A lack of charging infrastructure has always been an obstacle to the adoption of electric vehicles. It is also an inherent failure of the free market that no commercial company is likely to invest in charging infrastructure without electric vehicles to use it, and it would be difficult for vehicle manufacturers to sell electric vehicles where there is no charging infrastructure. The tendency is for no one to take the lead.
Need for Leadership
The ideal would be for national governments to understand and accept their proper role in providing leadership. They should provide coordination and enabling provisions for charging infrastructure as part of their strategy to bring about a transition to all-electric transport. However, many governments do not seem to have much of a strategy, at all. They are not responding sufficiently to make the changes so desperately needed to avert the worst effects of catastrophic changes to our climate. This lack of government leadership in the planning and installation of charging infrastructure has allowed competing interests to provide charging stations of whatever kind and at whatever location that has suited them.
Tesla Charging On
Tesla recognised the need for well-planned charging infrastructure and has provided a very adequate and growing network of charging stations for Tesla cars in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, the UAE, and some other areas. However, while that is good for Tesla and Tesla drivers, it is of no benefit to drivers of any other electric vehicles.
Ecotricity — A Promising Start
In the UK, Dale Vince of Ecotricity had the foresight to set up a network of rapid chargers sited on all of the motorway service areas. Apart from areas where there are no motorways, such as in East Anglia, this has provided a reasonably adequate charging network for electric vehicles in the UK. The chargers were financed by Nissan and the EU, and that has certainly helped Nissan to the #1 spot for EV sales in the UK.
The Also-Rans — Widely Dispersed
Elsewhere in the UK there has been a piecemeal development of “level 2” and “level 3” chargers provided by competing organisations with no coordination or planning. There is a plethora of different memberships, cards, and smartphone applications required to gain access to the charging stations and pay the varying fees. This has not made it any easier for electric vehicle drivers to plan their journeys with charging stops. It is an easy matter to identify where the chargers are, but another matter to ensure access to them.
Ecotricity Failing to Keep Up?
As electric vehicles become more and more popular, the Ecotricity charging network is likely to become inadequate. There are currently Ecotricity stations with only one charging point available, most commonly there are only two charging points, and very rarely there are more than two charging points. Every motorway service area is going to need an increasing number of charge points to service the increasing number of EVs on UK roads.
When I first started electric driving, four years ago, there were no Tesla charging stations in the UK, and I would often have to share the available Ecotricity charging points with Tesla drivers. Also, at that time, Ecotricity charges were free to use without payment, so the available chargers were often taken up by people who did not really need to use them, such as plug-in hybrid vehicles whose drivers were just saving money on fuel. Since Tesla has rolled out their charging stations in the UK, and Ecotricity are charging people £0.30 per kilowatt-hour, I encountered little competition for quite a while when needing to charge at the Ecotricity charging stations. However, it is notable that I have been encountering more and more drivers at the charging stations recently, and have been in the uncomfortable situation of keeping other drivers waiting while I am occupying a charge point — or having to wait myself. I had hoped that the number of charging points, and the number of stations provided might increase significantly with greater demand, but this has not been the case. I have reached out to Ecotricity for comment, but have not heard anything at the time of writing.
New Race Promoters
My hopes might be met in unexpected ways, however. It would appear that the UK government are finally waking up from their long slumber and have set up an investment fund to enable the development of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, amongst other things. The President of the Board of Trade, Liam Fox, announced the launch of the UK’s first Energy Investment Portfolio, worth an estimated £5 billion, at a meeting of the board in Swansea, Wales, on November 15th, 2018.
Gridserve — The Clear Winners, Possibly
It seems that £1 billion of that government investment fund has enabled an organisation referred to as “Gridserve” to set up large electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, with up to 24 charge points at strategic points along the UK’s extensive road network. These will be akin to the service areas on motorways, with extensive parking and a lounge for drivers and their passengers, with all the usual facilities. Some might actually be sited at the Motorway Service Areas. Some are to be powered by on-site solar farms and battery banks, and some from the grid. New renewable energy farms will also be set up to feed into the grid all the power required, so that all electricity would be 100% renewable. The chargers will have a power capacity of up to 500kW for cars, which is 10 times the current level 3 standard of 50kW capacity, and several megawatts for large commercial vehicles. We have nothing like this at the moment, and even Tesla stations are not comparable in the number and capacity of chargers. Currently, Tesla stations are much better than any provided by any other organisation. Tesla stations are mostly sited at motorway service areas, where extensive parking, shopping, dining, and leisure facilities are already provided.
However, it seems likely that, although Gridserve’s EV charging stations will be a good help, this might be yet another commercial, uncoordinated development with no reference to existing facilities, and accessed by proprietary means of access and payment, creating yet another layer of complexity and fragmentation on what is already a deeply fragmented system. It could be that they will provide a network of such excellence that all others will become mainly irrelevant. However, if these facilities are not sited on the motorways, which are the main routes most people use, they will be of limited value, only supplementing the existing network. It remains to be seen, but there is currently some uncertainty.
