Plugged-In Places: A Wasted Opportunity?

In the UK the introduction of EVs (electric vehicles) into the market is being supported financially by government. This support is taking place in two major ways: firstly owners are getting a 25% or £5000 discount (whichever is less) on the purchase of new qualifying EVs, and secondly the government is financially supporting the development of charging infrastructure with matched funding in the 3 Plugged-In Places… North-East, Milton Keynes and London. The second round of Plugged-In Places allocation brings in Manchester, Midlands, East of England, Northern Ireland and Edinburgh and Glasgow.

There is little doubt that if EVs are to be successful then a proper national charging infrastructure is needed and it is good to see the Plugged-In Places initiative showing that a charging infrastructure can be built with the right incentives in place. But just what type of charging infrastructure is the Plugged-In Places initiative creating? While I support the initiative in principle, I suggest that the way that the Plugged-In Places public money is being used is wasteful and is not creating the type of charging infrastructure that is needed if electric vehicles are to become mainstream and useable by the general public for all their transport needs.

EVs can be charged in two ways… by slow, Level 2 charge points or at fast level 3 charge points.

Level 2 charge points are:
– Cheap and easy to install without government subsidy costing just a few hundred to a few thousand pounds with most costing less than £1000
– Slow at charging, extending range just 10-15 miles per hour of charge
– Are of main benefit around town and locally to extend EV range when being driven locally
– Do not require a special electrical supply or 3-phase. Can be installed in almost every commercial property or domestic home at little cost.
– Do not help when EVs want to travel a long distance in a single day

Level 3 charge points are:
– Expensive, costing £20-30,000 each to install
– Require a 3-phase supply restricting them mostly to commercial properties
– Require a dedicated area to operate as very high voltage and currents are used
– Are of major benefit allowing EVs to operate well outside their single charge range and allowing EVs to make extended journeys in a single day
– Are not really needed for EVs operating locally as locally driven EVs can use the Level 2 network or charge at home and work.

Level 2, or slow charge points are essential. They allow EVs to extend their range by 10-15 miles per hour of charging. These would be used typically whenever the EV is stopped; supermarkets, restaurants, pubs, shopping centres etc. They remove any chance of running flat when driving locally.

Level 3 chargers are equally essential. They are typically for extending EV range on long journeys when slow Level 2 charging would require an overnight stop. Without a Level 3 charging network EVs will be restricted to local use and long journeys will not be practical.

Unfortunately, the Plugged-In Places funding is biased very heavily towards support for Level 2 charging. Funding of 50% is available for all Level 2 charging up to 32A but only 25% is available for Level 3 Fast Chargers. This is crazy. As I have said, without the Level 3 chargers EVs are restricted to daily travel of typically under 150 miles. This just won’t be acceptable to most people when considering whether to buy an EV. If the EV cannot be used for longer journeys they will always be considered a second car choice only.

I believe that the Plugged-In Places project is completely the wrong way round. It is relatively cheap for commercial organisations to install Level 2 charge points. The hardware required is just £100 for 2 charge points plus relatively simple fitting. Their location is generally not critical providing they are in places where people go to locally and there is little funding incentive required because in a lot of cases the commercial advantage of having EV charge points could easily justify the installation costs. However, Level 3 chargers require a significant capital investment. The commercial justification will be significantly more difficult and their location is critical if they are to be at all useful.

So whilst I support the concept of the Plugged-In Places project, to encourage the creation of a network of EV charge points, I cannot see that the project in its current guise will be adequate. I do not see who will be motivated to install Level 3 chargers given their significant cost and limited grant support. Moreover, whilst it makes sense to allow the Level 2 network to grow with little or no consideration to location, providing that they are in places where people go, with the Level 3 network it will require they be located no more than 100 miles apart and so require a more planned approach if they are to be at all useful in providing that long distance travel capability. Who will provide the financial incentive and the coordination required to create a useable Level 3 network?

This is all undoubtedly complicated by the lack of an accepted standard of charger types and connectors. The manufacturers must rush through the process of harmonisation of charging standards if EVs are to succeed. The danger is that if manufacturers all go their own way then we end up with no standards at all and hence no one will be prepared to pay for charger installation in case they back the wrong one.

I believe that the only way we are going to have a viable Level 3 charger network is if it is government funded and run. Location of these chargers must be properly planned so they are installed more than 80 – 100 miles apart and on major trunk routes and motorways. It simply cannot be left unplanned and the high cost and lack of commercial justification will mean they generally won’t get installed and where they do they will probably not be well sited to meet the need. EV cars will be destined to be used for local trips only.

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