By Caroline Copley
ZURICH, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Chargers for electric cars may become a "billion dollar business" by 2017, said an executive at Swiss engineering firm ABB, which is teaming up with governments and companies such as RWE to roll out a network.
Building up a network of charging stations is vital to help fuel demand for electric cars, experts say, with some drivers put off by "range anxiety" -- the fear their vehicle will run out of power miles from a charger.
The Zurich-based group, which makes equipment for oil, mining and utility companies, has announced a string of projects in recent months, including a 6 million euro deal to build 200 fast-charging stations throughout Estonia.
"In about five-years' time the infrastructure side of the business will be a billion dollar business," Hans Streng, head of electrical vehicle charging infrastructure at ABB, told Reuters in an interview. The current global market is worth about $50-$100 million he said.
Pressure to cut emissions and reduce pollution in cities has led to ambitious targets for electric vehicle take-up, with some governments targeting as much as a 60 percent market share for electric vehicles over the next 20-30 years.
Consultancy Pike Research forecasts cumulative sales of plug-in electric vehicles to reach 5.2 million worldwide by 2017, up from just shy of 114,000 vehicles in 2011.
By the same period, there will be more than 1.5 million locations to charge vehicles in the United States and a total of nearly 7.7 million locations worldwide, Pike says.
But big oil companies, like BP and Exxon Mobil, are more sceptical, predicting electric cars will only make up 4-5 percent of all cars globally over the same period.
ABB produces chargers that use both direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). Because DC can carry heavier loads, a battery can be recharged in 15-30 minutes, compared to the six to eight hours it takes with a lower-voltage AC unit.
It has linked up with German utility RWE to investigate how it can integrate its technology into a fully-functioning network.
"ABB delivers the tools for running the grid but does not run the grid. RWE is very complementary there," Streng said.
Another area to work on is how to get businesses selling electricity to the end-consumer. For example, retailers could offer free charging to increase footfall.
"There are many different business models from selling it with Mars bars to charging your car at the hairdresser's. It's like the free wifi model that Starbucks used to sell more coffee," Streng said.
For a company that booked a $1 billion dollar order for an offshore wind power connection last year, electric cars are small change. But ABB is banking on them being big bucks in the future.
Though the development of a car-charging infrastructure is still in its infancy, ABB is hoping a growing demand for electric vehicles will speed-up the need for a more flexible power grid, an area that feeds in to its core power business.
"If you don't take positions now you are too late," Streng said. "The cost of not being there is much, much higher. We're not talking about billions now, but it could be billions in a few years." (Reporting by Caroline Copley; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)