At the Thor Park in Genk, innovations around smart charging are tested out. The innovations are developed by VITO/EnergyVille but also by external companies - including international ones - which use the existing living lab as a testing ground.

Car fleets are currently in the process of being electrified, and so more charging infrastructure is urgently needed to power all these electric cars. Companies play an important role in this regard, especially now that the federal government has decided that all company cars must be electric from 2026 and also all new passenger cars from 2029. 

However, most companies are not equipped to charge a lot of cars at the same time. 'Companies' connections to the electricity grid have generally been designed too small,' explains Thomas Polfliet from VITO/EnergyVille. 'They were calculated on the power consumption of the past, when there were no electric cars on the roads.' As a result, charging cars now often has a major impact on the capacity of a company's network. 'Today, the capacity is still distributed as standard over all connected electric cars parked in the company car park. But this means that a car that has to leave after just an hour of charging has only received the same amount of power as a car that has been there the same amount of time but still has the possibility to continue charging all day. That's not really conducive to the mobility and flexibility of company employees and visitors. It could lead to charging point stress.’ 

Drive more, pay less 

For some companies, the power supply has traditionally been sized too small for an optimal charging infrastructure; expanding it is often financially and/or technically difficult. For others, the cost of unlimited charging quickly adds up. Smart control can provide a solution in both cases. The current smart control of charging points is limited to load balancing. There is a lot of room for improvement in that regard, as experts from VITO/EnergyVille discovered. They developed software that makes managing charging points really intelligent, by taking into account both the convenience needs of employees and visitors and the financial situation of the company. 

Drive more, pay less. Under this slogan, VITO/EnergyVille is offering the new software package for managing charging sessions at business parks with extensive charging infrastructure, renewable energy production and electric storage. Its experts developed an algorithm that creates an intelligent charging plan which is tailored to an organisation - in the broadest sense: from an SME with charging infrastructure to a public car park. The planning algorithm takes into account the charging needs of employees and visitors: what time do they arrive, when do they leave again, how many kilowatt hours do they need to get to their destination? Companies can also configure whether certain categories of users are given priority, for example sales staff, visitors or people with a nearly flat battery. 

But the algorithm does a whole lot more. 'Bearing in mind the slogan above, we want to get as many driving kilometres as possible from the capacity of the company network,' enthuses Jef Verbeeck from VITO/EnergyVille. 'We do this by planning the charging sessions when there is surplus power generated in-house (e.g. from the solar panels on the roof or the wind turbine at the company site). But also when power prices, which vary continuously throughout the day, are low.' A third cost factor used to make the planning is the price incentive of peak power, which is already incorporated into the distribution grid tariff for companies. 'These three cost factors make up the cost component. Based on this cost component and the convenience component, the charging plan is then optimised to the lowest cost.' 

The charging plan is also extremely dynamic. 'Every 15 minutes, the algorithm recalculates everything and the plan is then updated,' explains Luc Rynders of VITO/EnergyVille. 'That way, we play close to the ball: in terms of weather forecasts (crucial for generating our own green electricity), electricity markets but also the moments employees and visitors arrive and leave, which of course can constantly change. The charging plan can therefore be adapted at any time, and our algorithm is designed for that.' 

SMEs from the Netherlands 

VITO's planning algorithm is being tested at various locations, including at the EnergyVille site in Genk, the research campus where VITO has based its energy transition-related research together with KU Leuven, UHasselt and imec. The Thor Park Living Lab is also based here, and is a testing ground where companies can come and test their innovations. That is exactly what several Dutch SMEs did in the context of the ConnectSME-project. In the living lab in Genk, they benefited from the real life environment to further develop their technology and concepts, ultimately to bring them to market. The project arose from the European Interreg programme, which focuses on cross-border collaboration – in this case, between Flanders and the Southern Netherlands region. In turn, Flemish SMEs with sustainable innovations were able to visit Dutch testing grounds. 

The Open Thor Living Lab was one of the six testing grounds (three Flemish ones and three Dutch ones) in the ConnectSME project. These are innovation hubs where the focus is upon sustainable development. At VITO/EnergyVille, and the Genk living lab it represents in ConnectSME, the substantive focus of the project was on smart charging for electric vehicles.  

In the ConnectSME project, a total of 28 SMEs from Flanders and the Netherlands received a voucher. Five of these approached VITO/EnergyVille with their energy innovation. The five Dutch SMEs were first given a voucher worth €10,000 to have a feasibility study carried out. With this first voucher, the energy technology was looked at, and the ability to test and demonstrate it further at the Open Thor Living Lab. For two of the five companies, the timing of these next steps exceeded the term of the project, so for them it remained just a feasibility study. The three other SMEs received a second voucher worth €40,000 to have their technology or service implemented on the smart charging island at the Open Thor Living Lab, which meant they could test them out and demonstrate them. 

At One2Charge, a firm from Dordrecht, this involved installing central payment functionality on the charging island with intelligent control of charging points and integration with an energy management system. While this sounds complex, it basically means that the driver of an electric car knows exactly where they stand if they want to charge their car at a charging facility, thanks to this innovation. Before arranging for payment, for example, they can indicate how much energy they need, how long the charging session can last for and how much the charge should cost. Just like at a petrol station, you can choose not to fill up your whole tank every time, to save on time or cost. 

Zonnova from Tilburg, on the other hand, is researching how shared cars (for example, a company's fleet cars) can be used as mobile batteries to optimise energy management on a site. VITO/EnergyVille expanded the smart charging field at Thor Park with a V2G charging station and tested several specific cases where V2G supports a number of services behind the meter in the second voucher phase. 

Lastly, PIA Automation from Tholen is developing an underground charging station – the StreetPlug – which could be useful in historic city centres, for example, because it does not disturb the street scene. The charging station was integrated into VITO/EnergyVille's smart charging platform and then tested out. 

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