About a third of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and private vehicles account for about 90% of that. So when New York City launched its inaugural Climate Action Challenge in 2017, it focused on solutions to reduce those vehicle emissions and boost the adoption of electric vehicles.
That means developing the infrastructure to support them, which has been a frustration for the industry and many an EV owner. Now, nearly a year later, the German firm Ubitricity has been selected to test a technology that could turn thousands of ordinary streetlamp posts, and the curbside parking spaces next to them, into vehicle charging stations in a city with more than 1.4 million vehicle owners.
The Ubitricity idea is to create charging capacity with a surprisingly simple but elegant solution: just add an outlet to the pole. Car owners buy and use a special cable that connects the vehicle’s charging port to the pole, delivering the charge without siphoning power away from the streetlight. It locks so it can’t be stolen, nor can a passer-by yank it out (accidentally or otherwise) and leave them stranded. Owners use a smartphone app to control the process, and for metered billing that tracks the power they use.
The just-plug-it-in technology is already being used in Germany, the United Kingdom and France, where it makes it easier for people who drive EVs now to do so with confidence. For those who don’t, the system invites drivers to consider making both a climate-friendly and user-friendly switch.
“To make the EV revolution happen, charging infrastructure needs to become comfortably accessible for city dwellers,” explains Ubitricity founder Knut Hechtfischer. “Being able to retrofit existing streetlights to serve as EV charge points can contribute a lot to building a dense EV charging infrastructure.”
The Ubitricity outlets started popping up in London last year, where officials see the opportunity to reduce air pollution that is often the worst in Europe (and occasionally worse than Beijing). At least one study has tied mortality to short-term exposure to London’s traffic-related pollution, and the same emissions that create a public health problem also create a barrier to meeting sustainability targets.
Clean-energy EVs decrease the problem, even when the electricity is generated from less-than-ideal utility sources – and that shift to renewables is advancing rapidly too. Yet urban environments aren’t always the EV-friendliest of places. Thousands of people – millions, when considered internationally – live in flats where they can’t plug in the car to recharge, or in communities without suitable parking.
At the same time, cash-strapped cities are reluctant to commit to an expensive investment risk without seeing widespread EV adoption as a reality. They also don’t want the streetscape dotted with more safety hazards, and worry about the aesthetics of thousands of EV charging ports and poles and boxes. Ubitricity says it takes less than an hour to retrofit the existing light pole and be on the way to the next one.
Those are precisely the reasons that made Ubitricity attractive to the decision-makers in Chelsea, Kensington and a few other London boroughs, where the special outlets were installed on existing light poles. Ubitricity, working with Siemen’s, expects to install 1,150 stations by the end of 2020. Germany is looking to put a million EVs on the road by then, and France is not far behind.