Private sector embarks on creation of EV charging-point infrastructure

The chick and the egg

Photo by Greg Demarque

The most eye-catching developments in mobility involve cars. The world is filled with cars; many of us sit in these machines for inordinate lengths of time every day. Surveys done in recent years in the United States found that the average person might spend upward of 17,500 minutes per year at the steering wheel or about the same as seven full work weeks, according to a 2016 study by the American Automobile Association; an academic study in 2007 assessed the average time spent driving by US residents as about one hour and 20 minutes per day, which makes almost 36,000 minutes annually.

Such “average Joe” observations have a zillion weaknesses and are hardly useful when Joseph or Jeanette is stuck in a traffic jam that has no right to exist. But it seems fully reasonable to say that a lifetime in the late 20th and early 21st century is a lifetime with a lot of driving and a lot of time wasted in traffic, as well as other auto-related hassles. If not a driver themselves, pretty much everyone in the world uses or is confronted with cars on a frequent basis, and even the most spiritually focused stylite or eremite in the desert would be hard pressed if she wanted to live with a vow of not setting eyes on passing vehicles.

As our obsession with cars and motorized mobility is shifting to new considerations that stretch from autonomous vehicles and flying taxis to everyday cars that no longer rely exclusively on internal combustion engines, the question of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) is capturing the attention of the car-crazy population. This topic of EVs has two parts, however, the first part talking of the latest cars featuring the technology and the second talking about the problems of building an EV charging infrastructure.

Although PEVs and EVs had become surprisingly successful in markets elsewhere, few such vehicles made appearances here.

The question on how to charge EVs rapidly enough and cheaply enough so that electric cars make sense has been at the core of the electric mobility debate since the first hybrids came to market in the late 1990s and specifically since maverick US maker Tesla early in the current decade commercially launched a first pure EV, the Model S, that made every competitor look old. The issue of infrastructure commands so much attention because even if an electric car can be charged fully by plugging it overnight into a power outlet in the owner’s garage, this does not answer half of the what-if questions that even a technical dummy can immediately conjure.

Fundamental questions

What if you need to drive your EV for a longer distance than facilitated by an overnight charge? What if you do not have the luxury of charging for several hours? What if you do not have a garage? What if you do not have electricity at the place where you usually park your car? It is an elementary calculation that electric mobility requires some sort of an infrastructure which, to be really functional, needs to be purpose-built.

After all, a car is a wholly different gadget from your personal smartphone that needs a regular battery charge. Car and phone will both be dead if out of battery, but that is where the similarities diverge. Even the contemporary person with the most stone-age brain gets this, not to mention the highly developed Lebanese brain that has over decades been supercharged in mental ability to incessantly think of electricity supply problems and be ready for them.

In engineering, operational, and economic terms, there are trade-offs between the technology used to augment or substitute a car’s combustion engine with an electric drive. Larger batteries have greater reach but are heavier and cost more, and complex technical solutions have to be deployed to address this triangular challenge whether the car is a pure EV, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) designed for external electrical charging in combination with in-drive charging through a combustion engine, or a quasi-internal hybrid (HEV) where all the charging comes from the combustion engine that works as a motor/generator in tandem with an auxiliary electric motor. On operational terms, hybrids are happy with supplies of fossil fuels alone while PHEV and EV owners will want to have access to some sort of external electric charge unit. In terms of economy, more tech and more battery power both carry costs that are difficult to offset when a vehicle is used sparingly.

The Lebanese environment

In Lebanon, electricity is a touchy issue that very often engenders people to break out in lengthy and passionate tirades. Also, politicians have been known to vacillate between making ludicrous excuses for electricity problems and untenable promises that do not address when and how affordably problems might be solved. In between citizen complaints and political debates, electricity issues lead minds to erupt in confrontations filled with arguments that seem driven by passion more than by reason.

In this constellation of existing for decades with poor power realities, when global public attention began turning to e-mobility around 2012, the idea of seeing electric cars on Lebanese streets looked for the next five years like a concept that was completely out of this world. Although PEVs and EVs had become surprisingly successful in markets elsewhere and had gained measurable market shares, few such vehicles made appearances in local traffic.

