Leading the charge

Senior Reporter

This week in a car park in a small market town in the East Midlands something important happened. When Retford printing firm RCS unveiled the UK’s first privately owned rapid charging station for electric vehicles on Wednesday, it marked the start of one of the key processes that are needed to make EV ownership go mainstream.

Once drivers know they can easily locate an electric refuelling station and recharge their battery within 20 minutes, range anxiety should become much less of an issue and more people will see EVs as a viable option. For this to happen we need a wide network of rapid chargers covering at least the major transport corridors of Britain.

‘The takeup of electrical vehicles in other countries has been far greater than in the UK because of this technology,’ said Martin Hale, head of UK sales for ABB, which supplied the charging station to RCS.

‘In Japan where there are 10 times more electric vehicles, they quite early on discovered they needed a few of these rapid chargers. They did trials without them, added a few and saw that people used their cars more often and went further.’

Other countries’ governments have realised the potential of rapid chargers: ABB recently sold 200 to Estonia to create a national network of them. But no one needs reminding that the UK government is somewhat strapped for cash at the moment and the £30m allocated to subsidise the roll-out of charging infrastructure in eight locations in Britain will only go so far.

The coalition’s view, as in so many cases, is that business can take on the role of deploying this technology. But this idea is far from being as controversial as some of the attempts to involve the private sector in other policy areas.

‘Our role is to kickstart the market, to give a clear direction of travel and to give confidence that the policy isn’t going to change and that’s what we’re doing,’ transport minister Norman Baker told The Engineer.

‘But it was always intended that what we would do is provide the foundations and then allow the private sector to come in because ultimately I think there are significant opportunities for the private sector.’

These opportunities aren’t just for established automotive, fuel or utility companies. In fact it might be better not to pin our hopes on Shell or BP rolling out EV chargers at their petrol stations and cannibalising their markets, or motorway services that see themselves more as landlords than service providers. There’s an opportunity for a new startup firm but there’s also a chance for established businesses to find a new way to lure customers in.

‘We’ve seen Little Chef, for example, announcing a network of charging points and the idea is that they can attract people in and charge their vehicle while they’re having something to eat is a commercial opportunity for them,’ said Baker.

This experience is also borne out by the government’s Plugged-In Places (PIP) scheme, which offers to cover 40 per cent of the cost of charging infrastructure – both rapid and slow chargers – to any businesses in qualifying locations that want to install them.

Mick Barclei-Smythe, the PIP Midlands programme manager, said a large variety of companies were in talks to install chargers, from airports to golf clubs, and that there wasn’t much more the government could do once the PIP programme ended next year but allow the private sector to fill the gap.

However, he also acknowledged the effect the struggling economy was having. ‘If everyone who has expressed an interest follows through then we should achieve our aim of 500 chargers by March 2013,’ he said. ‘But while we had an order for 50 chargers last week we might then have another customer say they can no longer afford it.’

This, of course, is the real crux of the issue. If restaurants and shops have the money to invest and believe in the opportunity they may well go for it. But perhaps we’re less likely to see more companies like RCS leading the roll-out unless they are convinced of the wider environmental and societal benefits of going electric.

‘It makes no commercial sense,’ said RCS managing director Michael Todd of the £20,000 he has spent on the rapid charger. ‘We’re trying to get some payback in terms of PR. But for me, the reason for doing it is far more altruistic.’

On this basis we might be able to look to the private sector to deploy EV infrastructure, but the motivation will have to be more than just money. Let’s hope there are more companies like RCS willing to play their part.