Meeting with Simon Crowfoot of Ecotricity on 11th Dec 2013

On Wednesday I went to the offices of Ecotricity in Stroud to meet Simon Crowfoot. Simon is the MD heading up, amongst other things, the Ecotricity Electric Highway. It was a very interesting meeting and I felt that I learned so much that I want to share some of it with you.

The first thing I want to say is that it was very clear from the entire meeting that Ecotricity is totally motivated to building the Electric Highway. Their motivation seems to be to create an environment where it is attractive to buy an EV there by encouraging EV take up. It seems to be working!
We talked a lot about the general state of the UK EV market and public charging in particular. Anyone who knows me will know that I have been particularly vocal about the reliability of rapid chargers and the lack of redundancy. In fact, this has the potential to derail the Ecotricity objective of making EV use in the UK easier. It is clear that this issue concerns Ecotricity greatly. They are working hard to resolve the unreliability but there is only so much they can do as the charger failures often require significant diagnosis effort and then parts from Europe. They are sure, as am I, that they will resolve the unreliability issues soon and as Ecotricity has delivered on everything so far I can see no reason to doubt this. In the meantime it is annoying to them and us alike and I now feel that there is little benefit to be gained from pestering them on this issue. No one knows how annoying this is more than Ecotricity.
The issue of redundancy is a difficult one. Simon’s view is that if the reliability issues are resolved and the network has a high degree of reliability then the redundancy question becomes mute. It won’t mean that chargers can’t fail but he strongly believes that once these current issues are resolved then the network should be solidly reliable. I have mixed feelings over this particular view. I can see that a reliable charger network will mean less failures and less chance of being stranded but less chance isn’t Zero chance and so even that small chance may be more of a risk than some people are prepared to take. Would a family with young kids risk being stranded away from home with no way to continue their journey? It could be said that they take that risk every time they go somewhere in any car as there is always a small risk that the car will breakdown. I think the key will be ensuring that the perception of reliability is solid. It may take a while after fixing the current issues before that perception of reliability replaces the current perception of unreliability.
What about the issue of capacity? This is tied up with the one of reliability because the very act of adding a second charger to a location adds capacity and redundancy. Ecotricity keep a very close eye on usage stats and they are committed to increasing the number of chargers at a location once they can identify the need. They will know if a charger is being used to capacity from the stats. However, identifying the need for an additional charger is the easy bit. These chargers require a 125A 400V 3-phase supply. Adding an additional charger doubles the supply requirements. Simon made it clear that not all locations will have the supply capacity for additional chargers. Many may require cabling upgrades or even upgrades to the grid supply, transformers etc and that is a very expensive, not to mention lengthy process. They do not rule it out but it is obvious that at some locations adding additional chargers may be an easy step and at others it may be prohibitively expensive. Unfortunately, it is at the larger and busier locations where additional chargers are first likely to be needed but these are quite likely the sites that are already close to their supply capacity. It is very easy for us as drivers to demand extra chargers, it is far from an easy task to install them.
Simon suggested that in the long term these issues of electrical supply limitations will have to be resolved but it will not happen overnight.
I raised the topic of position of chargers at a location. Many chargers are in the prime parking bays closest to the entrance and so they are the bays most likely to be blocked by petrol//diesel cars by so called ICEing. In my view the best places to locate EV charging is away from the entrance thereby reducing the likelihood of ICEing and Simon agreed. However, the issue of where to locate EV chargers has many considerations. For example… where is the electrical supply? Is it near the loading bay for deliveries? Quite often the only sensible location is not necessarily the best one on first inspection. I have always considered it madness to put he charging bay right by the main entrance but I can see now that this is sometimes the only location possible short of carrying out a major cable laying exercise. Simon did not rule out resiting chargers should it prove necessary.
I asked him about the IKEA locations. I have always thought it a strange decision to put rapid chargers at shopping locations and I have been quite vocal in my opposition to the IKEA rapid chargers. Clearly, rapid chargers anywhere are going to help to some degree but the issue of rapid charger location at shopping sites, or anywhere where people park for any appreciable period, or off main travel route, is one that is debatable. The siting of rapid chargers at IKEA fits very well with the IKEA business objectives and so putting them there gives Ecotricity a willing partner and additional locations and when finding off-motorway locations is so difficult this seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Simon recognises that sometimes shopping locations may not be the best place but the addition of the IKEA chargers to the Highway is a significant step towards making EVs easier to use.
I have to be honest, I was dead against the addition of the IKEA chargers but I have changed my mind after speaking to Simon. Surely having more rapid chargers, even in less than ideal locations, must be better than not having them at all? I now support the IKEA additions and I am grateful to IKEA for taking this leap of faith along with Ecotricity. As far as I know IKEA will be the first national chain to have EV charging at all their stores (not only that but rapid charging) and we should support ventures such as this.

