Smart Transport

EV infrastructure (Pt 2): Power to the people

The creation of a convenient and comprehensive public charging network is vital to build confidence for the transition to electric cars and vans, and to keep their wheels turning.

In 1920, the Automobile Association opened the UK’s first roadside filling station at Aldermaston in Berkshire. The 500-gallon storage tank and hand-operated pump marked the debut of a filling station dedicated solely to selling fuel. Up to that point fuel had typically been sold in garages. Over the course of the following 100 years, the UK’s fuel network has grown to almost 8,400 stations, ensuring virtually every driver has ready access to petrol and diesel within a few miles of their home and along the routes of their journeys, with refills taking little more than fiveminutes.

Interestingly, AA patrols attended about 30,000 incidents last year, 1% of its call-outs, because the driver had run out of petrol or diesel. Yet it is the prospect of electric vehicle (EV) ownership that fills motorists with range anxiety. And that’s just one of the challenges facing the EV charging industry as it races to establish a network of charge points that replicate the convenience and comprehensive coverage of filling stations. 

But, instead of having a century in which to find this sweet spot, the industry has less than a decade, following the Government’s announcement that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans is to be prohibited from 2030 and plug-in hybrids by 2035.

In a report published in February, the think-tank Policy Exchange calculated that, throughout the 2020s, the UK needs to install public charge points five times faster than the current rate of 7,000 new chargers per year, based on its estimate that the country will need around 400,000 public charge points by 2030, compared with the 35,000 available today. 

Not only are the scale and timeframe daunting, but the very concept of a charging ‘industry’ as a coherent industry is an exaggeration. 

This is a nascent sector with a multitude of parties involved. National government, local authorities, regulators, electricity distribution network operators (DNOs), public and private investors, charge point manufacturers, renewable energy producers, battery storage innovators and software programmers are among the myriad players negotiating alliances and competing to secure a meaningful place in this new zero emission market.     

Their forecasts differ and solutions vary, but all parties have, at least, reached consensus in one fundamental area – the UK is transitioning rapidly to electric transport.

Cleaner local air will protect and improve public health, especially of communities living in polluted urban areas; while supporting a dramatic shift away from burning fossil fuels and towards renewable energy generation will help the UK to shrink its carbon footprint and play a key role in combating climate change.

Faith in charging

None of this will happen, however, unless private and fleet vehicle owners feel confident in the swapping internal combustion engine (ICE) for electric motors. And survey after survey has revealed that this switch relies on driver faith in being able to recharge their cars, vans and buses when and where they want, without undue inconvenience. The phase out of new diesel-powered heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) is also set to be reviewed, although in this sector hydrogen may prove to be the zero emission answer rather than batteries.

Sales of battery electric cars soared by 186% year-on-year in 2020 to 108,000 units and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) forecasts this vertiginous trajectory will continue this year and next, with annual sales projected to increase to 165,000 cars in 2021 and 250,000 in 2022, which would represent more than 10% of the new car market. 

While the growth rate is impressive, convincing millions of mass market motorists to follow thousands of EV early adopters depends heavily on their confidence in being able to recharge their vehicles.

As a result, the UK needs a comprehensive and highly visible charging infrastructure to sustain the expansion of this fledgling sector, even if this raises the prospect that within a few years some charging stations may prove to be underutilised assets, their usefulness no more than marketing tools used to reassure drivers adopting a battery-powered car for the first time. 

Evidence from Norway, by far the most advanced EV market in Europe, reveals that 41% of EV drivers never recharge their cars anywhere but home – the cheapest and most convenient location to plug in, says Alex Lewis-Jones, manager – EV Charging Research Service at the consultancy Delta-EE.

Local authority role

While many of the levers for accelerating the uptake of EVs, such as tax policy and introducing standards for new vehicle emissions, are in the hands of the national government, local government has key powers at its disposal, too. Responsibilities for transport, planning and borrowing, as well as the ability to harness and galvanise local support for green initiatives, are critical in driving the transition to zero emission motoring.

In particular, local authorities are responsible for framing the shape of the UK’s burgeoning public charging network in their areas, even if their roles and responsibilities are only loosely defined. 

Unlike the management of traffic or the upkeep of highways, for which there are specific laws (Highways Act, Traffic Management Act), local authorities have no official duty to construct charging infrastructure; merely encouragement from central government.

Nor do many have the resource or in-house technical expertise to implement a strategy that combines transport, property, planning, legal affairs, procurement, commercial contracts, grid connections and social inclusion, among myriad overlapping functions. 

As one expert says, after a decade of austerity and a year of numerous lockdowns, local authorities have more important matters to consider than where a driver plugs in an electric car.

Charging officer

To speed up the work required at local authority level to introduce charging infrastructure, the environmental organisation Transport & Environment (T&E), has called for every local authority to create the role of ‘charging officer’.

“Local authorities have been stripped of resources and do not have the staff to be able to support the roll-out of charging infrastructure in many places. We need to create those posts (of charging officer), and give them training and guidance as to what local charging needs to look like.”

Greg Archer, director, T&E

With public charging supply forecast to outstrip EV charging demand for the next few years, Archer says there is still time to establish long-term charging plans, but “after 2025, our analysis shows that the number of charge points that need to go in rises exponentially with the number of electric vehicles on the road.”

Andy Page, future mobility lead at Transport for the West Midlands (TfWM), supports the idea of a charging officer to serve as a council champion, provided the role is funded by central government. 

Within the seven local authority areas covered by TfWM, no council officer currently has EV policy as their sole responsibility. When the region decided to develop an EV strategy it engaged the consultancy Cenex, which published its report in 2020, only to have its 2040 timelines advanced dramatically by the Government’s subsequent announcement of a ban on the sale of new ICE vehicles from 2030.

Page says bluntly that the TfWM region will need, “a lot of infrastructure in a relatively short period of time”.

National framework

This nationwide acceleration has spurred calls for the creation of a plug-and-pay framework that local authorities up and down the country can call upon as a basis for managing the installation of an effective charging network. 

Creating a bespoke framework within each authority is both time- and labour-intensive, and risks reinventing the wheel in a period when speed is of the essence.

“There is a major requirement for local authorities to have an EV strategy and that means working with land owners and DNOs to identify the best location for EV infrastructure and making it as cost efficient and cost effective as possible,” says Tina Mould, capital programme project manager at Oxford City Council. 

“Quite often in local authorities there is not enough financial or technical resource, so I would like to see the Government support that by providing a mechanism or documentation or strategy that explains what needs to be put together and then provide consultancy resource to help with that, so each authority can lay out a roadmap for where EV infrastructure needs to go.”

Any framework would need to address multiple issues, including forecasts for the number and speed of chargers required; procurement best practice (the Crown Commercial Services’ framework for public sector procurement of vehicle charging infrastructure solutions covers seven categories of spend, including funding options, groundworks and civil engineering, charging hardware and management software); the identification of appropriate charging locations; the creation of structures in which local authorities and DNOs can work together; the requirements for data sharing by charge point operators; and standards for the reliability and interoperability of charging networks.

The breadth of such a framework reveals the formidable nature and scale of the challenge ahead, but also serves as a reminder that, even as facilitators, local authorities hold the whip hand in many of these areas through their planning powers, access to public funds, as gatekeepers to council property land, and even through enforcement, with Traffic Management Orders likely to be needed to avoid charging bays being blocked by petrol and diesel cars.

Greasing the wheels of EV infrastructure installation in optimum locations will require the identification of appropriate land, determined by both traffic demand and available energy supply, alongside funding certainty, in a partnership that draws together the public and private sectors. 

Location, location

In its submission to the Competition and Markets Authority’s study into electric vehicle charging, Zouk Capital, which runs the Government’s £400 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund (CIIF), acknowledges that, “local authorities and other public bodies will play a key role… in the provision of sites and access for the placement of public EV charging services.”

Not only do local authorities own prime sites for charging hubs, albeit with competition for those same properties from residential and commercial developers, but they also, effectively, control the residential streets and municipal car parks that will require chargers to support the widespread adoption of EVs. 

“Ensuring that these organisations have the resources and latitude of policy to unlock land and dedicate parking bays in a timely, streamlined and cost-effective fashion will accelerate the build-out of the market,” says Zouk.

Traffic control

Responsible for selecting and approving charging locations, local authorities are being guided by three criteria: the density of EV driver numbers; the resilience of the local grid and substations to support the power demand of charging stations; and wider strategic aims to minimise private car use on congested urban streets. 

It is no accident that Oxford is planning the UK’s largest EV charging station, with a minimum of 50 charge points, 30 fast and 20 ultra-rapid, at a park-and-ride car park on the outskirts of the city; or that Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority’s Commission on Climate Change has called on the authority to work with major employers, employment hubs and Liftshare to encourage car-sharing, public transport, walking and cycling for commuting. 

