This is Fix the Planet, the weekly climate change newsletter that reminds you there are reasons for hope in science and technology around the world. To receive it in your inbox, sign up here.
“Range anxiety” for electric cars is dead because their battery capacity has grown so much in the past decade, if you believe the UK motoring industry. The problem facing electric vehicles (EVs) today is “charging anxiety”, it says.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) says access to publicly available chargers is going backwards in the UK, from one charger for every 16 plug-in cars 12 months ago to one charger for every 32 cars today. Mike Hawes, the trade body’s chief executive, said yesterday that the solution is for the UK government to set a mandate for charging infrastructure, akin to the mandate car makers will face from 2024 on what percentage of their car sales must be electric from 2024.
“What we’d like to see is commensurate targets on the provision of infrastructure and that should be done on the basis of ratios because, as EV sales increase, the demand for chargers increases commensurately,” Hawes told journalists at a conference in London. “We need to make sure that the two are aligned and indeed, that the infrastructure is built ahead of demand.”
So are car-to-charger ratios really the barrier to an even faster transition to electric cars? Tomorrow, the UK government is expected to publish its infrastructure strategy, which should include car chargers, so let’s take a look.
What’s going on with electric car uptake?
It’s booming. In the UK, 10 years ago there were just six electric car models that accounted for about one in every 1700 new car sales. There are now 140 models, another 55 coming this year, and one in six new cars sold is electric, according to Hawes’ figure. For vans, it’s one in 28. South Korean car maker Kia has gone from electric models being 1 per cent of its total UK car sales in 2019 to 15 per cent last year and 20 per cent in 2022 so far.
Globally, BMW doubled its electric car sales last year. After years of “relatively modest” electric car sales, last year saw them “really taking off”, says Colin McKerracher at analysts BloombergNEF. Some 6.5 million were sold worldwide last year, a figure he expects will rise to 10.6 million this year. China and Europe are leading, with South Korea catching up. The US will soon turn from a laggard into a leader too, because of regulations planned by US president Joe Biden, says McKerracher.
And are chargers keeping up?
The number of public chargers increased by 37 per cent in the UK last year, with about 600 added each month, according to transport minister Trudy Harrison. She says that while public chargers are important, the government’s expectation is that home charging will be the main way most people charge, because it’s cheap and convenient. For the third of homes without a driveway, she says grants for charge points will be refocused for drivers living in rented properties and blocks of flats.
The problem with charging points is not just how many there are, but how reliable they are and how easy they are to use. Yet people often have a skewed idea of how bad reliability is. “Without question, the reputation chargers have with people who don’t drive electric cars is very poor. If someone tries to use a charger and it doesn’t work, it’s reported and amplified. On the thousands of occasions when someone uses a charger and it works, nada,” says Robert Llewellyn, an actor and presenter of a YouTube electric car series, Fully Charged.
Still, he says supply is not always matching demand. “Without question, there is increasing frustration with the availability of access to rapid chargers. We are starting to see queues for the first time as the number of electric cars being driven has jumped dramatically upward, and the number of new chargers has not risen in tandem,” says Llewellyn.
“But, and this is a very big, very important but, it is getting a lot better. There are big charging hubs being either built or already open and they give so much more confidence than one isolated charger in a car park next to the toilets with no lighting and that’s really hard to find,” he adds. For example, there are now dedicated “electric forecourts” in the UK, such as Gridserve’s one in Braintree, Essex, which can charge 36 cars simultaneously.
Another issue is how unevenly distributed the chargers are. Thomas Becker of BMW says there is a “massive concentration of infrastructure in London”, with one public charger for every nine cars, compared with one for every 55 in the north-west of England.
Why the focus on public chargers, if most people charge at home?
More than 90 per cent of current electric car owners can charge at home, and just 13 per cent of electric vehicle charging is happening in public, according to research by the consumer group Which?. But the group says that is set to change, as electric cars move beyond the initial wave of early adopters, and new groups consider swapping their petrol or diesel car for an electric one. Around 8 million households in the UK are unable to charge at home, it says.
Is charge anxiety a real thing, or not?
“Not enough charging points” is one of the top concerns about electric cars in the UK, according to a public attitudes tracker run by the Department for Transport. Other surveys have seen similar attitudes. Which? found that 33 per cent of people in the UK raised concerns over a lack of charging points for long journeys, and 29 per cent were concerned about a lack of them near their home.
However, there’s often a mismatch between how people see charging infrastructure and the reality. Katie Black at the government’s Office for Zero Emissions Vehicles says: “I think it’s also important to say that currently drivers are pretty well served. So this is as much about perception as it is about actual charge points.” She adds that before buying an electric car, many people assume they will charge it more frequently than they do in practice.
So will targets for the ratio of chargers to cars help?
Maybe. But it’s a crude metric, and doesn’t reflect how the public chargers in the UK – and in other countries – are becoming increasingly powerful. That means they can charge cars’ batteries quicker and each charger can supply more vehicles each day.
“Figures like the number of EVs per charger don’t tell us a lot,” says Melanie Shufflebotham at Zap Map, which maps charging points. “Not all charge points are created equal. They serve different use cases and it is not useful to count a lamp post charger, which has a power rating of 5 kilowatts and is suited to overnight charging, as the same as a 100 kW ultra-rapid charger, which can add around 100 miles in 15 minutes.” Zap Map says the UK has about 500 megawatts of power capacity on the public network, or enough to support 420,000 electric vehicles. Ultra-rapid charging infrastructure is growing fast, increasing by 60 per cent last year, says Shufflebotham.
One senior energy industry figure, who didn’t want to be named, says it’s not right to equate 7 kW chargers in supermarket car parks with far faster 150 kW ones at motorways. “My concern is you’re comparing apples with oranges,” they say.
So what comes next?
Black says she thinks the government’s plans will address some of the hurdles for people who haven’t switched to an electric car. BP, which owns the UK’s biggest public charging network, is expected to announce tomorrow that it will spend £1 billion to “significantly boost” the number of superfast charging points from the 8000 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-to-car targets, he says: “I think we’ll wait to see.”
- Will Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine speed up or hinder action on climate change? Have a read of my feature on whether the world is going to accelerate its race to renewables or double down on fossil fuels as a result of the ongoing energy crisis.
If you enjoy Fix the Planet, please do recommend it to your friends, family and colleagues – they can sign up here. And if you haven’t already, become a New Scientist subscriber to access all our science journalism and help keep this newsletter free.
More on these topics: