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Parts of the UK's energy grid lack power availability for a new wave of ultra-fast chargers

A recent article in the Financial Times highlighted the fact that some motorway service stations lack the appropriate infrastructure to cater for the growing demand from EVs. With a steep increase in the number of EVs hitting the road predicted over the next ten years, the cost of upgrades could run into the billions – and service providers have to stump up the cash not only at service stations, but across the board.

Much like our railways, roads and household services, whilst the UK might have been one of the first nations to get power to every corner of the country, we've not exactly kept it up to date. Now our somewhat outdated electricity grid is coming not only under strain, it's also under scrutiny with some suggesting that quite simply, it's not fit for purpose.

One of the biggest challenges facing the industry is upgrading the capacity of local grids to be able to handle fast charging speeds that cars can increasingly handle, and consumers increasingly demand. After all, in situations like longer journeys where you want to plug then run, 7kW isn't really going to cut the mustard – unless you're particularly taken by service station food. And prices...

According to Chairmain of RoadChef, Simon Turl in the FT article, one of the major barriers to upgrades for not only service stations, but other places that require grid improvement, is cost. Adding availability costs millions and must be paid to local distribution network operators (DNOs), up-front, and the wait can be up to three years. If the uptake of EVs grows as expected, especially when set against the end of sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, the Committee on Climate Change reckons the UK will need over 214,000 public chargers to meet demand. That's more than a ten-fold increase over present. Over the next 12 months, London alone will get more than 1000 new AC chargers according to a recent announcement by Mayor Sadiq Khan.

That's a lot of upgrades. We spoke to BP Chargemaster – one of the foremost public networks in the UK – about the issue surrounding network upgrades and they were clear about the problems facing companies looking to do their bit by providing charging facilities.

“The cost of large scale (e.g. 1MW upwards) grid connections for ultra-fast EV charging installations is one of the challenges that, as an industry, we need to be able to address to make it more of a level playing field. Currently, a new connection that takes any existing local grid capacity over a certain threshold resulting in significant reinforcement work being required incurs all of the cost of that reinforcement upfront, with any subsequent new connections paying a much lower cost as the upgrade work will have been done. We need a fairer way of dealing with these upgrades – which will no doubt be necessary at many if not most motorway sites – to ensure that one party is not obliged to bear all of the cost,” said a BP Chargemaster spokesperson.

End-to-end green energy and charge point supplier, Engenie, echoed these sentiments. However, Engenie's focus on retail-orientated charging provision is typically more geared-up to the task. Ian Johnston, CEO at Engenie, told us: “We are able to secure sufficient power for at least one rapid charger at the majority of retail sites, but the lack of power availability is still the major hurdle to rapid charger installation. Once the power from a substation has been taken by one party then it will be significantly more expensive for other parties to install EV chargers. However, motorway service area (MSAs) situation is quite different from retail. In retail areas there is a lot of power infrastructure through cabling networks and substations from which new power connections can be created, but MSAs are in remote areas lacking this broader infrastructure.”

Modifying driving behaviour

Existing EV drivers are modifying their behaviour when undertaking a long journey. They'll typically have planned stops where they know charging will be available and have built-in the time to their journey to gain enough charge to continue. A lot of this is born out of experience in making the most of EV ownership, and as it turns out, motorway service areas are possibly the last place you'd want to stop if you want a charger that is more than just a fancy car park ornament.

Poor service station experience is something we're familiar with and Engenie's Ian Johnston echoed our experience: “There's reliability and availability issue. MSAs do offer great options for refreshments for a 15-60 minute break, but unfortunately the MSAs have a bad reputation for a user experience. The bigger concern for us all is that the MSAs are the most obvious and most public example of what an EV charging experience is to non-EV drivers, and hence it risks slowing adoption if it puts people off from making the switch.”

Whether the reliability issues around service areas specifically are related to power supply is unclear, but here again, EV drivers are using the potential issues around them to not only modify their journey behaviour, but potentially to improve it. Engenie's experience shows that it's not just having a charging point that EV drivers are looking for, it's having the amenities there so they can use however long their car is charging – whether a 10 minutes rapid charge or 60 minute stopover.

“EV drivers are starting to choose sites that offer the best user experience – whilst range anxiety has been resolved with bigger batteries, ‘experience anxiety’ is very real in 2020. Drivers will choose sites that not only offer amenities they can enjoy in comfortable surroundings, but also sites where they know the charges are reliable, where they are able to find an available connector, and where they are able to access the charger without any kind of registration or membership hurdles,” said Johnston. On his last point around memberships, especially, there is a significant hurdle to overcome.

Top-down approach needed

In July last year, we asked the question as to whether the government was pulling its weight in aiding EV adoption through the provision of better infrastructure. And we concluded that no, it's probably not. Six months down the line, an election and a lot of wobbling over forward-thinking environmental policy later and not much has changed. To put not too fine a point on it, the government is still lagging.

Engenie's Ian Johnston rounds up the issues here well: “Without doubt we need Government intervention. Hundreds of millions of pounds of private money is being invested in a nationwide charging infrastructure network by companies like Engenie and their peers, which is seeing thousands of rapids being installed each year.

“However, the electricity infrastructure network requires a top-down strategy and investment from Government. The Government has made a number of manifesto pledges for investment into EV charging infrastructure, alongside the CIIF fund and the Project Rapid taskforce – but this investment and focus should be targeting the macro issue of the UK’s power infrastructure, because the private market will deliver the chargepoint infrastructure.”

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