The UK is facing challenges in creating an electric vehicle charging network that is accessible to all. Lewis Gardiner shares a plan for the way forward
The demand for electric vehicles continues to rise steadily in the UK, with more motorists buying an EV last year than in the previous five years combined, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).
That figure will only increase as the nation prepares for the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel vehicle sales. With this rising demand must, of course, come a public charging infrastructure that is fit for purpose and easily accessible to everyone.
When we talk about accessibility, we mean the physical space, charger access and charger usability that is essential for wheelchair users and those with any type of reduced mobility, whether permanent or temporary (such as pregnancy). However, it’s important to remember that optimising these factors also makes the experience better for all drivers manoeuvring around their car with a charging cable, or with children or shopping.
One of the first challenges we face is establishing a large supply of power to our sites. Even though electricity connections aren’t new, the process of installing chargers can still be complicated due to the sheer amount of power that needs to be delivered and managed.
A standard double-50kW rapid-charger site will use a similar amount of electricity to the average Starbucks, while a larger multi-150kW hub can easily require the same amount of power as a large supermarket. Bigger hub locations are therefore more complex, as they require a connection to the high-voltage network rather than the standard low-voltage electrical network.
High-voltage connections require a substation on site, and while manufacturing a substation usually takes between 8-12 weeks on average, demand has increased recently, resulting in wait times of up to 16 weeks.
A lot of the engineering challenges that go into making sites accessible are rooted in the hardware and the site design itself. For example, at Osprey, we consider the space around the vehicle and in front of the charging point; the ability to reach and use the screen, buttons and cable handles without being obstructed by kerbs, wheel stops, or poorly placed bollards. Drivers also need to be able to see the screen in bright light or at night – and be able to use the payment system and cables with one hand, without the need for high force, grasping or twisting.
Ultra-rapid charging cables, for example, can be very heavy and unwieldy due to the internal materials needed to transport the power. To help solve this, the chargers Osprey installs use either a counterweight or a spring-loaded support to make the cables lighter and easier to handle.
Making a charging site accessible also means reducing queues so that drivers can get the power they need when they want it. One way we can do this is by installing multiple chargers that have load-balancing technology built in.
While high-powered charging points may seem more appealing, they are not always the most efficient use of power as the majority of EVs are currently unable to take more than 100kW consistently. Load-balancing technology informs the charger when a vehicle is not absorbing its full power capability, allowing it to re-route unused power to another vehicle, enabling vehicles to charge more quickly and reduce queues.
To maximise efficiency, charge times must also correspond to consumer dwell times on sites. Charging stations near major roads, for example, are better suited to a ‘splash and dash’ ultra-rapid charge and very high turnover; those in supermarkets or shopping centres may charge at a slower rate over a longer period of time, while serving an overall larger number of parking bays.
A great deal of planning also goes into ensuring that charging sites are future-proofed. A site can meet all the necessary accessibility standards, but if it has to be closed and replaced with new technology every few years, it is by its very nature inaccessible.
Flexibility is key to future-proofing. The market has changed so much in the past two years and will only evolve further, so by building flexibility into our plans, we reduce the chances of the sites becoming outdated or redundant.
Factors such as securing adequate electrical grid capacity to expand, factoring in enough room to expand or adjust a site, and not being locked into exclusive contracts with a single hardware vendor are all critical to ensuring that facilities can quickly adapt to future demand.
It’s a hugely exciting time to be in the EV charging space right now but there is still much that needs to be done – Osprey is set to double its charge-point network in size to over 600 chargers by the end of the year, including upgrading the charging capability of existing sites.
It’s important to remember that building a nationwide charging network in the UK has never been attempted before. There is no one-size-fits-all proposition; each site is a unique undertaking with numerous hurdles. The Charge Point Operators (CPOs) that get it wrong will suffer costly delays, pricey hardware upgrades, and empty parking lots full of inaccessible, complex chargers. However, those that get it right will build future-proofed, popular sites that can be easily used and are accessible to everyone.
Lewis Gardiner is head of operations at Osprey Charging Network