Questions & Answers
To find out more, I put the following questions to Gridserve and got the subsequent answers:
I read some time ago about National Grid conducting a survey of intersections between the grid network and the road network to identify sites where charging stations could be run directly off the grid, bypassing the local power infrastructure, to enable very large power drains to be sustained. Is this project for Gridserve EV charging stations partly a result of that? (I note the proposals for dedicated solar farms, which are obviously not part of that.)
- Our project isn’t a result of the National Grid survey. However, some of the fundamental reasons behind the project are the same. For example, there is clearly a requirement to provide fit for purpose infrastructure that delivers a significantly greater customer experience than the charging experience of today. Ultimately, National Grid is looking at it from their perspective of big projects which can pull energy from National Grid transmission substations into the service station network. Whilst that’s of great interest to us, we’re coming at it from more a customer-focussed perspective and looking at where the right infrastructure needs to be for EV drivers. We of course continue to work closely with National Grid on all our projects.
EU legislation requires “ad hoc” access to all public charge points, meaning that anyone should be able to charge up at any public charge point without pre-registration or holding exclusive cards or smartphone apps. The best way of implementing that would be to make all chargers, everywhere in the UK, accessible using credit and debit cards, as that is the universal access and payment method that everyone uses. What will be the access and payment method of these new charger facilities?
- We will have multiple options for payment at our Electric Forecourts. The most important thing to note is that all chargers will be open access, allowing payment to be made by credit and debits cards. However, we also plan to offer the option of a membership which will involve a modest monthly payment in return for significantly reduced energy costs.
So far, there has been a total absence of any central-government planning for charging infrastructure, and developers have been allowed to place whatever charging facilities wherever they like. This has led to a fragmented system lacking any kind of co-ordination. At least the Ecotricity chargers have been placed at motorway service areas, which were planned and specified by the Department of Transport back in the 1950s and ’60s. They are, currently, the only rational, and coordinated network we have for public use. Is there any coordination with other providers to follow a central plan, or will these charging stations be built haphazardly, as before?
- We have been working for the past three years, looking at over 6,000 potential sites, to identify the best possible locations for a UK-wide network of Electric Forecourts which can effectively serve a whole range of electric vehicles. We use over 40 different criteria to identify the best possible sites, looking at factors such as grid connections, access to major road networks, and proximity to local populations.
The EU has now stipulated that all public charge points must provide a CCS connector for level-3 charging. Currently, the majority of EVs on UK roads use other connectors, such as older Tesla cars using their own proprietary connector, Nissan and Mitsubishi using CHAdeMO, and Renault using Fast AC through a Mennekes connector. Will these new Gridserve stations provide for all of these systems, and if so, will it be a case of all units in the station providing all, or all 4 types of connector being distributed amongst different units in some way? What precise arrangement will they have?
- Our ultra-rapid chargers, we will typically have both CCS and CHAdeMO. However, we will also have a number of AC chargers which will use type 2 Mennekes. Over time, we anticipate that fast charging will focus on CCS. However at this point in time, we plan to cater for the multiple manufacturers on the market today, to insure that all vehicles will be able to charge effectively and quickly at out Forecourts.
The one place we desperately need more charging points is at the motorway service areas, where, currently, there are from 1 to 3 units at any one station. Will any of these new Gridserve charging stations be sited at the motorway service areas? If they are only going to be sited off the motorways, then EV drivers would have to leave their route and make a detour just to charge up, which would not be ideal, and make them much less useful than otherwise.
- GRIDSERVE is currently in discussions with a number of motorway service station providers to provide adequate EV charging across the UK.
Their scheme of Gridserve EV charging stations seems excellent, but we shall have to wait to see how these plans unfold to get any real idea of the added benefit to EV drivers in the UK. I still live in hope that the current government will, one day, either be replaced by a responsible government or wake up to its responsibilities and force all suppliers of public charging facilities to provide universal access to all EV drivers, without any prior memberships, cards, or proprietary smartphone applications. They should also have a national plan identifying all the sites where charging stations are needed and invite providers to tender for contracts. Any sites where no private provider wants to build should be provided and maintained by a public sector body.
I leave you with an extract from the Gridserve press release (they refer to their charging stations as “Electric Forecourts”):
The Electric Forecourts® will offer:
- Rapid charging – Each vehicle will be able to charge at the fastest power it can support, with an ultimate rate of 500kW for cars and light commercial vehicles – the world’s fastest – offering less than 10-minute charge times. There will also be multi-MW charging options for buses and heavy goods vehicles.
- Competitive pricing – GRIDSERVE is investing in grid infrastructure and new solar energy capacity to be able to deliver dependable, clean, low-cost energy that materially improves the business case for electric vehicles, and be competitive with, and complimentary to home and destination charging.
- Minimal waiting – Typical configuration includes up to 24 ultra-fast charging bays, with batteries to support the maximum power requirements of all chargers simultaneously. A new queuing system will also minimise waiting times, and allow customers to be able to reserve charging slots in advance.