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The UK is running on empty when it comes to electric vehicle charging points

Infrastructure needs to be increased tenfold before traditional motors banned in 2030, says market study

The UK needs to increase the number of charging points across the country tenfold if it is to support an electric vehicle (EV) economy starting with the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

As it stands, access to EV charging points is a "postcode lottery" with London streets ahead of every other part of the UK.

So says the "Electric Vehicle Charging Market Report" from the Competition and Market's Authority (CMA) [PDF], which found that there are 80 public charging points per 100,000 people in London compared to just 20 per 100,000 in Yorkshire and Humber.

All told, there are around 25,000 public charging points up and down the UK today but the CMA reckons that figure will need to swell to between 280,000 and 480,000 as motorists switch to EV.

According to Garry Whittaker, editor at FascinatingTech and host of the Jaguar i-Pace channel on YouTube, the problems around charging infrastructure are much more than just numbers.

"The issue is not so much the general lack of charging points as there are more chargers than petrol stations already. It is more about the location, quantity, and maintenance of chargers," he told us.

"Most EVs have more range than most people's daily commute, so most charging will be at home for those people who have off-street parking."

Instead, the issue – for now, at least – is what happens when drivers get caught short and must recharge their batteries? The answer, according to Whittaker, is the need for a "good rapid charging infrastructure nationwide on the key travel routes."

His first-hand experience as an EV motorist chimes with issues raised in the CMA report, not least concerns about the choice and availability of charging points at motorway service stations, where competition is limited.

In 2011, green electricity biz Ecotricity created the Electric Highway, a network of charging points at major motoring hubs to allow early adopters to plug in and recharge their batteries.

In June, Electric Highway was bought by Gridserve, a UK company founded in 2017 with ambitions to create a network of low-carbon charging points across the country. It's already started upgrading its network and is keen to showcase its plans.

Even so, the CMA wants to ensure that everything remains on the right track, which perhaps explains why alongside its EV market study it has also launched a competition law investigation into long-term exclusive arrangements between the Electric Highway and the UK's three motorway service operators – MOTO, Roadchef, and Extra.

"Currently, the Electric Highway provides 80 per cent of all charging points at motorway service stations and its long-term exclusive arrangements, which last between 10-15 years, cover around two-thirds of motorway service stations," said the CMA.

It's concerned that these "arrangements" make it difficult for other operators to provide competing charging points at motorway service stations, leading to less choice, higher prices, and iffy service and reliability.

Responding to the CMA report, Gridserve pointed out that it has only owned the Electric Highway network for a couple of months and in that time made "incredible progress upgrading the original Electric Highway network."

"This has included replacing chargers in over 70 locations in less than eight weeks with new technology, contactless payment, reliable charging with 24×7 customer support, and introducing a Customer Charter – all while retaining highly competitive prices," it said.

And on the specific issues of commercial arrangements with motorways service station operators, it said it is looking to "find a path forward that addresses the concerns raised by the CMA" with measures that "support the successful uptake and transition to electric vehicles, in line with the government's clearly stated objectives."

'Zero-carbon' coach tour

If you want to understand fully the current state of EV charging infrastructure in the UK, then the "zero-carbon" coach tour that set off from London last month to coincide with the G7 meeting in Cornwall shows just how bumpy the road can be.

The idea behind the EV coach trip was to trumpet the benefits of greener living by driving around the West Country in an electric coach. But that plan ground to a halt when the organisers realised that, despite planning ahead, the charging infrastructure at garages and service stations simply did not cut the mustard.

"What we found though was the frustration of the charging network," recalled Planet Mark founder and CEO Steve Malkin, who helped organise the event.

"The first charging point we called at should have been compatible with the coach – based on the information provided – on arrival, however; it was not," he wrote.

"This left us with the decision to 'risk' moving on to the next charging stop 88 miles away. We were able to successfully make it with 15 miles range left on the charge, but it was nail-biting and did not help alleviate the 'charging anxiety' that is felt by so many EV owners and drivers across the UK right now."

The coach made it to the Eden Project where it was widely reported that passengers had been left stranded after the bus failed to find a suitable charging point. Following a succession of disappointments, the tour had to be curtailed and, once recharged, the coach returned to London.

Back to the CMA report and chief exec Andrea Coscelli said that while the rollout of charging infrastructure is going well in some parts and the UK's network is growing, it's clear that "other parts, like charging at motorway service stations and on-street, have much bigger hurdles to overcome."

"There needs to be action now to address the postcode lottery in electric vehicle charging as we approach the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030," he said.

What's clear – even among petrolheads who wouldn't be seen dead within miles of an EV – is that the landscape is improving. It's just been announced that as many as 800 Shell electric vehicle charging points are to be installed in up to 100 Waitrose shops across the UK by 2025. Which means patrons of the posh grocer can pick up their essential feta crumble and lemon quinoa salad while charging their EV motor at the same time.

Elsewhere, the RAC and British Gas have teamed up to flog home charging points that take advantage of a bespoke electricity tariff with cheaper off-peak overnight charging. ®

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