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Plugging the gap: What next for Britain’s EV public charging network?

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) are rising, as is demand for charging points. New research commissioned by the CCC shows that although there are challenges to extending the public EV charging network, Britain is well placed to increase both the number and distribution of chargers and kick-start an EV revolution, says the CCC Secretariat’s Ellie Davies.

When the government recently announced an end to the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040, the Telegraph warned that Britain may not have enough charging points for the new generation of cars. In a BBC article, the AA said ‘significant investment would be needed to install charging points across the country’. When I discussed long journeys with a friend who owns an electric vehicle (EV), he admitted he’d be borrowing a petrol car for a trip he’s planning from Oxfordshire to the Scottish Highlands later this year. He doesn’t yet feel confident about the number of chargers available.

EV sales are rising, representing 3% of new UK car sales in December 2017, an increase of 47% on the previous year. But uncertainty about where to charge electric vehicles and how long it might take is clearly a key issue for both current and prospective EV drivers. The Government needs to solve this problem if it’s going to deliver the CCC’s recommended trajectory, which calls for 60% of new cars and vans to be electric by 2030 – just 12 years away.

New research

Research for the CCC by Systra, Cenex and Next Green Car, published this week, sheds new light on the improvements likely to be required to Britain’s public EV charging infrastructure.

First, it finds that EV drivers need varying types of chargers in a range of locations. For example, we need high speed chargers on motorways and major roads, so drivers can top up quickly when they are travelling longer distances than the range of their vehicle allows. In local areas, chargers are needed so people can top up their vehicles whilst going about their daily business, such as visiting a supermarket, cinema or gym. As varying lengths of time are spent at a range of locations, chargers of varying speeds are required. But faster chargers cost more to install, so slower chargers (which are just as effective if drivers are parked up for the day) are likely to be the most cost effective choice.

When it comes to longer journeys between different regions, there are currently around 460 rapid chargers located near major roads. This means that, given the current number of EV drivers, around 55% of long distance travel is already possible without long waits. The research suggests this needs to increase to at least 1170 chargers by 2030 to service the growing number of EVs. This level of charging infrastructure will ensure long queues don’t build up at charging points, and make it possible for 99% of long distance travel to be completed in an EV by 2030.

Of course, charger location is just as important as speed. New modelling indicates that Lancashire requires the highest number of additional motorway chargers, to support EVs on the M6 journeying between the north and south of Britain. Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire also require a high number of additional motorway chargers to serve numerous north-south and east-west routes.

A modest increase

But the overall scale of increase is relatively modest. It reflects a few important developments, including the fact that new EV models are able to travel increasingly long distances before needing to recharge, and that upcoming models can recharge at much higher speeds. Currently, around 27% of long-distance EV trips require a charge en route but rapid developments in battery range mean this could fall to less than 1% by 2030. The newest type of charger can charge at 350kW, which could give 190 miles of range in as little as 20 minutes. Advancements like these suggest that the UK’s EV revolution could be just around the corner.

In local areas, there are currently 2,700 chargers available to the public. As the number of electric vehicles increases, a total of 27,000 chargers located in public parking spaces will be needed in 2030 to allow drivers to top up. Again, charging will take place while the driver is using local facilities.

Business opportunities

There are opportunities here for supermarkets, shopping centres, leisure centres and other businesses. Providing EV chargers could help to attract customers and demonstrate a business’s green credentials. Local authorities may also want to consider installing chargers in car parks they operate and in residential streets with available parking. With more public chargers in local areas, we may well begin to address the concerns of drivers who wish to purchase an electric vehicle but have nowhere to charge it at home.

Although the new research for the CCC is based on the best evidence available, the results should be reviewed regularly as the market develops and as understanding of the behaviour of EV owners (and prospective EV owners) improves. And while it takes account of the proportion of chargers that do not work reliably, the models used can’t estimate the number of charger parking spaces that are mistakenly used by conventional vehicles, potentially blocking access for EVs in need of a charge. Additional chargers accessible from motorways may also be needed at peak times. How long people are willing to wait for chargers and how low they are willing to let the charge in their battery fall before charging may also change. Chargers will be most cost-effective if drivers are able to use any and all types of charger regardless of the connector on their car; whether or not they are part of a subscription service; or whether they have a particular app or membership card. These hurdles add unnecessary complexity to a system that needs to be as straightforward as possible.

Funding and investment

Although the uncertainties are significant and work to assess requirements will continue to develop, the results are generally encouraging about Britain’s potential to meet the future needs of the growing number of EV owners. Investment in additional chargers across the country would cost roughly £530m given current charge point costs. There will also be additional costs in connecting the chargers to the electricity grid. The government has recently announced a £400m charging infrastructure fund in partnership with industry, and Highways England has funding to ensure that a charging point is available at least every 20 miles across 95% of the network. As businesses are also likely to be willing to invest in chargers to attract customers, these committed funds should be able to significantly improve the current network and reassure people who might be tempted by an EV.

The Committee on Climate Change is taking a keen interest and we’ll be monitoring the number and types of charger available across Britain and reporting developments to Parliament in June, as part of our annual progress report.

It’s vital we get this right: investment in the charging network today will ensure the UK is not left behind in the global shift towards cleaner, more efficient vehicles.