The importance of charging networks in the uptake of electric vehicles

by | Oct 1, 2015

Appeared in Mundo Electrico Magazine

Transport is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and in the global challenge of climate change, the spotlight has been turned to ways in which the world can reduce transport emissions. One of the most promising solutions to improve air quality problems in cities, reduce the transport impact on climate change and contribute to energy independence is the electrification of transport. The uptake of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles has therefore been seen as a key driver that will provide a solution towards reducing urban pollution.

To date, however, there has been some major barriers to increasing e-mobility and the main blocker to greater electric vehicle (EV) uptake comes from perceived ‘range anxiety’ in the absence of an appropriate EV recharging infrastructure.

Dr Colin Herron, Managing Director of low carbon consultancy, Zero Carbon Futures, based in the UK said: “Range anxiety is still the largest barrier that people cite when they are thinking about purchasing an electric car. Studies across Europe all tell us the same thing – that until there is a network of visible, public charging throughout towns, cities and countries, then people will not consider EVs as a viable option.”

In the UK, it is the Government’s ‘Office for Low Emission Vehicles’ (OLEV) which has been responsible for developing policy surrounding EV uptake. In 2010, the Government launched their Plugged in Places programme which provided funding and support to areas of the UK to install and develop electric vehicle charging networks.

One of the areas chosen by the Government to install the first regional network was North East England. The aims of the programme were to gain experience in creating and operating EV charging infrastructure and to feedback the learnings of the projects to Government to inform future EV policy.

Josey Wardle, Infrastructure Manager, Zero Carbon Futures, who oversaw the development of the network in North East England, explains: “The primary aim of the project was to encourage electric vehicle uptake. When we began the project in 2010, there were very few electric vehicles on the road and therefore it was a very difficult task to persuade local councils and businesses to get involved and work with us to install charging points on their land. No one had even seen an electric vehicle and in the early years some of the charge points were not well used. However we strongly believed that it is only when drivers see charging points in public places that EV ownership will become attractive.”

In the three years of the project, North East England installed over 1,000 charge points in an area that covers 8,600 sq kilometres and four cities. Grants were provided to individuals, companies and public bodies to encourage them to install charge points on their premises ahead of the expected surge in EV sales.

By 2013, the region had far more electric vehicles per head of population than any other part of the UK and this corresponded with the fact that the region had more charging points than any other region outside of London. North East England continues to become a hot-spot for EV ownership.

Since 2010 however there have been some major changes in standards, with new makes and models of electric vehicles entering the market. Recharging technology has been driven by the EV manufacturers and is still something that is constantly evolving. In 2010 the majority of EVs in production required only 3 kW AC or the 50 kW DC Chademo rapid charging protocol. 7 and 22 kW AC requirements followed, and in 2013 the Combo rapid charging protocol was introduced to the UK and Ireland with BMW’s entry to the EV market. These new technologies presented problems for the early recharging networks, adding cost in the provision of new hardware and software and raising the issue of lost revenue opportunities as a result of different connector designs promoted by different EV manufacturers.
Wardle, continued: “One of the most critical challenges for any Government or agency responsible for overseeing electric vehicle infrastructure is to make sure that the charging networks are of the right type and in the right location. There are so many considerations and suitable locations are driven by power availability, location, access, ownership, parking capacity, and visibility, each of which can be controlled by different stakeholders. We also need to take into account what the drivers want and need. A successful network strategy is therefore one that considers a mixed estate which is made up of the appropriate type of charge points in homes, workplaces, public spaces and also on motorway services.”

It is still widely accepted that EV drivers will want to rely upon charging at home however studies in North East England show that drivers only charge at home for 50% of the time, primarily charging overnight, which shows a need for public charging facilities through the day.

Hetal Shah is Head of Go Ultra Low, a national campaign which has been developed in the UK as a jointly funded partnership between industry and Government. She said: “The majority of plug-in car and van drivers only need to use public charge points as a back-up to their day-to-day home or office charging routine. Sceptics often question the usability of the roadside charging network, but they are important for electric vehicle owners.”

Public charging provision is seen by the UK Government as taking on two overlapping but different roles: meeting the needs of existing EV drivers and addressing the concerns of potential future owners about buying an EV. Standard, public charging points tend to deliver 3 or 7kw of AC power and are suited to locations where drivers are likely to stop for a few hours such as work, retail or leisure facilities. Often referred to as ‘destination charging’ they are ideal for supplementary use and allow drivers to ‘top-up’ as they go about their daily lives. However by placing them in locations where non-EV drivers are also likely to visit, they are helping with the visibility, raising awareness and changing people’s perceptions.

The large-scale introduction of rapid charge points in the UK are adding to the picture. Rapid Charge Points can deliver 43 kW AC power or 44/50 kW DC power, and with the ability to charge an electric car in around 25 minutes, they provide a much more convenient option for drivers wishing to take longer journeys. For that reason these types of charge points are best suited to locations such as along the main roads and motorways of the country.


Usage data from North East England has provided valuable insight into the historic recharging demand from EV drivers and analysis suggests that rapid chargers are used more frequently and deliver more energy per recharging transaction than standard chargers, suggesting they are a more valuable component of the estate. The rapid chargers in this area deliver a much higher proportion of the transactions (15%) and total energy (16%) than their composition proportion suggests (2%). Conversely, the public standard chargers delivered a lower proportion of the total transactions (43%) and energy (35%) compared to their composition within the public and workplace estate (55%). This suggests that EV owners would prefer to use rapid chargers if they are available and that there may be a risk to hosts and operators investing in standard charging infrastructure, as it may not be used and therefore the desired return on investment may not be achievable.


As crucial as these rapid charge points are to drivers, it must be noted that they are overall much more expensive to purchase and install than standard chargers: up to 10 times more. As recharging infrastructure falls outside of the EV manufacturers’ traditional area of activity, there is an ongoing debate about who is responsible for recharging provision and ownership and the European Union has stepped in to support the development of rapid charge networks. Six projects are now working throughout Europe to install rapid charge networks to support the EU towards its goal for the de-carbonization of transport and contributing to the target of a 60% reduction of CO2 emissions from transport by 2050.


In the UK, it is the EU-funded Rapid Charge Network project that is currently installing 74 multi-standard (with charging facilities for all electric vehicles) rapid charge points on the main motorways of the UK and Ireland. The project is not only about the development of such a network but it is also one of the largest studies of EV charging and driver behaviour in Europe. The study is monitoring the use of the charge points which has so far supported over 900,000 km of electric driving.


Josey Wardle, who is also project manager of the Rapid Charge Network in the UK, said: “We see rapid charge points as being key to the introduction of electric vehicles into mainstream use as they are allowing drivers to extend their journeys and take journeys that before would not have been possible. Since the project was launched in 2014, the rapid charge points on the network have been used 16,000 times and we are already seeing queues at some of our locations showing us that the demand is there now in the UK.”


The development of future charging networks is of course driven by EV sales. The EV market in the UK has recently undergone a significant expansion, both in terms of the number of EVs being sold and the proportion of all new car sales they now represent. In the last quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015 sales of EV represented over 1% of new car sales for the first time. Despite early predictions that EVs would only be driven for low mileages, research in the UK and other countries also indicates privately owned EVs are being driven for comparable mileages to ICE cars. The real issue for the UK is to continue to monitor both sales figures and use of charge points and accurately forecast needs. These forecasts will be critical in influencing and ensuring the success or failure of business models for on-going operation and any additional provision.


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