As more and more new electric cars have become available in recent years, car manufacturers have been working to address most of the concerns that drivers have had about the suitability of an electric vehicle for their needs.
Prices have been coming down, there’s a much wider variety of vehicles to choose from, battery range has been steadily increasing and charging times have been getting shorter. In fact, recent research from car benefit scheme specialist Tusker (one of our commercial partners here at The Car Expert) has shown that most households could now be comfortably served by an electric vehicle instead of a petrol or diesel car.
As these other concerns have dropped away, the top issue for a majority of potential electric car buyers is charging availability. Understandably, customers want reassurance that charging is not going to be a hassle that makes an electric car more difficult to live with than a traditional petrol or diesel alternative.
Like other aspects of the electric car world, charging facilities are rapidly improving. There’s a lot of money being invested into improving the UK’s EV charging infrastructure, such as a £300 million pledge from by Britain’s independent energy regulator Ofgem to supply the cabling required for 1,800 new ultra-rapid charging points at motorway service areas and key main road locations. A further 1,750 charging points will be supported in towns and cities.
Dwarfing that investment are the enormous resources being poured into EV charging infrastructure by the private sector. For example, several car manufacturers are collaborating on joint ventures to create charging networks, while big oil companies are now some of the largest investors in EV charging infrastructure.
Perception vs reality
Many of the perceptions about lack of charging options are no longer accurate, and problems with charging have reduced dramatically in recent times. So we’ve put together this guide for electric car charging to give you a good picture of what to expect if you’re considering an electric car.
Overall, the state of public EV charging infrastructure is improving rapidly. Deloitte has reported that the number of charging points and charging sites has doubled in the last two years, meaning that charging point availability is improving at a much faster rate than most car buyers would realise.
Meanwhile, Zap-Map maintains a count of EV charging points across the UK – as of June 2021, there were more than 15,000 charging locations for a total of more than 42,000 total connections. At the current rate of installation, about 600-700 new charging devices are being added to the national network every month.
It will probably come as a surprise to many people to discover that there are so many charging points in operation around the UK.
It’s not necessarily a fair comparison, but to help understand the scale of this infrastructure rollout, there are about 8,400 petrol stations across the UK. So, later this year we can expect to see a bit of a media flurry about the number of EV charging points doubling the number of petrol stations.*
*There was a lot of fuss made about this a couple of years ago, when the number of charging points officially exceeded the number of petrol stations, but it’s not really a like-for-like comparison.
Your electric car charging options
1. Home charging
One simple fact has not changed, and is always likely to remain the same: If you can charge your electric car at home, it makes your life both a lot easier and a lot more affordable.
If you’re charging your car overnight at home, you win all the way: you don’t have to share access to a charging point with other cars, so you know it’s always going to be available when your battery needs charging; you don’t have to go out of your way to find an available charger, so it’s perfectly convenient; and electricity from your home energy provider is almost always going to be cheaper than from a public charging point – especially if you’re charging overnight during off-peak times.
Most car companies now have relationships with home wallbox providers, so you can get a free or subsidised home charging point installed when you buy a new electric car. Charging from a proper home wallbox is faster (and safer) than from a regular three-point plug, and many units can also ensure that the car is charged when electricity tariffs are at their cheapest.
If you are buying a used electric car and have to pay for your own wallbox, you’re looking at about £500 to £1,000 depending on the specific box and installation costs.
Home charging is usually the slowest way of charging your car’s battery, with most cars taking around eight hours or more to fully charge an empty battery. But because you’re usually at home for longer than that overnight, it’s still the most convenient option for most people.
2. Street charging
Home charging is great, but millions of Brits don’t have that option and have to park on the street. This has been a bugbear for the last decade, and continues to be an area where the UK is lacking compared to many of our European neighbours. But it is definitely improving.
Unsurprisingly, Deloitte found that Greater London leads the way in providing EV charging infrastructure. The worst places to find a plug on the street are Northern Ireland and North West England.
Improving these facilities is going to require a lot of ongoing work. A study by Field Dynamics and Zap-Map last September found that 90% of households who do not have the option of off-street charging also don’t live within five minutes’ walk of an on-street charging point, which is considered enough to seriously reduce the appeal of switching to an electric car.
As part of its £300 million pledge to improve EV charging infrastructure, Ofgem has pledged to provide the cabling required for 1,750 new charging points to be provided in towns and cities across the UK. This will be rolled out across England, Scotland and Wales over the next two years.
Charging speeds from on-street chargers will vary, depending on both the charging point and your car. Assuming you remembered to pack your charging cable, most electric cars can charge from most on-street charging points, even if it’s not at the maximum possible speed your car’s battery can charge.
3. Charging stations
There are various projects underway to build a series of dedicated service stations for electric vehicles, with rapid-charge facilities to accommodate a large number of cars and a range of services available on-site so you can work/dine/shop/exercise while your car is charging.
The first of these hubs opened late last year in Braintree, Essex, providing various chargers to accommodate up to 36 cars at once. Given that drivers will be required to wait around for a while, the site also provides a café, newsagent, post office, lounge, gym equipment, meeting facilities and more. More venues along similar lines are being planned by different providers but, for the moment, the site in Essex is the only one.
In addition to these projects to build dedicated EV charging stations, Ofgem will supply the cabling required for 1,800 new ultra-rapid charging points at existing motorway service areas and key main road locations. This will help people to charge along their journeys, using existing service facilities shared with petrol and diesel car drivers.
Tesla also has its famous Supercharger sites – a dedicated network of rapid-charge units that provide cheap or free (depending on which model Tesla you own and when you bought it) electricity to its customers. This is great for Tesla owners, but unfortunately these facilities are not usable by owners of other EVs.
Dedicated charging sites tend to have the fastest chargers, although the rate that your car can recharge also depends on your car and its battery. Some cars can get more than a week’s worth of charge (although still less than a full battery) in under half an hour, while others might need a couple of hours.
4. Destination charging
The real key in growing electric car acceptance is providing charge points at the destinations where drivers are already going, rather than building service stations where you have to stop for a length of time along the way. That means shopping centres, workplaces, gyms, universities – basically anywhere with public car parking facilities.
There has been considerable investment going on from private companies and local councils to increase the number of charging points on offer to EV drivers. In some parts of the country this has been progressing well, while in other areas (like where I live) the number of charging points is practically non-existent.
Destination charging is usually faster than home charging, but often it’s not as fast as on-street or dedicated charging points. It depends on where the charging point is located – workplaces will often have slower chargers because your car is usually parked in the car park for about eight hours a day. Charging points at shopping centres or public car parks will often be quicker – sometimes even as quick as dedicated charging stations.
A fresh mindset
The improvements in public charging infrastructure are clearly having an effect on consumer confidence. Data from Tusker shows that 33% of its customers now drive an electric car, compared with just 5% only one year ago.
As we discussed recently, most new electric vehicles are comfortably able to cope with the average household’s weekly driving needs on a single charge. And with the increasing availability of rapid charging facilities at facilities like supermarket car parks, it can even be possible to get your weekly electricity in less time than it takes to get your weekly groceries.
In conjunction with rapidly improving public charging infrastructure for longer journeys or those who don’t have access to home charging, it is certainly becoming much easier for most people to live with an electric car as their only vehicle.
There’s still a change in mindset required to let go of the petrol station security blanket (although, will you really miss the regular trip to the fuel station once you go electric?), but there’s much greater reason to confident now than ever before.
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Additional reporting by Tom Johnston