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The new wave of ultra-rapid charging technology is giving a major boost to the UK’s rapidly expanding recharging network

More and more drivers are being won over by electric vehicles. According to Leaseplan’s 2019 Mobility Monitor survey, 58% of UK drivers surveyed view electric vehicles ‘favourably’. But do they feel the same way about the recharging infrastructure? Well, no.

In the same survey, 64% of UK respondents pointed to insufficient charging infrastructure as one factor dissuading them from choosing an EV.

The other big issue, at least in the perception of many drivers, is range anxiety. Indeed, almost two-thirds of UK drivers surveyed listed limited driving range as another reason they wouldn’t choose an electric vehicle.

However, a new generation of ultra-rapid chargers has the potential to deal with both concerns. Not only do chargers of any type swell the public network, but ultra-rapid chargers also have the benefit of charging more quickly, so more vehicles can be topped up from the same charging point. What’s more, by reducing charging time, ultra-rapid chargers address range anxiety. If you can recharge in a few minutes, your worries about topping-up on route are dramatically reduced.

 

THE RAPID RISE OF ULTRA-RAPID CHARGING

Ultra-rapid charging isn’t new – Tesla’s Supercharger network has offered powerful chargers with short battery top-up times for many years. But while Tesla’s network is exclusively for Tesla drivers, the new players in ultra-rapid charging are making their chargers compatible with cars from many brands.

Ionity is a joint venture between BMW Group, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company, and Volkswagen Group, with Audi and Porsche. Hyundai and Kia joined the founding partners in the autumn of 2019.

The race to ultra-rapid charging - Ionity is also powered by renewable technology

Ionity is also powered by renewable technology

The Ionity network offers charging at up to 350kW for any car compatible with CCS (Combined Charging System) chargers, all powered by renewable energy.

“Currently we are at 168 stations live with a further 73 under construction, so I think we are quietly confident and making good progress,” says Paul Entwistle, Ionity’s head of press and public relations. “We are still on track to achieve our target for the end of next year which is of course to hit 400 stations in 24 countries.”

In the UK, Ionity is rivalled by the BP Chargemaster’s Ultracharge 150 network. An extension of Polar, the UK’s biggest charging network, the Ultracharge 150 chargers are being installed on BP forecourts.

The aim was to have 100 units installed at 50 sites by the end of 2019. However, the project is moving a little slower than hoped. “The speed of rollout is now largely constrained by the third parties on which we are reliant, such as those providing the grid connections,” says Tom Callow, BP Chargemaster’s director of strategy and communication. “Suffice to say we have already installed more ultra-fast chargers in the UK than any other operator, and we are developing a genuine nationwide network of 150kW chargers to serve drivers right across the country.”

If you can recharge in just a few minutes, your worries about topping up on route are reduced

On paper, the 150kW charging speed seems to put the Ultracharge 150 network at a disadvantage compared with Ionity’s 350kW speed. However, the Porsche Taycan will be the first car compatible with 350kW chargers, with deliveries starting in 2020. So it’s a moot point for owners of any other EV.

Even charging at ‘just’ 150kW is enough to gain 100 miles of range in 10 minutes, BP Chargemaster claims. And Ultracharge 150 has the advantage of offering CHAdeMO as well as CCS connectors, making it compatible with the Nissan Leaf.

 

GUILTY AS CHARGED

There are disadvantages to ultra-rapid charging. One is cost. A Polar Plus customer pays 12p per kWh from an AC charger, 15p per kWh from an AC or DC rapid charger, and 20p per kW hour from an Ultracharge 150 charger. Understandably, a premium service comes at a premium price.

Then there are questions over battery life and charging speed if ultra-rapid charging is used often. In late 2018, Nissan was forced to change its advertised claims over the Leaf’s recharging times because the car could only cope with one rapid charge per day without subsequent charging speed being reduced. This was charging at no more than 50kW, just a third of the power Ultracharge 150 can deliver.

Unsurprisingly, both BP Chargemaster and Ionity say using their network is not harmful to batteries, in part because of technology that adjusts the charge rate to a level the vehicle can cope with.

The race to ultra-rapid charging - BMW i3 using Ionity rapid charger

Fast charging eases EV ownership

“Most manufacturers are now guaranteeing battery state of charge (eg to a minimum of 80%) for up to eight years, and the vehicles have battery management systems that will recognise if the charge rate is too high, and may throttle back to reduce the current coming into the battery,” says Callow.

For drivers of cars compatible with ultra-rapid charging, the growth of these networks can’t come soon enough. They supplement rather than replace less powerful (and cheaper) charging, but establishing a widespread ultra-rapid network is one step towards addressing the concerns of EV sceptics.

David Motton