Early yesterday morning, Richard and I set off to drive from Cambridge to Sheffield for a business meeting — my first such trip in my electric car. It’s 260 miles there and back, and I’ve done longer journeys, but this was the first where professional courtesy was contingent on the state of the UK charging network.
Fortunately, we had a perfect run, charging six times without delay, problem or queueing. And if you’re thinking that six is rather a large number for that length of trip, you’d be right, and we could have done it in fewer stops. But there are different approaches to recharging your car. I decided to go for lots of quick partial charges (each typically a 15-20 min stop) because the rate at which the batteries charge slows down noticeably as they fill up: on these ‘rapid’ chargers at motorway service stations, it’s quicker to charge from 0%-80% than it is from 80%-100%, but you still get the same miles-per-percent. Also, I hadn’t visited any of these locations before, so I was curious to see more of them, and also didn’t know what to expect in terms of congestion. Sub-zero temperatures also reduce your range significantly if you want to keep your toes warm!
The upshot is that a journey like this, even when things are going perfectly, took about an hour longer in each direction than it would have done if we were burning dinosaurs. Richard was a trooper and raised no objection to getting up for a six o’clock departure. For some people, that would be unacceptable. Personally, I find I rather like it – I would normally stop at least once en route anyway and I suspect that getting out and stretching my legs every 40 mins or so is very beneficial from a safety point of view. I certainly arrive feeling more relaxed than in the old days. The extra time you spend on occasional long journeys is offset by the fact that I never have to visit petrol stations during the week. And it’s still much quicker than using public transport.
It’s also much cheaper. Many non EV-owners don’t realise that a significant proportion of public chargers are free to use, including the Ecotricity ones found at many service stations. This means that the ‘fuel’ cost to get the two of us from Cambridge to Sheffield and back yesterday was around £2.50, since we only paid for the charge I did at home before we set off.
But that’s about to change. In a podcast this week the founder of Ecotricity announced that they would start charging for charging in ‘a couple of months’. This comes as no surprise: we knew the free ride couldn’t last forever. Some welcome it, because the reliability of the network should improve when out-of-action chargers mean a loss of revenue. Hopefully the numbers of charging stations will also increase, and it’s less likely that the ‘pumps’ will be blocked by casual chargers, or those with plug-in hybrids, who don’t really need it, leaving more of them free for those with pure electric vehicles, who do.
But we’re all wondering what Ecotricity’s pricing will be. They are an honourable company with good motives, and are unlikely to resort to excessive profiteering from their effective monopoly on much of the UK’s motorway network. On the other hand, there are large chunks of the country that they don’t cover — try going south of Gatwick, for example — and the rapid chargers available in those areas from other companies are often selling their electricity with a 5x markup, such that petrol is a cheaper alternative. Even at those rates, it would take a long time to recoup the tens of thousands of pounds needed for a 50kW rapid charger installation. In due course, as EV ownership and awareness increases, and competition starts to become more real, the financials will change. After all – installing a petrol station is outrageously more expensive, but you can be sure of a flow of regular customers throughout the day. Even if electricity at the service station proves more expensive than petrol, most people do 90-95% of their charging at home or work, so the benefits of going electric are still substantial.
I’m in the fortunate position of having an electric car with a ‘range extender’: a small 650cc generator in the back that allows me to double my electric range using a couple of gallons of fuel. So Richard and I could have gone from Cambridge to Sheffield using 50% electricity from home and 50% petrol. We were able to charge at our destination, so we could have done the same on the way home. This would have been faster, though we wouldn’t have felt quite so smug about our lack of CO2 emissions, or the fact that the whole trip cost us less than one of the lattes we consumed on the way, though it might still have cost us less than the sum total of all our lattes!
My somewhat pricey BMW is, however, the only car on sale in the UK at the moment which falls into this mostly-electric-with-a-little-bit-of-petrol category. Part of the reason I bought it was because it was so perfect for riding out this transition that we’re going through. Those who own, or sell, pure-electric vehicles will be watching the Ecotricity prices with rather more skin in the game.
I think it’s vital that the other key part of our successful trip yesterday: the fact that there was a space available immediately at every charge point we visited, continues to be the norm, until they are much less of a scarcity or the range of affordable electric vehicles increases substantially. That means that companies will probably continue to need substantial government incentives to keep installing them ahead of the growth in electric vehicle sales, because it’s going to be hard to pay for them simply by charging for electricity in the short term. In the long term, however, such an investment will definitely be worth it for the nation.
We drive in interesting times.