The Smart Solar Charging project is one of a kind. In Utrecht, the Netherlands, a unique collaboration between public, private, and research organisations has realised the world’s first bidirectional city, where a dynamic network of shared EVs offers both clean mobility solutions to Utrecht citizens as well as grid balancing solutions to the local network company.
We’re proud that two of our group companies, We Drive Solar and NieuweWeme, have played a key role in designing, delivering and optimizing this integrated solution. And since the Smart Solar Charging project has recently been awarded the ISGAN Award of Excellence by the International Energy Agency, we thought it was time to take a look behind the scenes of this game-changing initiative.
We spoke to Robin Berg, CEO of shared mobility company We Drive Solar, and Gerben Hilboldt, CEO of engineering & manufacturing firm NieuweWeme, about the success, learnings and future plans for the project.
Robin, you are often referred to as the initiator of the Smart Solar Charging project in Utrecht. Can you give us a brief introduction to the project?
Sure thing! Smart Solar Charging is essentially a new energy system on a more local, often city-level scale. Locally generated solar energy is stored using the batteries of (shared) EVs. Through vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, this energy can later be fed back into the grid at times of peak demand or when the risk of power outages is high. The integration of energy generation, storage, and application on a very local level creates flexibility in the grid, which solves all kinds of challenges that come with the introduction of new energy technologies.
How did this all start?
This all came together from a very small, personal project - right outside my house! I was the first person in Utrecht who was producing more electricity through the solar panels on the roof of my house than my entire household consumed. That was 23 years ago, and today that same roof, with new solar panels though, produces six times the amount of electricity than it did back then.
Back in 2016, I started to imagine how a new, local energy system could look like. And so we started building it! In Lombok, the neighbourhood where I live in Utrecht, we placed solar panels on the roofs of schools, installed roadside charging stations and connected it all in an independent local mini-grid. That was our very first model of the bi-directional Smart Solar Charging network.
So it’s really your personal brainchild, awesome! How did the project expand to a now city-wide network?
The first step was to develop a bi-directional charger, so that we could use our EVs not only as cars, but also as batteries. We later introduced solar-controlled charging to this, so that the charger would automatically increase output during sunny weather. From there, things evolved step by step. We started installing more and more solar panels in new neighbourhoods, placing smart chargers and adding EVs through car-sharing models.
As part of this bigger roll-out, We Drive Solar partnered with NieuweWeme to develop proprietary charging technology. Gerben, can you share with us how that came together?
The We Drive Solar team reached out to us in early 2020. At the time, they had worked with many different manufacturers for out-of-the-box charging solutions, but there wasn’t anything on the market that ticked all the boxes. The team had years of hands-on experience and knew exactly what they wanted from a charger.
This is the kind of project that we’re very good at here at NieuweWeme, since we have everything in-house from design, prototyping, and testing to production at scale.
Can you tell us a little more about the technological challenges involved in developing the We Drive Solar charging solution?
EV charging looks simple from the outside, you plug in the car and the charging process begins. In reality, things are a little more complex with many moving parts to consider. When we were developing the charger, there was no AC-V2G standard or norm in place. So, together with the We Drive Solar team, we were working very closely with car manufacturers to ensure our solutions matched all the criteria for different brands, models and charging profiles. At the same time, the technology had to be flexible enough to be applied to wall mounts, streetlight poles, and other forms of charging stations.
That sounds like quite a complex process to get right! Where did things go from there?
Since we handle the full production process in-house, we could move fast and gather feedback quickly. Within 2 weeks of the initial scoping of the project we had developed the first working prototype that we could use for testing in real-world scenarios. Some months later we came to a final product design and started with a weekly production volume of 10 units, quickly scaling up to 50 chargers per week. The We Drive Solar team can now expand their solution quickly with the confidence that they have future-proof technology in place.
We Drive Solar and NieuweWeme are both part of the Koolen Industries group. How did their backing support the roll-out of the project?
For us, it was immediately clear that NieuweWeme was the right partner. We’re both backed by Koolen Industries and share the same commitment to the goal of making clean energy available for everyone. It wasn’t really a customer-supplier relationship, more like a partnership where both parties are invested in the success of the collaboration.
Gerben: I fully agree. Working with other group companies is great because we always keep compatibility with other solutions from the ecosystem in mind. In the end, this allows us to deliver a better product for the end customer at a better price. It’s a true win-win.
You recently won an award for the Smart Solar Charging project. What does the future of this collaboration look like?
We believe that every city can become a bi-directional city. There’s literally no downside to it. The blueprint of the Smart Solar Charging network can solve local congestion issues, reduce the number of cars on the street, increase renewables generation and minimize local pollution.
And we’re already working on that. With Koolen Industries and NieuweWeme as partners, we will soon be supporting the city of Rotterdam in introducing a bi-directional local energy system. Our client Equans will install more than 1500 charging stations and We Drive Solar car-sharing will soon start in the city. We’re very excited to create an impact on that kind of scale!
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