When Executive produced its 2017 special report on the country’s automotive realities, we therefore felt compelled to note that the government until this time had missed out on providing incentives for electric cars—there was a “total absence of a legal framework that would boost the import and sales of hybrid cars or EVs,” as one contributor observed. In response to this state of affairs, Executive called in the October 2017 issue’s leader for “things such as green auto loans, insurance discounts for EVs, recharge stations at hypermarkets, and free EV parking at malls.”

To give credit where credit is due: Since the time of this report, Lebanon’s government, lobbied by members in the country’s automobile importers’ association (Association des Importateurs d’Automobiles au Liban – AIA) introduced incentives for electric car ownership by liberating EVs fully from various duties and by granting reduced customs and fees also for hybrids.

And as this magazine’s editors noticed with surprised glee, in 2018, not only did the first quick-charge units for EVs make their first appearances at Medco gas stations, but also several highly desirable and visible parking spots at three malls in town had turned bright green, with the message that they were reserved to EVs (and offered charging options).

“Having established the seven units, we approached car importers to see about their plans and saw that our move encouraged them to proceed as they had read in many articles that the main issue for bringing EVs to the road is the infrastructure for charging them.”

Nicolas Abou Halka, general manager of Medco’s lubricants and bunkering business unit

Then, in spring 2019, EV import launch events became hot social items on the local calendar, and Beirut saw its first e-Motor show in the middle of April. It was a small-scale show when viewed against an exhausting and e-heavy mobility feast such as the (similarly timed) 2019 Auto Shanghai show with its 1,000 exhibitors and 1,500 presented vehicles (Industry predictions say that China will have about 1.6 to 1.8 million sales of EVs and HEVs in 2019, representing a share of 6.7 percent in the car market.)

Nonetheless, Beirut staged a sort of mini Shangri-La of greener mobility where some 18 different electric cars, from posh SUVs and limousines to compact and subcompact urban hoppers, were on show alongside e-golf carts, e-tuktuks, Chinese-made but locally-branded scooters, as well as sharing-economy scooters (brought in from Canada) and European-made e-bicycles (urban and cross-country models).

Sparked with curiosity about the new impulses for the Lebanese mobility future, Executive researched the latest EV developments among automotive importers and, to better assess the important question of electric charging options and supporting infrastructure for electric driving, contacted gas station operating companies with avowed electrification agendas.

The new chargers

It appeared from Executive’s research that Medco, importer and distributor of oil products and gas station operator in Lebanon, decided some years ago to investigate electric charging units for EVs and PEVs in Lebanon with an eye to enhancing its long-term commercial strategy and also its communication with the market. According to Nicolas Abou Halka, general manager of Medco’s lubricants and bunkering business unit, the group’s board of directors decided earlier in the 2010s to undertake an investigation into the electric charging infrastructure.

Abou Halka says he pursued the task through research and by establishing connections with French companies with expertise in EV charging technologies. Medco then decided to import some specialized charging equipment, and while the material was still en route from Europe, the company was fortuitous to witness the Lebanese government introduce incentives for EV ownership. The equipment was installed by Medco in four Beirut gas stations and in the parking structures of three upscale shopping malls.

For Abou Halka, this sparked interest from the local automotive sector. “Having established the seven units, we approached car importers to see about their plans and saw that our move encouraged them to proceed as they had read in many articles that the main issue for bringing EVs to the road is the infrastructure for charging them,” he tells Executive. “We have offered them this infrastructure, and they have only to bring in the cars and sell them, after which the car users can come to the stations and charge.”

For oil importing company IPT, the entry point into the issue originated with the company’s focus on sustainability. IPT inaugurated a solar-powered EV charging unit in conjunction with what it described as the company’s first fully sustained gas station in late spring 2019, explains Vice Chairman/General Manager Toni Issa, who emphasizes that this sustainability strategy is the root of the economic direction taken by IPT.

