Inside the industry: Race is on for EV chargers to match fuel pumps

Inside the industry: Race is on for EV chargers to match fuel pumps

No pain, no gain, as the saying goes – but only the most thick-skinned would sleep well while running a company that provides public EV chargers.

Yes, there’s huge business potential ahead. The switch to 100% electrified car sales in 2030 and the gradual phasing out of ICE cars thereafter promises good profits. But right now, the industry is in transition, the multitude of start-ups having to grow up or be bought up; and the bigger players coming in facing frustrated users with high expectations and a united body of car makers applying pressure for better service.

Getting a balanced view is hard. The SMMT recently highlighted that the number of public chargers available per vehicle fell from 16 to 11 between 2019 and 2020 and that only one new charger is being installed for every 52 plug-in vehicles bought. That’s a worry when one in six cars registered have been plug-ins recently.

But this statistic overlooks the fact that many of these vehicles will be charged at home, often exclusively so, and that the current charger network has a theoretical capacity to deliver around four billion kWh of electricity per year, against actual use of around 150 million kWh. In short, there’s already vast spare capacity. Plus, Department for Transport figures show the charger network grew 37% last year, to 28,375.

The real point is that not all that capacity is where it’s needed and that peak potential will never match peak use. If 100 cars need to charge for an hour at 5pm each day, 100 chargers are needed, even if they aren’t used at any other time, so 23 hours of potential charging goes untapped. And while some areas are well served, some patently aren’t.

The answers aren’t found in figures but semantics. It’s not just the number of chargers that’s the problem but the speed at which they give energy, their reliability, their accessibility and their geographical spread. Most pertinently, I would argue the crux of the issue lies in improving charging rates, especially on major roads, notably motorways, where the service to date has often been dire and investment is blocked by misguidedly exclusive contracts.

It’s also important to understand that solutions won’t arrive overnight or always ahead of the curve. Installing a high-powered charger costs well over £150,000. Some locations will never justify getting one installed – at least for a firm that exists to make profit.