setup, you need a long wired local network, which introduces extra complexity, costs, and the risk of the entire location losing the data connections whereas with the cloud-based smart charging each station is connected via its own mobile modem.

What are the benefits of the cloud-based smart charging solution?

Future-proof

The cloud-based solution is future-proof as has additional flexibility in response to forthcoming customer requirements and technical developments. For Eneco e-mobility, this is an important benefit as we can expand our service portfolio. Our customers want to be more energy-efficient, use more local energy, and reduce costs at the same time. We expect their needs will rise and become more complicated in the future, yet we see a possibility to substantiate our claim ‘eMobility made e-asy’ by not confronting the end-users with the complexity behind the charging systems using cloud-based smart charging solutions. Our customers will need to balance local photovoltaic (PV) energy production and the grid requirements. We can anticipate some of these future developments but also need to be flexible enough to respond to not-yet-foreseen requirements.

We are rolling out Green Flux’s solution at other locations as well, especially on sites with big charging networks or complicated requirements.

Bart Fick, Senior Expert Chargepoint Technology & Managed Charging Solutions at Eneco eMobility NL

You can already see what is happening in the world, such as, the gas price is rising. More and more people are looking into possibilities to heat homes and offices with electricity, and heat pumps, and then the grids become too crowded. For say, if we operate a big charging plaza, and the energy grid is crowded at a specific time, we can bring smart flexibility to the grid. We can stabilise the grid for the operator by reducing the power we use at a certain time.

There are so much more possibilities to react to customer requirements with the cloud-based solution. Plus, there are more incentives when you can provide flexibility.

Remote management

One of the main benefits of cloud-based smart charging is increased possibilities to have remote insights. This particularly helps in error-solving and asset management for us. We don’t need to send mechanics to the sites every time there is a complaint. If a customer calls us with a question, now we can directly look into it and give them an answer. If necessary, we, or GreenFlux, solve the issue remotely. We have a faster response time with errors at the site now.

Scalable

With a local solution, when the network increases in size, it becomes difficult to configure and continue running it. Meanwhile, a cloud-based solution offers virtually unlimited possibilities to scale and allows us to expand networks without any limitations.

Using the cloud-based solution also means that we are not limited to one brand.

A lot of our new customers already have a network installed with a specific brand and want to expand. Sometimes, they have new requirements, but the existing charge station provider is unable to meet them. Local smart charging is proprietary to a specific brand, so you can expand only if you choose the same brand again. With a cloud-based setup, we can introduce other brands of charge stations and simply manage them as one group.

Besides, in the future, there will be more DC charger requirements in addition to AC. We see that a lot of manufacturers that have local smart charging only offer AC chargers and not DC, and vice versa. That makes it difficult to implement a local smart charging solution that supports a mix of AC and DC charge stations on the same site. GreenFlux’s cloud-based solution allows operators to expand the network by adding DC chargers at a later date if required. It is flexible in terms of selecting the brand and mixing AC and DC.

Eneco eMobility charge station

Networking

As mentioned earlier, a long-wired network is an additional cost. We do not need the local network anymore, and that is a huge benefit because then we can just add chargers when and where needed.

Cost

We calculated that the cloud-based solution is less expensive if you look at the total cost of ownership versus the local solution. When factoring in all site visits that can be saved using cloud-based smart charging, the latter is significantly less expensive.

Regular updates

If the algorithm improves over time, we don’t have to do local updates. It is then updated in the cloud. So as we speak, GreenFlux can improve the algorithms, and the charge stations at all sites, that use cloud-based smart charging, benefit directly.

The most important outcome for us is that we have insight into the charging network, can monitor the issues we face, and, as a result, are able to improve the performance.

Did the switch to the cloud-based solution affect EV drivers in any way?

As far as both the solutions function, it should not make any difference to the driver. The only difference is that we can now directly explain the charge station behaviour and often solve issues without having to send a mechanic to the site. This way we provide an answer to the customer far faster than with a local smart charging solution.

Do you think the cloud-based solution will reduce service requests or customer complaints?

It is not about how many complaints, but how fast can we answer and solve them. With local solutions, we often can’t reproduce what happened. Or if there really is an issue, we need days if somebody needs to go to the location and really investigate the problem. With cloud-based solutions, we can resolve issues in hours or even in minutes since it is easier to find the root cause of a problem.

How will cloud-based smart charging impact Eneco’s business in the future?

The most important outcome for us is that we have insight into the charging network, can monitor the issues we face, and, as a result, are able to improve the performance. Plus, this is a more generic solution, and we do not need much project development or management to roll out at other locations. When we want to add energy services to the charging solution, like taking into account when electricity is less expensive or more sustainable during the day, cloud-based smart charging is essential. We expect it to be more cost-efficient because it’s scalable, flexible, and more generic. We are rolling out Green Flux’s solution at other locations as well, especially on sites with big charging networks or complicated requirements.

GreenFlux has a good understanding of not only the charging domain but also of the energy domain. The challenge is that the energy domain brings us to a new future.

What are your views about the smart charging solution offered by GreenFlux?

GreenFlux has a good understanding of not only the charging domain but also the energy domain. The challenge is that the energy domain brings us to a new future. Our customers have their own needs and questions facing future challenges, which may be complicated and we will support them in finding the right answers. The additional knowledge that GreenFlux offers helps us a lot.

Plus, the software provider is a specialist in smart charging. The company has offered a cloud-based smart charging solution for the last seven years and is constantly improving it.

For the future, the possibilities are endless, especially with the expansion to DC. I am happy to work with GreenFlux on these smart charging solutions as their concept is well-thought-of and well-built. It is a robust solution that you can expand with new functionalities, which is good for our business in the future.

What role do you think smart charging will play in the e-mobility and energy market in the future?

It is really a necessity. Without smart charging, you cannot optimally operate multiple charge stations at the same location, and expanding grid capacity will not always be possible in the future. I am confident that the GreenFlux smart charging solution will bring all the functionalities that we need to tackle these challenges together.