Research into what is holding back more drivers’ move to electric frequently pinpoints the public charging network. But is it better than we think, and how is it set to improve?
The three key issues that are repeatedly talked about when barriers to more widespread electric vehicle adoption are discussed are vehicle price and range, and the charging infrastructure, be that home, office or the wider public network.
It’s a natural extension from the question of range to look at how to replenish a car once that battery power is depleted. But what state is the public network in, and how quickly will that develop to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population of EV drivers? If it’s not already there.
Much of the noise about out-of-order charging points has centred on the Ecotricity network positioned in many motorway service stations. But that’s very much the old breed of charging infrastructure, and companies including BP Chargemaster, Pod Point and Shell NewMotion are developing on the major road network at great pace.
IMPORTANCE OF INFRASTRUCTURE
Charging point company Pod Point predicts that almost all charging will take place at home (60%) or a place of work (30%), leaving just 10% to the public network once the market is established. Pod Point’s head of insight, James McKemey, tells Company Car Today that the firm believes that of this 10%, 7% of charging will happen at “destination chargers” (supermarkets, gyms, cinemas, restaurants), which are places that the car would be parked anyway.
That only leaves 3% of charging as on-route charging – journeys that exceed the range of the electric car where therefore a top-up is required to complete the journey.
In that case is it important?
“You can go months without touching one; that’s not to say they aren’t important, because they’re incredibly important,” says McKemey. “If you don’t have an on-route network, your car is limited to half its range, because suddenly you’ve got to get where you’re going, and you’ve got to get back. It just so happens, you don’t need them that often, particularly if you’ve got regular workplace or home charging.”
The charging infrastructure is developing rapidly alongside the new electric vehicle market, and new charging points are needing to be more powerful than before to provide that on-route service. McKemey says that in the early days of electric vehicles, where the cars’ batteries were smaller, a 50kW charger would be adequate to charge an early Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe model.
“The 50 kilowatt device was a genuine on-route charger, not only that but you needed it quite regularly, so utilisation was quite high,” he says. “Now we’re looking at most cars having a 60 to 70 kilowatt hour battery, and up to 100 kWh in the Teslas.
“Now, 50 kilowatts isn’t good enough for an on-route charger. I’m a massive believer in electric cars and I’m not telling anyone they should spend two hours at a Welcome Break in the middle of the working day.”
He says that the 50kW charger isn’t redundant, but will find a role more in the destination charger where people are happy to be stopped for 45 minutes or longer to eat, relax, shop or work out.
BP Chargemaster has been heading down the route of using its own BP filling stations to place charging points.
“It’s safe to say, from an on-route charging perspective, that the charging would have to be in places that strategically make sense, that people would be passing and would be happy to stop there for a period of time,” says BP Chargemaster head of external affairs Tom Callow.
“That period of time is rapidly decreasing. It’s gone from something like 45 minutes or so, when you had the earliest electric cars, to more like the potential – and I have to say potential because it does depend on the car and depend on the state of charge of the battery – for, say, around about 100 miles of range in about 10 minutes. I think most people would have thought that was a pipe dream even five years ago.”
And that should improve pretty quickly, with the Government stating a goal of having at least six high-powered 150-350kW chargers at motorway service areas by 2023, aiming to deliver 120-145 miles of range in around 15 minutes. That target extends to around 2,500 high-power charge points on the motorway and major A-road network by 2030, and 6,000 by 2035.
According to the Government’s figures in May, when it announced a £500m commitment to improve the EV charging infrastructure, there were 809 “open-access” (excluding the Tesla network that’s exclusively for its customers) rapid charge points, meaning those offering at least 43kW.
Callow predicts that the need for on-route charging is going to be less than might be expected, but he said having it there to give drivers security will be vital.
“There is going to have to be an element of over-investment in public charging to give confidence beyond what is strictly necessary,” he tells Company Car Today.
“If we did some sort of mathematical equation to work out exactly the charging infrastructure required, it probably wouldn’t give people that much confidence that it was enough; it likely wouldn’t feel like enough.”
Charging hubs are also set to crop up, with the first one currently under construction in Braintree, Essex, where 24 350kW charging points are planned. It’s said to be the first of 100 ‘electric forecourts’ in the pipeline from Gridserve in the next five years. The site is touted as an information centre and hub for EV education, as well as housing a supermarket and other retail outlets, and offering wifi and coffee shops.
And the facilities at existing charging points should also improve in time. Aside from the chargers positioned on petrol forecourts or at service stations, many charging locations aren’t in the most attractive of locations, especially at night or in poorer weather.
“We often get people asking for a canopy over every DC charger, and there will come a point where we can all justify putting out loads of this infrastructure,” explains Pod Point’s McKemey.
“Right now we’re competing for your business to get you to our DC charger, and if that becomes the innovation that gets everyone to their charging points, then guess what will happen – there will be a canopy at every DC charger.
“But at the moment you’ve got people trying to get a DC charger in, wrestling with the grid cost, trying to make it work on a shoestring. That consumer-happiness side of it will improve as the utilisation improves and we can justify giving the consumers exactly what they want because we need them.”