Is the UK’s fast-charging network ready to meet demand?

31st August 2022  |  Electric vehicle

The roll-out of greener electric vehicles is a central pillar of the government’s commitment to ensuring the UK hits carbon neutral status by 2050. Great British car owners appear enthusiastic: Less than a decade ago, in 2016, with just 30,669 electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, the EV market was in its fledgling stage. But fast-forward a few years, and the industry is booming.

The number of EVs in the UK is now around 510,000—an increase of over 1500% since 2016. EV sales almost doubled over 2020-21 from 108,000 to 190,000, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, with UK motorists buying more EVs in 2021 than in the last five years combined.

Uptake looks set to continue rising exponentially as drivers prepare for a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles in 2030. But can the UK’s fast charging infrastructure support continued growth at this level?

The Current State of Play

The number of public charge points is also rising fast, although, crucially, not at the same pace as EV ownership. From 2016 to 2022—the same period that saw ownership soar—the UK’s public chargepoint infrastructure quadrupled from 6,500 devices (including 4663 fast-chargers) to more than 28,000, of which 16,047 are fast-charging capable.

Chargepoint finder app Zap-Map states there were 33,281 public charge points spread over 20,336 locations at the end of July 2022, representing a 35% increase from the previous year.

Concerns and Challenges

In its Vision for the Rapid Chargepoint Network in England document of 2020, the government says drivers on England’s motorways and major A-roads are never further than 25 miles away from a rapid chargepoint ready to deliver a generous 50kW of power and 100 miles of range in around half an hour. But the rapid pace of EV uptake could change that.

A 2020 report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) said the UK needs to put 32.2 million EVs on the road by 2032 to reach its net-carbon zero target by 2050. The CCC added this would need to be supported by some 325,000 charge points on UK roads, requiring infrastructure growth of 6400% over the next decade. The CCC report identifies several key concerns about the government’s infrastructure rollout—namely a lack of strategy and targets.

While the report recognises the government’s plan to increase access to rapid charge points, it says a lack of targets for on-street and home chargers could leave drivers short of power in the future. The report goes on to suggest that the government must increase its support for local authorities (LAs), which have so far been slow to provide for their EV owners. For example, of 333 UK LAs, just over half (167) have 20 or fewer charge points.

Network Constraints

It’s not just the government and LAs that must step up if the UK is to meet its 2050 carbon target: The Transmission Network Operators (TNOs) and Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) responsible for delivering and distributing power from the grid to chargepoint also have work to do.

The CCC reports that DNOs and TNOs are charging some LAs and private companies £millions for the necessary power upgrades and improvements to facilitate fast charging. With little or no financial support on offer, few organisations are willing to be the first to request the expensive infrastructure upgrades that competitors could benefit from afterwards without the same outlay.

Maths is Up to You

If the government’s 25-minute figure for finding a fast charger is correct, it would seem fair to suggest the UK’s fast-charging infrastructure can support current demand.

Reaching the CCC’s goal of 32.5m EVs on UK roads by 2032 is another story that will require an almost unimaginable increase in EV uptake and infrastructure roll-out over the next decade.

Historical figures show this may be possible—but only if forward-thinking businesses, organisations and fleet owners get on board to strategise and act where the government is yet to do so.

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