Sales of electric vehicles have been increasing rapidly over the last five years, from around 3,500 units sold in 2012 to 70,000 this year. No longer a futuristic novelty, there are now roughly 500,000 electric and hybrid cars on Europe’s roads.
The UK Government is keen to support the development of the private electric vehicle (EV) sector. In most circumstances, buyers of new electric cars can take advantage of a government grant of up to £4,500 put towards the cost of their vehicle, as well as funds for a charging unit at home, and an exemption from road tax and the congestion charge. The 2016 Autumn Statement also outlined the creation of a £390 million investment fund to support the development and operation of both low emission and autonomous vehicles.
While consumer uptake has been reasonably strong, the UK’s network of charging points has been lagging behind. There are around 11,000 charging points in the UK, with proportionally more in London and a good distribution of charging facilities dotted across the motorway network.
The usual criticisms leveled at charging points are fourfold: there aren’t enough of them, they don’t always work, they’re complicated to operate and they’re too expensive.
Charging stations are often owned and operated by different firms, and each require different memberships, with different apps and login details, as well as having an array of attachments for the various vehicles. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee also found that certain charging stations were costing as much as £7.50 for a 30-minute rapid charge, putting the cost of some trips into the same bracket as a modern diesel.
Depending on your energy supplier, charging an electric vehicle can cost as little as £3 from your domestic power supply, which is where 90% of charges are currently taking place. As most all-electric cars remain more expensive than comparable vehicles in their respective categories, the prospect of ultra-low running costs is a major draw for consumers.
Quentin Wilson, the motoring journalist and a campaigner for FairFuelUK, told the Times last week: ‘‘No one should be paying over the odds to charge an electric vehicle, otherwise the push towards green cars will fall at the first hurdle.’
The Times also reported that the Department for Transport is planning to crackdown on the cost of rapid charges, potentially setting common pricing structures and making power points easier to access. A spokesperson for the DfT said that while the upfront costs of using these facilities remained a “commercial matter” - “we do not want prohibitive pricing to be a barrier to uptake and will continue to monitor developments.”
The scarcity of rapid charging points is leading to a new behavioural issue in car parks across the country. “We do get charge rage if someone ICEs your bay”, Dale Vince, founder of Ecocentricity told The Telegraph a few weeks ago. “And people don’t like it if someone parks a Tesla to charge for two hours. When your car has finished charging, our message is: move it.” ‘ICE’ in this context refers to parking a car with an Internal Combustion Engine into a charging bay, which happens more often than you might think.
The need to expand the availability of these units was recognised back in November, when Philip Hammond announced that £80 million of the Government’s £390 million fund for the EV sector would be used to support the installation of charging points. According to Erik Fairbairn, chief executive of Pod Point, each charging unit costs between £2,000 and £20,000 to install.
But while charge rage is becoming more prevalent, “range anxiety” is now less of a problem, as car makers continue to improve the battery capacity of their cars. The new £25,000 Renault Zoe R90 Z.E.40 Signature offers a maximum range of up to 250 miles in optimal driving conditions, or around 185 miles in real-world conditions as experienced by WhatCar. At the top end of the spectrum, the £92,000 Tesla Model S P100D has a range of 380 miles.
Although the charging system today has a reputation for being a bit fiddly, the convenience of being able to plug in by the road-side, in your house, or via a lamppost as some have proposed, means they could be far more widely available than petrol stations.
Back in September, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that unless charging facilities are improved, the Government would fall far short of its aim to see 9% of cars and vans classified as ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2020.
It may now require action from the Government and local authorities to bring about the changes needed for electric cars to be considered a mainstream alternative to their fossil-fuelled cousins.
Ashley Coates is a member of Bright Blue and freelance journalist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.