One of the most widely held beliefs about electric cars is that the public charging infrastructure isn’t very good and that it will struggle to serve the increasing number of electric cars pouring onto our roads. I’ve always been sceptical about this. By 2019, for example, it was already being reported that the UK had more public chargers – 9,000 – than conventional filling stations. Admittedly that’s a bit of an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison, but it nevertheless points to comparatively lavish provision for a category of vehicle that accounted for only 38,000 sales that year in a total market of 2.9 million cars.
And that’s without the flood of new investment pouring into public charging as the switch to electric really starts to take off. Perhaps the biggest sign that change is coming are the ambitious electric vehicle (EV) charging plans announced by BP and Shell. If the oil companies don’t adapt, the fuel forecourt end of their business will eventually die out completely.
BP, which made its first big move into EV charging with the purchase of Chargemaster, now renamed BP Pulse, back in 2018, is already installing rapid chargers at existing filling stations, but in March it entered into a partnership with the EV Network to develop new charging hub sites as well. The first of these is expected to open this year.
Shell announced its new low-carbon strategy in February 2021, and followed up shortly afterwards with plans to transform its filling station network by installing 5,000 rapid and ultra-rapid chargers by 2025. Shell owns about half of the sites that carry its branding and these should each get at least one or two chargers during this phase, while one site in Fulham, London, is already going all-electric. Shell has also bought Ubitricity, a company that made a name for itself with its 2,700 or so on-street chargers, some of which are neatly integrated into lamp posts.
Motor Fuel Group (MFG), one of the UK’s largest independent operators of filling station forecourts, announced plans in March 2021 for 2,800 rapid chargers to be installed at 500 of its 900 or so forecourts over the next ten years. The estimated cost for this project is a cool £400 million.
A new entrant, Gridserve, has already made quite a splash with its electric forecourt concept, which is something like a normal filling station or motorway service area, but with rapid chargers instead of petrol and diesel pumps. The first of these forecourts has already opened at Braintree in Essex and there is a pipeline of about a hundred further sites for the future.
But now Gridserve is involved in a new initiative that may give a much bigger near-term boost to the UK’s EV infrastructure. The company has entered into a collaboration with Ecotricity, which operates the Electric Highway, the existing main network of rapid chargers on the UK motorway network. This network was launched in 2011, and Ecotricity deserves a great deal of credit for pushing ahead so boldly with the building of rapid charging facilities at a time when there were so few EVs on the road. The flip side of that pioneering early launch is that much of the Ecotricity equipment now really needs to be upgraded to meet the requirements of the latest EVs, which have much larger battery packs and can handle significantly faster charging rates than the older models. And this is where Gridserve comes in, taking a 25 per cent stake in the Electric Highway, investment that brings with it the replacement of all of the existing network of chargers and a doubling of capacity. All of the new units will be capable of accepting contactless payments
And these investments are on top of those already being made by other big players such as Tesla and Ionity. Tesla’s dedicated Supercharger network is probably still the gold standard for EV charging, and Tesla buyers often cite its convenience as their main reason for choosing the brand. Ionity is backed by the financial heft of BMW, Daimler, the Volkswagen Group, Ford, Hyundai and Kia, who know that their futures depend on a successful transition to electric.
I think these big investments should help to ease concerns about the quality of the charging network, and in particular they should put to bed one of the most common objections to EV ownership – the difficulty of charging for drivers who don’t have access to their own home chargers or off-street parking. Access to filling station style ultra-rapid chargers has the potential to completely transform