Electric vehicles are fantastic. The punch you get with the instant throttle response, the insanely good efficiency, the crazy low running cost, and the time savings if you can charge the car at home or work. The problem is the public charging network and the apparent 30% of UK households that can’t charge at home, so let’s talk about it.
The public charging network, according to Zap Map, is made up of a little over 20,000 charger locations, and nearly 34,000 chargers. Compare that to petrol stations where there are only about 8,400 in total, it sure sounds like there are plenty of chargers already available – but of course the main difference is the time spent at those stations. When filling up with petrol or diesel, you spend around 5 minutes filling up. For an EV, even at the fastest 350KW chargers, a full charge takes between 15 to 20 minutes, but seeing as there are only a handful of those chargers here in the UK and a handful of cars that support it, you are more likely to be using one of the 4,000 “rapid” chargers instead. Those are between 25 and 99kW, which can take over an hour or more.
The vast majority of the chargers are what Zap Map calls “Fast”, which is anything from 7 to 22kW, basically all of the public AC chargers, although I’m not sure I’d call them “fast”. Even for a small top up, on a small car like the Renault Zoe, at 7kW a full hour of charge would only net you just 14% more charge, or something like 20 miles more range. So, if the vast majority of the chargers are likely to be tied up for hours at a time, you start to realise just how many chargers we actually need. Even if it was one charger for every 10 cars on the road, we’d still need over 3 million chargers, or about 100 times more than we have now.
On top of the sheer quantity, the horrendously fragmented system makes the whole process a lot more annoying. Want to charge at the PodPoint chargers in Tesco car parks? Cool, you need the PodPoint app and an account with them. Want to charge at a bp pulse charger? Well you could pay with your contactless card, except if you pay for their membership you get 20% off the charging costs. Now I’m happy to say that a lot of the brands are doing away with subscriptions and going with flat rate, but there’s another catch.
Because of the average time at the station being so high, if you arrive at a charging point with fairly little charge left in your car and find that the charger is broken or in use, you’ll either have to try and find another station within range – and hope that one is available – or wait even longer for a space to be free. Now the good news is that EV adoption isn’t quite at the point where the existing charging network is overwhelmed, but it isn’t far from it. With most charging locations only offering one or two chargers it doesn’t take much for you to be out of luck.
It’s also worth talking about just how much energy we use per year on transport here in the UK. We travel around 280 billion miles per year in our cars, which at a generous 40MPG means we use about 32 billion litres of fuel. Depending on how efficient the engines are at converting that fuel into useful power, you can expect to be using between 2 and 4 kWh of power from that litre. Even being generous and saying it’s only 2kWh, that means to replace all cars on the road you’d need to find an extra 65GWh per year. If you are less optimistic, that could be as high as 150GWh instead. That’d be 50% more energy than we currently use, nationwide.
This isn’t a UK only problem, California had to ask its residents to not charge their EVs to reduce strain on their grid over a swelteringly hot summer. Especially with temperatures rising here in the UK that could be a concern here too, and would only worsen if the grid needed to supply 50% more energy annually.
It is worth noting a significant factor in this discussion though, which is that the way you live with an EV is pretty different to an internal combustion engine car. With say my Audi S4, the only choices I have when it comes to fueling it are which station to go to and how long do I want to leave it between fill ups. Generally you run it to mostly empty then go fill up to the brim and that’s it. You need fuel when you need fuel, and you detour your route to get more.
With an EV, especially if you can plug in at home or at work, how much charge you have for everyday travel becomes irrelevant because it’s always pretty much full. It’s only when you need to go on longer journeys that public charging becomes a concern. Of course, that’s a pretty privileged position to be in, being able to charge at home or work, so for those that can’t it’s a bit more of a concern. Sure, you can plug in at Tesco when you go for your weekly shop, but even at 7kW and a whole hour shopping you’ll only get around 10% of a charge.
So, what can we – the collective we that is – do about it? Well I’d start with both local and national government support. On the national level some requirements for standardisation for pricing – for example BP will charge a regular, non-registered customer 65p/kwh at a 50kW DC fast charger, whereas they’ll charge paying subscription members 52p/kwh. GRIDSERVE will charge you 48p/kwh for a 50kW DC fast charger, and Instavolt now charges a flat fee of 66p/kwh. That’s a huge difference for the exact same product, often in functionally the same location.
On the local level, councils can install chargers themselves (a great way to collect more tax revenue to help improve the local area even more!), or at very least provide funding and incentives for private companies to do it instead. Equally, a push for more renewable sources of power (like wind and solar) would be great too.
The real solution though is pretty simple. Better public transport. No seriously. The more people who can commute to work or go to the shops by bike, bus, train or tram, the less electric vehicles we need in the first place. The less space they’ll take up in rush hour traffic, the less environmental destruction is needed in lithium mining or child labour exploitation from mining cobalt. The cheaper and easier the public transport, the better a town or city will be. The solution for all those people that can’t charge at home, and the ones that can, is to not need the cars in the first place.