PARIS – European utility companies and auto makers appear to be inching toward an agreement on recharging plugs for electric vehicles, while the electricity industry has begun work on standards for a “smart” power grid.

A final agreement on the plug design may take at least another year, but after decades of discussions that amounts to rapid action.

Renault SA plans to have EVs for sale in Europe in 2011 and 2012, while PSA Peugeot Citroen, Volkswagen AG, Daimler AG and others are right behind.

The design of the recharging plug is the first step.

“As infrastructure investments are costly, this physical interface or ‘Global Electric Vehicle Plug’ must be viable not only for electric vehicles entering the market now but for those vehicles with next-generation battery and electric technologies,” writes the Joint Automotive and Electric Utility Workgroup for an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure in a recent recommendation to the Swiss-based International Electrotechnical Commission.

The IEC prepares and publishes international standards for electrical, electronic and related technologies. The workgroup recommends the IEC use a German proposal, submitted in April by the Deutsche Kommission Elektrotechnik, as the basis for establishing a global standard.

Renault, a member of both the workgroup and the 20-company team that developed the German proposal, demonstrated a connector compatible with the idea in the battery-powered Renault Kangoo Be Bop ZE prototype displayed at the auto maker’s recent annual shareholders’ meeting.

In addition to establishing a standard for the physical plug, the IEC says it is taking the lead in setting standards for a smart electrical grid capable of communicating with vehicles.

Such communication is necessary to avoid unnecessary recharging of car batteries at peak demand times, when air conditioners and TVs are running at full power, the IEC contends. The infrastructure workgroup is dominated by Europeans but includes American auto maker Tesla Motors Inc. and the American-Israeli infrastructure company Better Place.

Renault, Volkswagen, Daimler, Audi AG, BMW AG, Fiat Automotive Group and Porsche AG are members, as are two German suppliers, Brusa Elektronik AG (power electronics and motors) and FCT Electronic GmbH (connectors).

The workgroup, which began meeting in November, reached a consensus on the requirements for a physical plug connection:

  • One plug for recharging at any typical AC voltage and current level worldwide.
  • Compatible with single- or 3-phase electric grids.
  • Able to handle charging at up to 500 volts, 63 ampere 3-Phase or 70 ampere single-phase.
  • Low-cost, robust design for outdoor environments.
  • Redundant safety levels.
  • Locking functionality for security, safety and theft prevention.
  • Compatible with data communication between vehicle and grid.

The Deutsche Kommission Elektrotechnik standard meets those requirements, the workgroup says in its proposal to the IEC. The IEC reportedly is mulling a second plan that has its roots in a SAE International standard developed for a Toyota Motor Corp. plug-in hybrid.

The IEC recently announced its smart-grid initiative after meeting in Paris with experts from 13 countries convened by Richard Schomberg, the American vice president of the French utility company EDF.

“We're starting to provide a ‘1-stop shop’ for the large number of smart grid projects that are being launched around the world," he says.

The IEC experts defined a smart grid as “integrating the electrical and information technologies in between any point of generation and any point of consumption.”

Any standard on a smart grid will be longer in the making than a decision on a plug directive.

The IEC gave work to 19 technical committees and has set the next meeting on the subject for September in Washington. The first project will be construction of a Web portal that will allow developers of smart-grid projects to check on the current proposals for standards.

A smart grid is useful for more than regulating the recharging of car batteries. For example, a smart grid can create a virtual power station by balancing electric resources over a region, choosing the most ecological way to generate electricity.

The potential increase in demand from EVs is a significant factor in making a smart grid necessary, proponents say.

Better Place estimates converting 2 million cars in Israel to battery power would add 40% to the nation’s electricity consumption.

But with a smart grid controlling recharging to low-demand hours, no extra power plants would be required.