North of the border, Dundee City Council has strategically placed its fourth rapid charging hub next to a train station, e-bike hire centre and footpath that offer car-free options to access the city centre. The transition to electric motoring is just one piece of a bigger mobility jigsaw.

“We are trying to make sure people don’t drive into the city centre, so we’re putting charging infrastructure where we want the cars to go. We have electric car sharing cars at all our hubs, an electric bike sharing project across the city that harness the hubs, we’ve got a taxi service that’s all-electric.”

Fraser Crichton, corporate fleet operations manager at Dundee City Council 

Grid capacity

The other key deciding factor in where to install substantial charging hubs is the capacity of the local grid. As the speed and number of chargers increases, the risk intensifies of overloading local power supplies. This has led DNOs to draw up ‘heat maps’ that illustrate the available capacity at each substation to accommodate EV chargers.

Patrick Erwin, policy and markets director at Northern Powergrid, points to the granular level of detail published on the company’s open data site, Distribution Future Energy Scenarios, which identifies where the DNO thinks there will be capacity in the coming years. The data insights send a signal to local authorities and developers considering new connections – “let’s try to put chargers on the side of the town that has spare capacity on the network, rather than the side of the town where it’s already full,” says Erwin.

“We are working really closely with local authorities to try to integrate their spatial planning with our system planning.”

This approach could save authorities and charge point operators huge amounts of money. UK Power Networks, another DNO, says a single 50kW EV charger places the same demand on its network as a block of 25 gas-heated flats. Its guideline figures merely for the cabling to connect a rapid charger station to the grid are sobering - £50,000 if UK Power Networks needs to lay new or upgrade existing cables, and a not inconsiderable £10,000 to connect a charge point close to the grid.

Even more expensive issues arise when a charge point operator wants to install ultra-fast (150kW) chargers. These are unlikely to be able to connect to the local low voltage network and will, instead, require an upgraded substation. 

UK Power Networks’ guide price for a hub with up to two 150kW chargers or five 50kW chargers is £100,000, but a more ambitious hub of 10 150kW chargers would require a new transformer, driving the DNO cost up to £150,000. 

A large EV forecourt with 15 or more 150kW chargers leaves the charge point operator staring down the barrel of costs in excess of £400,000 for a new cable laid directly to a primary substation. Such substantial outlay does not even include the cost of the land or charge point hardware.

“Dependent on how many vehicles you want to charge and how quickly you want to charge them, it can range from £1,500 for a single slow-to-fast charge point, to £2m or more for a cluster of rapid charge units,” says UK Power Networks’ guide to fleets.

One solution may lie in a radical rethink of where charge points are located – not taking power to locations where there is no capacity in the grid, but taking vehicles to where the grid has capacity.

Graeme Cooper, project director – transport decarbonisation, at National Grid, outlined the scenario of a city-centre bus company looking to electrify its vehicles, but deterred by the eye-watering costs of grid upgrades to support the rapid charging of massive batteries.

“The bus depot is there by an accident of history. It may have been the right place in the 1960s, but trying to get power in now is cripplingly expensive. So why not work with your local authority to think about moving the bus depot somewhere next to a substation?" 

Graeme Cooper, National Grid

“The local authority can’t make the buses go clean, but it can work with the bus company and say ‘if you want to move the bus station to the substation we will reclassify the land that the bus depot is on for housing.’ The bus depot is then worth 10 times as much and that gives them the money to move the depot close to a substation.”

Battery storage

An alternative solution may be to avoid drawing power directly from the grid, so-called ‘distribution connected charging’, and instead invest in ‘transmission connected charging’, where a giant storage battery provides power back-up, charging itself either from renewable sources or at times when there is surplus capacity in the transmission network, and resupplying local demand to take pressure off the grid at times of peak demand.

Energy Super Hub Oxford is a £40m demonstrator project funded by Innovate, which is connecting a giant 50 megawatt hybrid battery directly to the National Grid’s high voltage electricity network. 

The project aims to deliver a smart approach to decarbonising power for both transport and heating, providing electricity to both EVs and domestic heat pumps, and underpinning renewable energy generation by storing wind and solar power at times when there is excess production to resupply the grid in periods of higher demand.

Coventry and Birmingham are considering similar projects. But storage facilities do not need to be 50mW to be effective. Dundee City Council has allied solar panels on the roof of a multi-storey car park with a Tesla Wall Unit to power charge points in parking bays, and these types of hyper-local micro solutions, which still run into five-figure costs, could play a key role in supporting the roll-out of EV charging infrastructure.

Types of charging 

There is widespread consensus that the lion’s share of EV charging will take place on private driveways – Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority is not alone in strongly recommending that all new residential and non-residential developments with parking provision should be equipped with charging points – but industry estimates indicate that anywhere between 30% and 40% of EV drivers do not have off-street space in which to recharge their cars. 

The problem is most acute in urban and inner city areas with terraced housing and apartment blocks. Calculating how many public chargers will be required in these places, and of what speed, represents one of most uncertain areas of EV infrastructure forecasting. It is important to remember, however, that the charging network will not need a ratio of one charger for every EV. 

Given the seismic improvement in battery ranges and the fact that “half of car drivers use their cars for less than 135 miles per week, they will only need to be charging once every two weeks,” says T&E’s Archer. “Only 4% of cars in the UK are used so much that they are going to be charged every other day.”

For drivers without off-street parking opportunities, most forecasters see the solution as being a blend of on-street chargers, dedicated local charging hubs, destination charging (at shops and leisure facilities) and high speed charging stations. 

But projecting the share each of these will take is challenging and highlights the risk that some EV infrastructure may swiftly become a white elephant, its utilisation rate insufficient to cover either its capital expenditure or on-going maintenance costs.

According to Anant Prakash, division director, Macquarie Specialised & Asset Finance: “Not all EV charging investments will offer the same returns in the near term. A dedicated fleet charger with an offtake or minimum utilisation agreement from a fleet is a more dependable source of returns than a public charger, which carries more utilisation risk, at least in the near term while EV adoption scales up. It is in this latter area, that Government support could be helpful.”

Utilisation could be affected both by lack of demand because EV numbers are not high enough, or by an over-supply of chargers, with reliability and technology obsolescence also factors for local authorities and charge point companies to consider. 

“A faulty charger will have far greater consequences than not earning revenue – it erodes trust in the network when establishing trust is critical in the early days. Technology risk is often considered too, as advancements in battery or charger technology may render current investments sub-optimal or obsolete in the future.”

Anant Prakash, Macquarie Specialised & Asset Finance

Kerb-side charging

At the slowest end of the charging scale are pavement chargers, typically embedded in lampposts and bollards, that provide a grid-sensitive sub-7kW charge to cars parked for several hours. Having chargers within the eyeline of front doors as a proxy for driveway charging is appealing, but the execution is fraught with physical barriers and practical complications that can undermine the business case, says Mould at Oxford CC.

“These are places where people are already competing for parking spaces, and you potentially need planning as well as approval from the local highways authority, so there are lots of barriers to get through before you can get EV infrastructure in the ground,” she says.

Moreover, there is considerable resistance among some local authorities to add to street furniture. EV charging company Connected Kerb reports a conflict within approving bodies (primarily local authorities) between an aversion to additional street furniture and the need for technology to support the transition to zero emission motoring.

“There needs to be a debate on street clutter, seeking to minimise visual and physical impact, but also recognising that conveniently-located EV charging infrastructure is critical, but (until wireless charging is viable and widespread) not yet invisible.”

Connected Kerb

Since most of these chargers will be 7kW or less to avoid overloading the local substation, and charging events are more likely to be top-ups than empty-to-full recharges, the amount of power that a car will draw is limited, even if it is plugged in for longer than required. A half-charged 40kWh Nissan Leaf, for example, could only draw 20kW of power even if it were plugged in all night. In addition, roadside parked cars act as ‘bed blockers’ denying the spaces to other vehicles in need of charging, even when their own batteries are full. This does not leave much room for profit for a charge point operator at current tariffs. 

“It may cost £1,000 or more just to maintain that charger. It’s really difficult to make a business case for on-street charging infrastructure,” says Mould.

Dutch ultra-fast charging network Fastned goes further, telling the Competition and Markets Authority, “there is no clear business case for slow charging based on the sale of electricity due to the still relatively high costs of infrastructure, the low amount of energy sold per charger, and high per-charger maintenance costs that do not see significant economies of scale.”

Its conclusion is that this sector of the charging market will require on-going subsidy and incentives, either from local authorities or property developers mandated to install charge points at new developments.

