This post is by Morgan Jones, data analyst – UK, at Transport & Environment.
It is widely accepted that the electric car charging network is not up to scratch, but there are now 37,055 public charge points in the UK. The network has more than doubled in the past three years, and growth is picking up across the country. Despite the huge increase in the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, outside of exceptional circumstances, the installed capacity remains in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone: neither too many underused chargers nor too many queues to charge. Taking a long term view, we’re doing well so far.
Furthermore, barring an onset of complacency, targets for expansion are within reach. The government’s aim of 300,000 chargers by 2030 will be met if the current trend of 30 per cent annual growth continues. This does mean keeping up the acceleration of installations which should happen with the opening of the government’s generous LEVI fund and greater commercial opportunity for charging companies as the EV fleet grows.
Why is charging capacity still perceived so negatively?
The 37,000 public chargers and almost as many workplace chargers, as T&E found last year, seems like an abundance in contrast to the roughly 40,000 petrol pumps sufficient to refuel the UK’s cars.
We estimate this makes the average utilisation rate for UK chargers just 15 per cent. Currently, there is a generous 1.15kW of charging capacity per fully electric vehicle which is more than six times the theoretical capacity required to provide the energy each vehicle needs.
There is adequate capacity, looking only at the numbers. But this isn’t what the public perceives when evaluating the network and whether or not to buy an electric car. The power of negative media images, such as queues for chargers, to delay electrification is out of proportion to the actual problem.
There were queues at Christmas because of distorted demand. These were caused by a combination of high traffic, in what are usually adequate facilities, and an economic incentive to use chargers belonging to a certain network rather than pay more at others. The result was a batch of negative headlines.
But no one would normally blink twice at petrol station queues over busy holiday periods. Just because different standards are being applied to the EV story doesn’t mean these reactions should be dismissed. We know one of the major barriers to EV purchases is the perception of the charging network, so the network needs to be more than adequate to enable and encourage uptake.
Widespread coverage should be the priority
In boosting the reputation of the network, occasional choke points are not the priority, at least not for public investment. We should focus on adequate charging throughout the country. An additional charger that prevents a queue at Christmas but sits unused the rest of the year would be better placed somewhere else that visibly and usefully expands the network for everyday use. And underused chargers tend to become poorly maintained. An unreliable network is worse than a busy one.
This is emphasised by what we see in a regional breakdown: installations are picking up, though some areas are behind. Getting a strong countrywide network should be the priority for public funding before extra capacity at pressure points is installed.
We should prioritise more chargers over faster charging
Over the past four years there has been a slight but steady increase in the average capacity of chargers. This reflects the needs of the current market, but not necessarily those of the future. If we want to provide a lot more charging capacity quickly, rapid and ultrarapid chargers provide more with fewer installations. But, as we can see from the low utilisation rate we estimated above (15 per cent), it isn’t necessarily capacity that’s the issue in all but a handful of circumstances.
Until now, drivers have charged at home around 75 per cent of the time, so rollout has been focused on visible widespread coverage. This makes sense: even if there are only a few drivers to service, they still need charging points. Early battery electric vehicle drivers needed chargers at more regular intervals even though they didn’t use them much. That network is beginning to evolve into one that can support regular charging everywhere, and this should be the priority.
The publicly funded network needs to prioritise fairly priced, equitable access. If the easy route of prioritising capacity over the number of locations is taken, there is a risk of the national network becoming too skewed towards higher cost rapid charging, which is unfair to lower income drivers more likely to rely on public chargers, whilst those with access to off-road parking are able to charge overnight at domestic rates which are cheaper.
There is tension between countrywide coverage and prioritising areas with high demand, between public good and commercial viability, between short term bug fixing and long term optimisation. Policy needs to find a balance and, so far, the Department for Transport is managing to steer that course effectively.
So there’s no reason to panic, not yet at least. The network is growing, more funding is coming for expansion and we are far from not having enough capacity for present needs. But, as we shift from early adopters to the mass market, and from covering more ground to filling out the branches of what already exists, priorities will and should shift and policy should change accordingly.