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Queen’s seal for electric ‘filling stations’

•  Charging facilities featured in Queen's Speech
•  Where and how do people want to 'fill up' their electric vehicles?
•  Location, technology issues still to iron out

Andrew Benfield, Director of Transport at ESTA notable part of the Queen’s Speech last month was the announcement that petrol stations and motorway service stations will be required to install electric vehicle (EV) charging points. 

This was just the tip of the iceberg, with more detail on EV policy coming in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. We spoke to Group Director of Transport Andrew Benfield (pictured) about what this high-profile move means for zero tailpipe emissions vehicles in the UK. 

Energy Saving Trust has been involved in a number of recent projects with the likes of Transport for London, Heathrow, Uber, and cities and businesses around the UK, helping them understand the factors involved in EV charging. This has boiled down to some significant insight – not least about driver’s needs.

Andrew said: “If you ask drivers what they like about EVs, they tend to say the environmental benefits, quietness, cost effectiveness and ease of use. Where they have concerns is around range and access to charging infrastructure. 

“It’s also widely known that people don’t like waiting to charge their vehicles, preferring to charge when doing something else, such as working or sleeping.”

Watch more of our short videos on electric vehicles

Where to charge – and for how much?

Predicting where charging will happen is important. Some companies in the field have estimated that in the future, the majority of charging will happen at home or at work, on quite a slow, inexpensive charger. On route charging (such as at service stations) and destination charging (such as at shopping centres) will eventually make up only a small part of charging requirements for heavier vehicles, commercial fleets and those making longer journeys. 

So a reliable, high profile network on the roads is needed, whatever happens. Energy Saving Trust’s recent EV study with Uber found that drivers prefer chargers in three places: at the airport, on high visibility routes on arterial roads, and petrol stations.

The vision set out in the Queen's Speech is 'filling stations' for EVs. However, there is a real tension in the market at the moment because the charging marketing is still relatively young, and you have to get the business model to stack up. Andrew Benfield, Group Director of Transport, Energy Saving Trust

Andrew said: “To operate charging infrastructure on a forecourt, it has to be a rapid charger. They’re more expensive than slower chargers and require a lot of electricity. They need a lot of customers and a long lease on the site also helps them to be financially viable. The question that needs to be answered is whether there is a proven customer appetite for a twenty minute fuel stop in any other setting than the motorway.”

The main existing rapid-charging network is Ecotricity’s, at motorway service stations. But it has recently changed its pricing structure for the second time, resulting in a cost of approximately seven pounds to charge a Nissan Leaf (at 17 pence per kWh and including a three pounds connection fee to those not already customers of Ecotricity) – certainly an illustration of current issues in ensuring charging makes economic sense right now.

Push to uniformity is positive

As well as being convenient for motorists, the new charging points will be required to have common technical and operational standards. A good thing, thinks Andrew. 

He said: “It needs to become less complex, as at the moment there are different adaptors and standards. Having a ‘winner’ of the charging standards battle would be helpful. That would make all charge points easier to use and cheaper.”

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Charging for all

One thing's for certain, there will be more EVs on the roads in coming years, not least because they’re likely to have significantly longer lives than fossil fuel vehicles. 

He explained: “What we don’t know is exactly how long they’re going to last – but the assumption is it will be more than today’s combustion engine vehicles, which have an average life of around eight years. The general thinking is that EVs will out-live them as they’re so much simpler, with fewer moving parts and easier to maintain. 

“This could be 10, 12, 15 years – so there will be cheaper, used EVs in the market reaching new audiences, and a mix of charging requirements into the future.”

But with big targets like those laid down in the Queen’s Speech, charging will have to reach everyone – including more remote parts of the country. This raises some interesting questions about how to support this. 

Andrew said: “What about when we roll these vehicles out into rural areas? There’s an argument that charging will only work there by cross-subsidising, akin to a ‘Royal Mail’ model. This would mean that chargers are seen as a public infrastructure asset, and high-volume, busy charge points are used to reduce the cost of a chargepoint that might be in the highlands of Scotland, for example, and used just once or twice a week.”

Technological challenge

Electric vehicle charging stationIt’s not just providing wide access to charging facilities that will prove a hurdle ahead. Technological advancement, and in particular smart charging, presents a ‘known unknown’ for the industry. 

There are lots of potential service enhancements that would make things more viable, but it’s hard to know which will prevail. Bookability is one key consideration, and a system where you can book a charge point through an app is now available in London. But how payments will work in the long term is a little up in the air. 

Andrew explained: “There are a number of questions remaining here. Will we pay for charging on a pay as you go basis with our contactless cards, or will it go like a mobile phone monthly contract where you can use any charger and pay a monthly fee? Will consolidated billing be introduced, and will it connect to your home energy supply? 

“Also, no one knows where the smart technology is going to be. Will it be in the charge point? Some London boroughs are going down the route of ‘dumb’ chargers in lamp posts, but this requires an expensive cable with a SIM card in it.

“Increasingly, cars are connected. It’s becoming common for even sub-£10k cars to have a 4G hotspot in them, so you can easily see a point where you plug the car in and it communicates with the chargepoint operator to sort out billing. These things need to be figured out to overcome the EV charging challenge.”

Big players take the lead

The latest Government policy should send out a clear message that there’s no going back when it comes to building the capacity to support EVs on the roads. Indeed, some big businesses are already cracking on.

If the likes of Shell or BP, with huge numbers of fuel stations, get behind the technology and make it work, it could have a big effect. Shell are rolling out their own network, and BP have designed their own rapid charger for their fuel stations. They have the scale to do that. Andrew Benfield, Group Director of Transport, Energy Saving Trust

Overall, despite a number of uncertainties ahead, Andrew thinks this latest move to mainstream EV technology is a positive. 

He added: “Government policy sends a very clear indication to the market, and in turn, a highly visible changing network would boost consumer confidence. It could be transformational.”

Find out more about Energy Saving Trust’s transport consultancy services and the On-street Residential Chargepoint Scheme.

Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or tweet us directly @EnergySvgTrust.

Gary Hartley is Energy Saving Trust's expert blogger. He has extensive experience researching and writing on a number of topics, with particular expertise in sustainable energy, policy, literature and sport. As well as providing regular blog content, Gary has also been published in numerous magazines and journals.

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