But eager to catalyse this sector of the market, in February the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles announced a further £20m for its On-Street Residential Grant Scheme, which gives local authorities access to grant funding for 75% of the capital costs of procuring and installing on-street EV charge point infrastructure. Since 2017, more than 140 local authority projects have taken advantage of the scheme, funding nearly 4,000 charge points. The grant can be used to support private sector installations and some investors clearly see long-term commercial opportunities in on-street charging. 

Zouk’s CIIF has a joint venture with Liberty Global to roll-out on-street, residential EV charging, using Virgin Media’s broadband cabinets as power sources. 

And, in January, energy giant Shell bought Ubitricity, which has 2,700 charge points in the UK, largely housed in lampposts and bollards. 

“On-street options, such as lamppost charging… will be key for those who live and work in cities or have limited access to off-street parking.”

István Kapitány, executive vice-president of Shell Global Mobility

A proliferation of highly visible chargers also sends a powerful signal to drivers of ICE vehicles that EV charging opportunities are widespread, but it seems likely that these slow chargers will have to be
supplemented by rapid charging hubs, perhaps centred on public car parks, with a mix of 22kW AC chargers and faster 50kW DC chargers, as well as a small number of ultra-fast (150kW) chargers.

Charging mosaic 

The picture emerging is of a mosaic of charging speeds, accounting for different shares of the market.

“We think about 60%-to-70% of charging will be on slower chargers; around 20%-to-25% by rapid chargers and 5% on ultra-fast chargers,” says Page at TfWM.

But this balance is likely to change, as new vehicle technology not only demands more power but also has the capacity to recharge at higher speeds. Even today, some Tesla Model 3 cars would not be able to recharge their batteries from flat to full in 12 hours at a kerbside charger, and BP Pulse cites research that drivers are becoming more impatient about charging times.

By 2030, as much as 25% of charging could be on ultra-fast chargers, capable of delivering 100 miles of range in just 10 minutes, says Matteo de Renzi, chief executive officer of BP Pulse.

“We see a strong shift of customer usage from slow to fast networks. In the first two months of the year AC usage dropped by 40% while the DC part of our business grew by 50%.”

Matteo de Renzi, BP Pulse

Anticipating driver behaviour in this fast-changing market is a significant challenge for local authorities tasked with forecasting charger requirements and for investors looking to back highly utilised sites.

In London, the mayor’s EV Infrastructure Delivery Plan, published in mid-2019, forecast that between 20,000 to 48,000 slow-to-fast charge points would be needed by 2025, a sizeable increase on today’s 6,000. Three-quarters of the current network have been funded by public money, and a consortium of the capital’s authorities is “cautious to avoid stranded assets with out-of-date technology.”

Private sector involvement

London councils have, however, identified a number of charge point operators that are prepared to fund the installation of charge points, on the basis of future returns.

“It is expected that there will be increased private sector investment as the commercial case improves with increased uptake of EVs creating more demand for public charge points, and there is more certainty about what type of charger is needed, and more confidence in the charging model,” say the councils.

“For strategic hubs we are looking to pass the risk as much as we can to charge point operators – we are looking for consistent income from those sites rather than being the operator ourselves.”

Andy Page, Transport for the West Midlands

Where local authorities do expect to intervene, subsidising and even operating charge points, is in areas where there is an unmet need, but where a private enterprise may not find it viable to deploy chargers. 

Rural districts with lower population densities would be a prime example where a public-private partnership may be required. Centrica suggests that the Government should consider making the provision of charge points in rural and underserved locations a condition of accessing charging funds such as the £950m Project Rapid dedicated to the strategic road network. 

On a similar theme, Chargepoint recommends that national or local authorities issue tenders for charging corridors that would bundle prime sites with more remote sites, to ensure widespread coverage.

Conclusion

As a veteran of both the mobile phone network and wind farm industries, the National Grid’s Cooper draws parallels between both sectors and EV charging.

They are all, he says, technology disruptors, pushed by Government, bought by consumers, requiring significant infrastructure and are governed by strong regulators.

Mobile phone networks and wind farms swiftly matured and consolidated as industries, their subsidies ended and, as with broadband, the Government was left with the problem of trying to ensure ‘not spots’ caught up with the coverage of ‘hot spots’.

The same pattern is emerging in EV infrastructure, only this time there appears to be earlier focus by both national and local authorities on the ‘not spots’.

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  • Paul Grayston - 28/06/2021 09:32

    Very informative couple of articles!

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