CNZx Avik Datta: Roaming for EVs

Centre for Net Zero
May 20 · 5 min read

To kick-off the first of a series of spotlight sessions with researchers we’re collaborating with as part of our CNZx programme, we caught up with Avik Datta. Avik is a mature student at Imperial College, studying for an MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures and putting together a thesis on seamless EV charging that we’re supporting. We spoke to him to find out more about his research and how it fits into the wider net zero journey.

What’s the inspiration behind your thesis?

After years of corporate life, I started to become disengaged. Ops can be stressful: when 2 million customers in Panama can’t make a phone call, it’s up to you to fix it — regardless of the time of day or night. Yet I’d learnt so much about the transformative power of technology and its positive impact on people’s everyday lives and realised there must be an opportunity to apply lessons learnt to a new context that I felt connected to.

So here I am, studying alongside some of the brightest minds on a course that has substantiated my passion for the environment and sustainability.

When I was trying to work out a topic to base my thesis on, I was studying a module on transport and, coincidentally, trying to purchase a car. Naturally I wanted to buy an electric vehicle (EV) so started investigating my charge point options. I spoke to the freeholder of the block of flats I live in in South London to see whether I could get one installed. The answer was a flat ‘no’ — the upfront cost was simply too much. I ended up opting for a fuel-efficient petrol vehicle, but it was a pivotal moment in my understanding of the charging challenges we need to overcome if we’re to accelerate the mass adoption of EVs.

Tell us more about your research. What are you going to be investigating?

If we’re going to hit our net zero goal, there are two major things we need to address when it comes to EVs: firstly, barriers facing consumers as they consider switching from petrol and diesel vehicles, and secondly, the sophistication and scale of charging infrastructures. The uptake in EVs continues to rise year-on-year and the ban on sales of traditional fuel vehicles in 2030 has cemented this direction of travel — but there’s a long way to go to achieve significant adoption. How can we create the conditions in which charging your EV is a genuinely ‘seamless’ experience, akin to the convenience we expect in other areas in our lives?

The example that’s closest to home for me is mobile roaming. At the moment, you can travel to any part of the world, switch on your phone and your connectivity is guaranteed. What if we could create an equivalence in the EV world?

I started to investigate the current charging landscape to establish a deeper understanding of the current state of play, speaking to key public and private stakeholders. I was put in touch with the team at Octopus Energy Electric Juice, who are creating a slick and easy charging experience. By partnering with leading charge point operators, EV drivers across the UK can access over 1,000 charge points regardless of whether they’re Octopus Energy customers. The platform offers a solution to the lack of standardised payment for charging at different networks. The car manufacturing joint venture IONITY is also part of the network, a collective leading the way in fast-charging across Europe and reducing access issues that variations in brand of station and technology create for EV users. The diagram below depicts the multitude of players in the current charge point landscape.

UK public charge points by network (www.zap-map.com/statistics)

Both these initiatives represent significant steps in the right direction. But is there a way to learn from other industries to create a new standard in automated EV charging? In the telecoms industry, the concept of roaming is so automated that all you need is a phone and a SIM card to access connectivity, whoever is providing it. The system manages to identify you and send your bill back to your home supplier. I won’t go into the details of back-end systems, but there are protocols that enable this successful flow of information. Clearly, this didn’t always exist: there used to be different systems depending on where you were in the world, but the arrival of 3G and 4G was an inflection point and all the standards were merged. The challenge is that this took two decades to happen — and clearly, we don’t have the luxury of that kind of timeframe when it comes to decarbonisation.

My thesis will look into ways that we can get the unique identifier that each car has from the vehicle to the correct supplier so that they can bill you for using any charge point. It won’t focus on business models but rather build a framework around which business models can be built.

The other thing I’ll be investigating is a fair attribution system for consumers providing energy to the grid for demand side response (DSR) through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging. If you plug in your EV at work and at peak times it supplies energy to the grid, you should be compensated for that, not just your workplace. To achieve this, I’m trying to put a unique identifier against every transaction between consumers, energy suppliers and the grid.

How is the Centre for Net Zero supporting you in this research?

I’m working closely with the team at CNZ who are providing important strategic direction. As someone relatively new to the world of energy, I’ve got less experience in this field and I’m tapping into their deep understanding of the landscape — and the challenges and opportunities surrounding EVs specifically — to shape my thesis as it develops. As CNZ explores wider issues of EV adoption and charging, I look forward to sharing ideas and developing deeper insights within my own work.

Any final thoughts that you’d like to share?

I truly believe that we have the tools that we need to accelerate the decarbonisation of transport. From IoT to 5G, there are brilliant tech capabilities out there but we must focus on getting these to work in tandem. I was recently listening to a podcast about unlocking the opportunity for residential flexibility and one of the panellists said something that really sums up my attitude towards the challenges ahead: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.

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