Electric vehicle chargers in city centres have never been intended for mainstream charging, an IET expert said after BBC revealed councils have invested in chargers that are rarely used.
“What we want electric car users to do is to charge their vehicles at home, overnight,” said Professor Roger Kemp from Lancaster University in an interview with E&T magazine. “The city chargers are here mostly to provide users with confidence that if they run out of power downtown, there will be a place to charge,” he said, explaining that encouraging people to use fast chargers during peak-demand hours could knock out the power grid.
Last week, the BBC said councils across the UK had invested more than £7.2m in developing infrastructure for electric vehicles that in many cases is barely being used. Following the revelations, several councils have admitted doubting the investment.
The fact that many slow-charging points have been installed in places such as short-term car parks was pointed out by the BBC as nonsensical.
But Professor Kemp said the fast chargers could, in fact, have a completely opposite effect on the environment than desired. “Electric cars could help us substantially decrease carbon emissions,” he said. “But if you charge cars during the day, it would place extra strain on the electricity-generating infrastructure and would require more electricity generation using fossil fuels. That’s not the way toward the low-carbon grid we are looking for.”
However, he said, many problems related to the construction of charging posts stemmed from the fact that standards for electric-vehicle charging had only been agreed by European stakeholders in 2011. Until then, several standards were in use, resulting in some of them becoming obsolete far too early.
Despite being still a tiny minority, the number of electric car owners has been rising exponentially in the past years.
“Infrastructure attracts electric vehicle (EV) ownership,” said Phil Blythe, professor of intelligent transport at Newcastle University. “In the UK, we have the largest EV charging infrastructure in Europe - over 700 public charging posts - and the highest EV ownership per head of population.”
Both, Professor Blythe and Professor Kemp were among authors of the 2010 Royal Academy of Engineering report on electric vehicles, setting out the plans for electrifying UK’s private transport.
The biggest obstacle on the way towards the expansion of electric mobility, they say, is the currently extremely high price of existing electric vehicles. For example, Tesla Motors, one of the market leaders, sells its acclaimed Tesla Model S for some £46,000, about the price of top diesel-powered models of German premium brands Mercedes, BMW or Audi.
“What governments need to do is to encourage development and production of a mass market car,” said Roger Kemp. “Something not exclusively for very rich people but those who drive a Volkswagen Polo or Ford Focus,” he said.
But even then, the electric cars are not going to be for everyone, at least at the current stage of technology development. “With the maximum range of most EVs being less than 100 miles – these vehicles will not be suitable for everyone,” Professor Blythe said. “But remember statistics of the Department of Transport suggest over 90 per cent of journeys in the UK are less than 20km.”
European Commission believes electric car ownership will continue to rise. According to the forecasts, the number of registered EVs in the EU is expected to grow from 45,000 in 2013 to 400,000 two years later.
Electric cars are not only seen as the way towards reducing pollution and weaning off fossil fuels; they are counted on as an integral part of future smart grids – electricity distribution networks that would be able to respond smoothly in real time to consumers’ needs.