“We are not waiting to have the electric cars in order to transform ourselves. We are transforming ourselves into [a] sustainable [group of] companies in various ways and methods,” he says energetically. At the same time, Issa, like Abou Halka, is fundamentally upbeat on the electric play in automotive mobility and importance of the supporting infrastructure in the country. “The use of hybrid and electric vehicles will certainly grow in the coming few years in Lebanon, especially after the incentives given by the Lebanese state that reduce customs duties and excise taxes on imports,” he adds.

Issa says that there is no clear visibility on the scope of the coming EV penetration, naming as reasons external factors such as cost and technical barriers encountered by global manufacturers as well as internal issues in Lebanon such as insufficient awareness of EVs, local cost barriers, and the need to measure the impacts and implications for the national electricity system and for the environment. “The first thing to do is to assess the impact of deploying EVs on the electric grid in terms of capacity and load, and [the related] environmental impact under consideration of the fact that we still rely on fuel oil and diesel oil to produce energy,” he explains.

Despite his confidence in the proposition of electric mobility, and despite his commitment to not rely on pollution-heavy power sources but rather use a renewable energy source, Issa acknowledges that IPT has to invest more into a solar-powered charging unit than is required for a conventional grid-based unit. He concedes further that IPT currently has no clear plan yet as to the commercial rollout of solar EV charging units as the whole project is still under trial and is nowhere near generating profit. “We are sure that the market is growing from what we are witnessing, but we are not sure about at what time the demand will justify the investment that we are doing,” he tells Executive.

For Medco, the experience of working with the adaptation of various charging solutions for EVs in public spaces provided insightful lessons on the current technical and regulatory barriers that companies have to deal with when they embark on provision of fast charges to automobiles.

Different systems (AC and DC), different plug and socket designs and standards used in Europe and the US versus Japan and China (two existing main solutions are known as combo and chademo), different battery sizes and battery technologies, varying on-board power transmission capacities of cars, and different conditions at each gas station in Lebanon, in terms of electricity supply and grid connection, translate for Abou Halka into investment needs that can be upwards of $50,000 for EV charging units in commercial gas station environments. According to him, installation of less versatile and powerful charging units in places where an EV can park longer and infrastructure designed for mall operations are not as expensive or complex.

“Probably unintentionally, the taxation regulation on electric vehicles is greatly favoring the most expensive cars for which very high custom duties are due.”

Abou Halka

As to the company’s strategy for developing its charging network, the manager says that Medco is preparing to equip several stations on major Lebanese traffic arteries outside of core Beirut with a new and more powerful generation of charge units. The company will deploy these ultra-charge units in 2019, Abou Halka promises. “We will be starting to put these into operations in the second half of this year,” he says. “We will double the number of [charge] units, so that hopefully by end 2019 there will be 15 units spread all over the country, [with the new ones located] along the main axes to the north, south, and east.”

He also points to yet untapped potentials that electric mobility could provide in the Lebanese market, specifically to operators of taxis and commercial vehicles, such as buses and trucks. While he vigorously supports the engagement of the government in incentivizing EV and HEV ownerships, and also sees the need for greater public involvement in the specific infrastructure development of charging stations, he also notes some side effects. “Probably unintentionally, the taxation regulation on electric vehicles is greatly favoring the most expensive cars for which very high custom duties are due,” he says.

“People who buy a premium car with electric configuration will be compensated by the waiver of the customs duties and so what one might see from next year are many more luxurious cars that are electric cars than small EVs.” (Economists like to describe such public sector interferences as the provision of perverse incentives.

Not discounting the fact that provision of commercial charging units is not looking be economical for several years—neither on the level of gas stations nor on the level of charging stations at shopping malls—Abou Halka concludes that a company wanting to be active in the automotive field in the long term will have to take courageous decisions and embark on a journey by starting somewhere and learning by doing. He says, “In the medium term, within the next five years, I think there is a potential for an expansion of the electric car population in Lebanon, provided that the problem of batteries and the high cost of batteries will be solved.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.