Electric car sales are booming but access to public chargers is going backwards, warns The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). Twelve months ago, they say, there was one charger for every 16 plug-in cars – but now there’s just one for every 32 cars.
Mike Hawes, the trade body’s chief executive, said the solution is for the UK government to set a mandate for charging infrastructure akin to the mandate that car manufacturers face on what percentage of their car sales must be electric from 2024.
It’s easy to see how the problem was created. There are now 140 EV models, another 55 are coming this year – and one in six new cars sold is electric, says Hawes.
For vans, it’s now one in 28. South Korean car maker Kia has gone from electric models being 1% of its total UK car sales in 2019 to 20% in 2022 so far. Globally, BMW doubled its electric car sales last year.
The number of public chargers increased by 37% 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 one-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.
But Robert Llewellyn, the Red Dwarf actor and presenter of YouTube electric car series Fully Charged, warns that supply is not always matching demand.
‘Without question, there is increasing frustration with the availability of access to rapid chargers,’ he says. ‘We’re 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.’
But, he adds, things are getting 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 that’s really hard to find.’
For example, there are 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’s 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.
‘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 reported similar attitudes.
Which? found that 33% of people in the UK raised concerns about a lack of charging points for long journeys, and 29% were worried about a lack of them near their home.
So would targets for the ratio of chargers to cars help? Maybe. People working at charging networks, as opposed to car makers, have often told me they don’t want more government interference, because they’ll naturally match supply to demand.
Meanwhile, public chargers in the UK – and in other countries – are becoming increasingly powerful. That means they can charge cars’ batteries more quickly and each charger can supply more vehicles every day.
‘Figures like the number of EVs per charger don’t tell us a lot,’ says Melanie Shufflebotham at Zap-Map, which tracks charging points. ‘Not all charge points are created equal. They serve different uses and it’s not helpful to count a lamp-post charger, which has a power rating of five kilowatts and is suited to overnight charging, as the same as a 100 kilowatt 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 – enough to support 420,000 electric vehicles. Ultra-rapid charging infrastructure is growing fast, increasing by 60% last year, says Shufflebotham. So what next?
Katie Black at the government’s Office for Zero Emissions Vehicles thinks government 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, announced in March it will spend £1billion over ten years to ‘significantly boost’ the number of superfast charging points from the 8,000 it has in the UK.
On the prospects for new charger-to- car targets, Hawes adds: ‘I think we’ll wait to see.’
Ask the Cazoo car doctor: Automotive editor Phil Tromans
Should I switch my energy tariff if I get an electric car?
While you don’t have to change your electricity tariff if you get an electric car and have a home charger installed, it might make financial sense to do so.
If your current tariff means that you pay the same price for electricity whatever the time of day, switching to an ‘off-peak’ or ‘economy’ tariff could save you money by letting you top up your car with low-cost electricity while you sleep.
However, it may mean you end up paying more than you currently do for the electricity you use during the day, so it’s worth doing your sums carefully and looking for the best deal.