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UK needs better charging network for electric vehicles

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It will take more than a few government announcements before enough British consumers switch to electric cars to meet climate-change targets.

Last December, the UK government announced that it will reduce the cost of roadside charging for electric-powered cars. Pricing will remain commercially driven, ministers said, but within a more reasonable boundary and common standards.

Existing costs, up to £7.50 for half an hour’s use of a public rapid-charging point, mean that electric cars can be almost as expensive to run as some diesel cars. This, the government believes, is putting off prospective buyers and is a major reason why the Department for Transport had to admit last year that the UK was only likely to achieve half of the national target, that 9 per cent of cars on UK roads would be electric by 2020. This failure would have a knock-on effect on efforts to reduce carbon emissions and air pollution and meet climate change targets.

In January, a survey for the Institute of the Motor Industry found that although 70 per cent of Londoners like the idea of electric cars, two-thirds of those asked were also concerned about a lack of roadside charging points. Zap Map, which maps all the UK’s charging stations, currently has 6,535 on its records. For comparison, there are over 8,450 petrol stations. As demand for EVs increases, the UK will need a bigger, better and greener electrical charging infrastructure.

Oil giant Shell has already announced plans to fit chargers into its UK petrol stations, in denser urban areas to start with, expected by the summer. But to overcome public concerns that electric vehicles might run out of charge on the way to an important meeting, particularly on longer trips in the countryside where there are fewer charging stations, the UK might consider what is going on in Norway.

Norway has the world’s most extensive electric vehicle charging infrastructure, with 7,632 recharge points for a population of just under 5.3 million. In Oslo, there are free charging stations, part of a range of government incentives to encourage Norwegians to buy EVs. There are now more than 100,000 EVs on Norway’s roads. Last year, almost 40 per cent of newly registered Norwegian cars were electric.

The EV charging infrastructure across Europe has grown by between 30 and 60 per cent a year since 2013. New regulations state that all new houses in EU countries must have an EV charging port as of 2019. So, by 2023, that will amount to 10 per cent of all buildings and parking spaces. There are now 100,000 charging stations across Europe but, until recently, only a few of them included rapid charging points.

Zap Map lists three main EV-charging speeds in the UK. A slow charger, with up to 3kW power, which takes six to eight hours and is best suited for overnight charging at home. Fast chargers of between 7 and 22kW can fully recharge some models in three to four hours. Rapid chargers, 43 to 50kW, can provide an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes. Tesla superchargers deliver up to 120kW, enough to provide 170 miles of range, in 30 minutes. This is still a lot slower than filling up with petrol or diesel, but things are starting to speed up.

Earlier this year, Norway, again, opened the world’s largest fast-charging station, which can charge 28 vehicles in half an hour. The station includes 20 Tesla superchargers, four 50kW DC fast chargers and four 22kW AC charging points.

Electric-vehicle drivers in the Netherlands can charge their cars in 15 to 30 minutes, every 50 miles, along the country’s major highways. A network of stations, delivering 50kW for fast charging, are connected via the cloud for fast payment. Sheltered solar-panelled huts serve all major vehicle brands.

In the immediate future, charging is set to become even faster. Last year, motoring giants BMW, Daimler, Ford and Volkswagen agreed to collaborate on an ultra-fast vehicle charging network across Europe, starting in 2017, at an initial 400 sites.

These chargers will be capable of providing up to 350kW, but according to Abbas Fothoui, a research fellow working on electrical vehicle energy storage optimisation and control at Cranfield University, faster charging might not necessarily be the solution to the UK’s future electric charging infrastructure needs.

“It’s better to charge vehicles during the night and use fast charging in emergencies,” he says. “In the long term, this will reduce costs. Fast charging requires more power, which wears out the car batteries sooner.”

Volker Pickert, professor of power electronics at Newcastle University, doubts whether the UK’s existing electricity infrastructure will be able to handle the greater demand that more EVs and faster charging will place on it. “Charging power can be increased, but only if the infrastructure is in place,” he says.

Pickert believes that to balance the power flow of the complete grid, the UK will need some sort of smart grid system. This, he explains, will give the grid more flexibility to provide electric cars with the right amount of charging power. “We need a system that predicts what the maximum charging need will be at different times of the day and delivers that,” Pickert says.

Fothoui thinks that a system of connected local networks could handle the charging demand in an intelligent way: “This needs the cooperation of both government and the companies involved in grid management.”

Pickert says that this research is ongoing, but there’s no direct answer yet. “One group says we need DC rather than AC, others AC at lower frequencies,’ he says. “What many people do agree on, is that we need more energy storage capacity: relatively large batteries that can charge surplus energy from renewable sources and store it and then make it available when needed.”

In January this year, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced £2.5m of funding to encourage more people and businesses to buy electric vehicles. The plan includes a zero-emission zone in one borough’s town centre, more EV charge points, EV-only parking bays and taxi ranks, and loans of EVs to local businesses.

Last autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said that charging infrastructure installed by companies to support electric vehicles will be eligible for 100 per cent write-off against tax. There is also a £600 subsidy for companies to install double charging points at business premises.

It’s not just the government that is talking up electric charging. Last August, Nissan claimed that there would be more electric chargers than petrol stations in the UK by 2020. David Martell, chief executive of Chargemaster, a company that makes charging units, predicts that within three to five years there will be charge-points at every supermarket, railway station and hotel, and in the visitor bays of every company.

Often, however, the success of green ventures like this is determined less by worthiness of anti-pollution and climate change targets, and more by the economics behind the politics.

Last year, BMW, Bosch and Vattenfall opened an energy storage facility in Hamburg which uses 2,600 battery modules that have reached the end of their in-vehicle life to stabilise the grid and reduce the impact of peak demand.

Newcastle University, Dutch firm Encel and Nissan have a similar idea. Between them, they’ve designed charging points that enable cars to put unused energy back into the grid. The car can charge up at peak times because wind and solar power sources store any unused power and then release it, or even sell it, back into the grid when renewable sources are less productive. This, researchers believe, would be cheaper in the long term by providing energy and balancing to the grid.

The big electricity companies might have something to say about this sort of thing happening commercially in the UK, though.

And this is where economic politics sets the tone. The German government has pledged to replace its nuclear power with energy from renewable sources by 2022. In Norway, 98 per cent of the electricity comes from renewable sources. There’s a cross-party agreement to phase out fossil-fuel cars by 2025.

The UK government has other priorities. It has, for instance, awarded over 100 fracking contracts in recent times and plans to build five new nuclear power stations.

This February, concerns were raised that the government was about to introduce a business tax on firms that use solar roof panels. Around the same time, solar energy providers were vocal in their complaints that solar power is being excluded from the government’s auction of contracts to supply electricity to the grid. In its last election manifesto, the Conservative party pledged to halt the spread of onshore wind farms.

Electric vehicles may help improve urban air quality, but in the overall scheme of things they are only as green as the electricity that powers them.

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