Willy Wonka & the charging battery

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The golden ticket to widespread EV adoption will rely on a large network of public charging points. Contributing editor, Jordan O’Brien, finds out what needs to be done to grow the UK’s EV charging infrastructure. 

Living with an EV is easy if you can install an electric charger at home, but for those relying on the public network, it can be notably harder depending on where you live. The UK government recently published a league table noting which councils are leading the way in terms of EV charging infrastructure, and for many districts across the UK, it’s just not good enough. 

There are 15,000 public chargers in the UK, but many of those are concentrated around large urban areas. If you live in London, you don’t really need to worry about access to an EV charger as there are more than 4,360 in the capital alone, but for those in Barrow-in-Furness, a town of nearly 60,000 people, there’s not a single charging point. In fact, there are 58 councils across the UK whose district’s have fewer than 10 charging points. 

The UK lags behind many European countries when it comes to the number of charging points, with the Netherlands having double the number of points compared to the UK. Both Germany and France also have more charging stations than the UK, although France has fewer per 100km of road. 

It’s estimated that the UK will need more than 2.6 million public charging points in order to meet the government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050. Thankfully, there are a number of solutions currently in the pipeline that should speed up the rollout of EV chargers. 

Local councils need to do more

Firstly, the government is urging councils to install electric charging points. It’s making money available to local governments in the form of grants, making the burden on the council’s finances lower. Most of that money is part of a £5 million fund for on-street residential charge points, which will fund 75% of the capital costs of installing a charger. 

Unfortunately, many councils have admitted that it’s not only the lack of funding the installation of a charger that is a barrier to growing their EV charging network, but also the power network itself. While a city like London can attract large investment in its power infrastructure, with UK Power Networks spending £1.6 billion on upgrading cabling and installing new electricity substations, smaller towns and cities across the UK can’t afford to do the same. 

While it’s true that a single home with off-street parking has more than enough headroom in their power requirements to charge an EV, the same can’t be said for the rest of the power network. Power networks feeding business districts and town centres have complex needs, and often there may not be the headroom to simply whack in a few EV chargers and call it a day. Instead, they require an application to the distribution network operator, who then has the opportunity to upgrade the network, if needed. 

Unfortunately, the UK’s six DNOs have a lot on their plate, and with applications for EV chargers coming in thick and fast, districts could be in for a long wait before their power infrastructure receives the necessary upgrade. However, the DNOs have committed to making applying for EV chargers easier than ever, with the process streamlined earlier this year, meaning installation times are quicker for those who have ample headroom to install a charger already. 

Leveraging existing infrastructure

There seems to be a trend in the EV charging infrastructure market that sees installers relying on existing infrastructure and adding an EV charging point, rather than installing completely new hardware. We’ve already seen quite a few London lampposts turned into EV chargers, but now we’re starting to see broadband cabinets receive the EV treatment too.

Nearly every street in the UK is equipped with a broadband cabinet, those green boxes at the end of the road, and it turns out those cabinets could be the holy grail for the rollout of EV chargers. That’s because most public chargers are required to be smart, whether it’s for payment processing or energy management, meaning they require a data connection. Hooking EV chargers directly up to a broadband cabinet is a surefire way to get a reliable connection. 

The second major benefit of using broadband cabinets is the fact that they have the existing cable and ducting infrastructure running directly underneath the streets that will require EV chargers. That means it’s easier than ever to just lay the cables in existing ducts, pave over them, and slap an EV charger on top ready for public use. 

There are 19 companies working together on the rollout of this style of EV chargers, including Vattenfall, Cenex and Virgin Media, and it’s hoped that more than 1,200 chargers will be installed across the UK using this method in the next 18 months. That’s not exactly ambitious considering Deutsche Telekom has done something similar in Germany with more than 12,000 of its own cabinets, but at least it’s a start. 

Future investment is needed

The UK government already has ambitious goals for the rollout of EV charging stations across the country, but with the 2019 general election upon us, many of the parties are promising to do even more. 

The Labour party is promising a ‘mammoth expansion’ of the UK’s electricity charging network, committing £3.6 billion of government spending in the rollout of both ‘en-route’ ultra-fast charge stations along motorways, and a mixture of ‘about town’ rapid and ultra-fast charge stations in more urban environments. It’s also planning to create up to 3,000 new jobs for electricians and network engineers, as part of a nationalised industry responsible for the rollout of EV chargers. 

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are promising to ensure that there’s a charge point within 30 miles of each home in England and Wales. The party says it will plough an additional £500 million into electric vehicle infrastructure, on top of the existing £400 million it’s already spending as part of the Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund (CIIF).

Whichever party wins at the December 12 election, it will need to sort out the country’s charging infrastructure sooner rather than later, or we’ll miss that ambitious 2050 net zero carbon target altogether.