Finally the issue of ICEing was discussed. Ecotricity and the site businesses (Welcome Break, IKEA etc) are concerned about ICEing. I suggested that they try cones but they have tried that and the cones just get stolen or moved! They are trying different ways to sign at different locations to getting a better idea of what works and what doesn’t. I am certainly satisfied that they are making big efforts to resolve the ICEing problem but I am not sure that any signing is the answer. Normal, sensible people don’t block the bays except by accident so the issue of ICEing is how to stop the plonkers (my words not Simon’s!) and that is difficult. Plonkers will always be plonkers no matter what signs you use.
Overall this was a super meeting. I learned a lot about some of the decisions that Ecotricity have had to make to get the Electric Highway up and running so quickly and I now believe we should stop whinging and moaning about some of these issues. Sure, keep our needs at the forefront of the minds of Ecotricity and the rest but we should cut them a bit more slack than we have done to date in my opinion. It won’t be long before there is EV charging at every motorway service area… I would not have believed that just 12 months ago!

2 thoughts on “Meeting with Simon Crowfoot of Ecotricity on 11th Dec 2013”

  1. So I typed this out last night but the site lost it and I wasn't going to type it again…

    You raise the issue of site capacity limiting the ability to have 2 or more rapid chargers and hence redundancy. Well, there is another way and that is "intelligent" chargers that know the total capacity and share it between the number of cars charging. This isn't quite as simple as 50kW / 2 cars = 25kW each, because as one car is ramping down its charge, another which may have arrived later can have more.

    Secondly, another way to improve reliability is to have the chargers composed of multiple smaller charger "bricks" connected in parallel. For example, if a 10kW brick fails then you have a 40kW rapid charger, not a 0kW useless rapid charger.

    This is exactly how Tesla's superchargers work and also how ABB's chargers work, and have done for more than two years.

    Also, Tesla have been installing supercharger sites across the US and now Europe with 10 stalls. Pairs of stalls are connected to a 120kW charger in America and 135kW in Europe. So there are many sites out there with 600kW or 675kW in use – and order of magnitude more capacity than a single CHAdeMO. Once again Tesla is showing how it's done.

    Finally, you mentioned the BMW i3 not being CHAdeMO compatible (true, at least outside Japan), and that this means there won't be an adapter cable. In fact I would say that should be all the more reason for an adapter cable! I will say categorically there is no *technical* reason why there cannot be an adapter cable. When I was speaking to BMW's engineer at an i3 event, they were not aware that Type 2 could carry 22kW, yet alone 43kW of the Zoe or the modifications Tesla had made to carry 135kW through the normal 7 pin plug.

    All you need to do to get CHAdeMO to talk to the i3 (or any other CCS car) is translate the CAN commands of CHAdeMO to the PLC protocol used by CCS. This can be implemented in a small microcontroller in the adapter. It should be noted that Tesla's proprietary connector used on the Model S is in fact electrically the same as CCS and they have released a CHAdeMO adapter that does exactly this.

  2. I agree with you that a power-sharing set of chargers, that gracefully derates each charger if necessary as more people charge, makes a lot of sense to me as a driver. I would rather have 22kw than no kw!

    Simon disagreed. He seems to be of the opinion that if a driver expects to be able to charge at 50kw at a site then every charger at that site should be able to deliver the full 50kw simultaneously. I disagreed. It is a matter of opinion and that seems to be the Ecotricity position.

    The comments on CHAdeMO I shall answer in my post on the i3 🙂

    Thanks for your comments David

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