Meet Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you that there is reason for hope in science and technology around the world. To get it delivered to your inbox, sign up here.
The ‘range anxiety’ of electric cars is dead because their battery capacity has increased so much over the past decade, if the UK car industry is to be believed. The problem facing electric vehicles (EVs) today is “charging anxiety,” he says.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says access to publicly available chargers is declining in the UK, from a 16-car rechargeable charger 12 months ago to a 32-car charger today. Mike Hawes, chief executive of the trade body, said yesterday the solution was for the UK government to establish a mandate for charging infrastructure, similar to the mandate that automakers will face from 2024 on the percentage of their car sales that must be electric from 2024.
“What we would like to see are proportionate targets on infrastructure provision and this should be done on a ratio basis because as EV sales increase the demand for chargers increases proportionately,” said Hawes to reporters at a conference in London. “We need to ensure that the two are aligned and, indeed, that infrastructure is built ahead of demand.”
So are car-to-charger ratios really an obstacle to an even faster transition to electric cars? Tomorrow the UK government is due to publish its infrastructure strategy, which is expected to include car chargers, so let’s take a look.
What is happening with the adoption of the electric car?
It’s booming. In the UK 10 years ago there were just six electric car models which accounted for around one in every 1700 new car sales. There are now 140 models, with another 55 coming this year, and one car every six cars sold are electric, according to the Hawes figure. For vans, it’s one in 28. South Korean carmaker Kia has grown from 1% of its total UK car sales in 2019 to 15% last year and 20% in 2022 until here.
Globally, BMW doubled its electric car sales last year. After years of “relatively modest” electric car sales, last year saw them “really take off,” Colin McKerracher told BloombergNEF analysts. Some 6.5 million were sold worldwide last year, a figure he hopes will reach 10.6 million this year. China and Europe are leading, with South Korea catching up. The United States will soon go from a laggard to a leader as well, due to regulations planned by US President Joe Biden, says McKerracher.
And do the chargers follow?
The number of public chargers grew by 37% in the UK last year, with around 600 added each month, according to Transport Minister Trudy Harrison. She says that while public chargers are important, the government expects home charging to be the primary means of charging for most people because it’s cheap and convenient. For the third of homes without a driveway, she says subsidies for charging points will be refocused on drivers living in rented properties and apartment buildings.
The problem with charging stations is not just their number, but their reliability and ease of use. Yet people often have a biased idea of poor reliability. “Without a doubt, the reputation of chargers among people who do not drive electric cars is very bad. If someone tries to use a charger and it doesn’t work, it’s flagged and amplified. Of the thousands of times someone uses a charger and it works, nada,” says Robert Llewellyn, actor and presenter of an electric car series on YouTube, fully charged.
Still, he says supply doesn’t always match demand. “Undoubtedly, there is growing frustration with the availability of access to fast chargers. We are starting to see queues for the first time as the number of electric cars being driven has increased dramatically and the number of new chargers has not increased alongside it,” says Llewellyn.
“But, and this is a very big, very important but, it’s getting much better. There are large charging centers under construction or already open and they give so much more confidence than an isolated charger in a parking lot next to toilets with no lights and it’s really hard to find,” he adds. For example, there are now dedicated ‘electric forecourts’ in the UK, like the one from Gridserve in BraintreeEssex, which can charge 36 cars simultaneously.
Another problem is the uneven distribution of chargers. BMW’s Thomas Becker says there is a “massive concentration of infrastructure in London”, with one public charger for every nine cars, compared to one for every 55 in the North West of England.
Why focus on public chargers, if most people charge at home?
More than 90% of current electric car owners can charge from home, and only 13% of electric vehicle charging is done in public, according to research by consumer group Which?. But the group says that’s about to change, as electric cars overtake the initial wave of early adopters, and new groups consider replacing their petrol or diesel car with an electric car. Around 8 million households in the UK are unable to charge from home, according to the report.
Is load anxiety real or not?
‘Not enough charging points’ is one of the biggest concerns about electric cars in the UK, according to a monitoring of public attitudes managed by the Ministry of Transport. Other surveys have seen similar attitudes. Which? found that 33% of people in the UK were worried about the lack of charging stations for long journeys, and 29% were worried about the lack of them close to home.
However, there is often a disconnect between how people see charging infrastructure and the reality. Katie Black, from the Government Office for Zero Emission Vehicles, said: “I think it’s also important to say that currently drivers are pretty well served. It is therefore as much about perception as it is about actual charging points. She adds that before buying an electric car, many people assume that they will charge it more often than they do in practice.
So, will targets for the charger-to-car ratio be useful?
May be. But that’s a crude metric, and doesn’t reflect how public chargers in the UK – and other countries – are getting more and more powerful. This means they can charge car batteries faster and each charger can power more vehicles every day.
“Numbers like the number of electric vehicles per charger don’t tell us much,” says Melanie Shufflebotham of Zap Map, which maps charging points. “Not all charging points are created equal. They serve different use cases and there’s no need to count a street lamp charger, which is rated at 5 kilowatts and is suitable for overnight charging, so does a 100kW super-fast charger, which can add about 100 miles in 15 minutes.” Zap Map says the UK has around 500 megawatts of electricity capacity on the public grid, enough to support 420,000 electric vehicles. Super-fast charging infrastructure is growing rapidly, growing by 60% last year, according to Shufflebotham.
A senior energy industry official, who did not want to be named, said it was not fair to equate 7kW chargers in supermarket car parks with 150kW chargers much faster on the highways. “What concerns me is that you are comparing apples to oranges,” they say.
So what comes next?
Black says she thinks the government’s plans will address some of the barriers for people who haven’t made the switch to an electric car. BP, which has the largest public charging network in the UK, should announce tomorrow that it will spend £1billion to “significantly increase” the number of super-fast charging points from the 8,000 it already has in the UK. Hawes tells new scientist he expects “a lot of commonality” in the infrastructure strategy with what the industry is asking for. But on the prospects for new charger-car targets, he says, “I think we’ll wait and see.”
- Will Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine accelerate or hinder action on climate change? Read my article on whether the world will accelerate its drive for renewables or double down on fossil fuels due to the current energy crisis.
If you like Fix the Planet, please recommend it to your friends, family and colleagues – they can sign up here. And if it’s not already done, subscribe to New Scientist to access all of our science journalism and help keep this newsletter free.
Learn more about these topics: