Electric vehicles and the charging network: why and when will it appear?

Dave Horton will chair a session on ‘How to Future-Proof Electric Charging Points’ at EMEX from 13:50-14:20 on 22 November in the Renewables, Supply and Storage theatre.

what are the drivers (pardon the pun) for the installation of public electric vehicle (EV) charging points and which comes first, the EVs or the charging network?

More than 60% of all current private EV owners have never charged their vehicles away from their homes – and they don’t see that changing in the near future. So why do we need a public charging network and what are likely to be the catalysts needed for change?

Range to drive network expansion

The why is reasonably simple and straightforward to answer. The more EVs there are and the greater their range, then the more likelihood of finding EV users who are willing to travel further afield for business or pleasure and need to charge their vehicle to get home again.

We also need to think about those drivers who don’t have access to a garage or drive, so can only charge at the street side. Then we have white van man, public transport and taxis, which are moving around our urban areas all day and need to charge on the go.

We should also consider businesses looking to accommodate their customers’ needs. Can they use EV charging to retain current and attract new customers? For example, I’ve discussed this very topic with budget retailers who are looking to install EV charging to bring a different type of customer to their stores.

New revenue stream for businesses

Some organisations also see the potential to create new revenue streams by offering parking with EV charging, especially in the public sector. The opportunity for businesses here is to attract customers through the convenience and necessity of charging, which improves their customer offer relative to their traditional competitors.

So to simplistically answer my initial question – why do we need a public charging network – the answer is for lots of reasons. But none of this answers the more difficult question “which comes first”?

Home charging set to continue

In my view, it will be the charging network for domestic and fleet vehicles that can charge at home. I’m talking about private cars, company cars and some company vans which are kept at the employees’ homes overnight.

The infrastructure requirements are reasonably simple. The data collection and reporting capability – depending on where and from who you buy your charging point – is already available. So many EV drivers won’t need to use public charging points.

Businesses with electric fleet or company cars that park at their sites during the day will need to look at installing EV charging for their staff, and potentially a few extra for their customers. However, these might not be available to the general public.

So, in my humble opinion, we’ll see a slow growth in installation of private (domestic and business) charging points. Then as numbers of EVs increase, we’ll see more demand for publically available points, unless forward thinking businesses have future proofed their customer offer by proactively installing in advance.

Hindering technological advances

However, a slow uptake does create some issues with technological advances in the charging arena. For instance, when will induction charging become commercially viable? We are already seeing BMW and other manufacturers designing cars that don’t need to be plugged in, just driven into an ‘induction’ parking bay to charge.

So do you buy and install the current big charging boxes with leads hanging around the place now, or wait on induction charging and have a nice pad you can just park your car over?

And what about hydrogen fuel cells? Will these become the go-to solution for longer distances, leaving EVs for the urban environment? If hydrogen does become the answer, then there’s no reason to install EV charging at many ‘petrol’ stations, when you’d potentially only need them on motorways or services close to major trunk roads.

Setting the standard for charging software 

There are also questions around charging software, data collection and reporting. What is the standard today, what will it be in the future, how can you charge someone else for using your charging post either at home, in the workplace or on the street?

The role of Demand Side Response products and how EVs or hydrogen vehicles will connect to the Grid in the future is another common area for queries. Will they be used for Frequency Response and will they be able to take a home or office off the grid during peak periods?

Ultimately, do you get today’s technology now – or wait until the new ‘better stuff’ is available?

Creating the right environment for investment

All these questions and considerations are valid – and potentially create infrastructure investment uncertainty while the car manufacturers are making increasingly positive noises. So what’s needed to start the ball rolling and get people investing and taking this seriously? I have an idea or two, some of which may not appeal to everyone. But here goes…

1. Make planning consent mandatory

Central government should legislate that every local authority and planning board MUST include a requirement to deliver the infrastructure needed for EV charging points in ALL new builds (domestic and commercial) and major refurbishment projects. This as a minimum will mean installing the required cabling, metering and distribution boards for a client to be able to invest in EV charging at greatly reduced costs. If the cables, the meter and the fuses are there, you just need to plug your charging point in (a bit simplistic but you get the gist).

2. Standardise protocols

I’m sure some will say this is already the case, while others will recognise that many charging point providers have their own software and data collection networks. Although many claim their equipment will talk to everyone else’s because it’s an open protocol, unfortunately I find this a bit hard to believe. I regularly see examples where problems getting one company’s software talking to another company’s hardware stops or delays investment.

3. A Data Collection Company using blockchain technology

 Again, in my humble opinion, we need to use the Smart metering model of centralising all data collected from charging posts using something like blockchain. Tens of thousands of interactions which are all the same and from which the customer (EV owner) can get all the data they need, then can buy their energy from the supplier they want, at the price they want and use any charging post they can plug into.

Education is the key

So, in summary, I think we in the EV charging world – alongside car manufacturers, energy suppliers, energy generators, grid and distribution companies – have a lot to do to educate customers and government about what is needed to make the monumental shift from fossil fuels in our vehicles to a distributed grid which includes electric and perhaps hydrogen vehicles.

It’s easy for someone to say we are banning all new petrol/diesel/LPG cars by 2040. But there is a lot of stuff to do before that vision becomes a reality, especially as those legislating for this won’t be in power when it actually happens. In fact, some of us probably won’t even be here when it happens!

We need to start today, legislating for the changes needed to get the infrastructure in place, the energy generation and storage in place and all the systems and software talking to each other. This is not complicated and we have already learnt so many lessons in the past from doing similar things (Smart metering being a perfect example) – so we should be able to get this right first time.

The vehicles will be built and sold, the infrastructure will be installed and the technology will keep changing and improving, so our job is to make it simple for everyone now and create a clear roadmap for the EV charging industry in the UK going forward.

So what comes first – EVs or charging networks? It’s probably not an either or – but more of a both. Alongside this, however, is another critical factor – and that’s education. This is key to creating a successful EV world for the future.

Author’s Profile:

Dave is working within nPower’s Business Solutions department looking at non-supply offerings and at processes and procedures needed to enable Energy + and Electric Vehicle products. The Energy Managers Association recognised Dave’s contribution to energy management by voting him their Energy Manager of the Year in December 2015.

By Dave Horton