Off a busy A road near the Essex town of Braintree, cars pull into a service station quite unlike regular fuel stops along major routes in Britain.
At the country’s first forecourt dedicated solely to electric vehicles, chargers replace the usual petrol or diesel pumps beneath a canopy covered in solar panels.
Toddington Harper, founder of private company Gridserve, opened the facility in December, just weeks after the government moved forward a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2035 to 2030.
With the ban now just nine years away, motoring groups, infrastructure companies and electricity networks are focusing on the key sticking points to encouraging more motorists to buy electric vehicles. These include adequate rapid chargers along major trunk roads for long-distance drivers and providing for those who do not have access to off-street parking and cannot pay to have a connecter installed at home.
Mr Harper is encouraged that the latest government deadline — a decade earlier than the first phaseout date, set in 2017 — will help stimulate investment in the charging infrastructure the UK needs if electric vehicles are to become mainstream.
“There’s no debate with [infrastructure] investors any more about whether there’s going to be a mass market, the only question is how quickly,” he said.
Sales of new battery electric cars climbed rapidly last year despite the wider market suffering the worst annual decline since the second world war.
One in 10 new cars sold in 2020 was a plug-in vehicle, with 6.6 per cent battery electric cars and 4.1 per cent hybrid cars that plug in to charge, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which says the government needs to “throw the kitchen sink at the issue of charging”.
Companies such as Ecotricity, Ubitricity and Pod Point have so far led the rollout of public chargers. There are now more than 36,700 at 13,300-plus locations ranging from petrol stations to hotels and supermarkets, according to Zap-Map, an app that helps drivers locate chargers.
But coverage is patchy. Greater London has more than 9,400 connectors compared with just over 500 in the whole of Northern Ireland, for example.
Britain’s competition authorities are currently investigating the situation at motorway service areas, where Ecotricity dominates. Meanwhile, people without private driveways, which green campaigners say cover anywhere between a third and half of all cars, are left at the whims of local councils’ priorities.
Drivers without access to charging at home could go to “destinations” such as supermarkets hotels, pubs or other locations where companies are installing connectors, although campaigners say this is impractical for those who travel long-distances or are time-pressed.
While the latest Teslas can add 75 miles of range within five minutes using a dedicated company supercharger, most models take significantly longer, often needing hours to refill fully.
Transport minister Rachel Maclean acknowledged that while some councils had “done a fantastic job” using innovations such as chargers installed in lampposts, others “haven’t fully embraced” the need for kerbside connectors.
“It’s our ambition to make it easy for people to charge whatever position they are in,” she told the Financial Times’ Future of Mobility summit in November.
Greg Archer, UK director of the non-profit group Transport & Environment, said local authorities “have been stripped of resources over the past decade” and need help to plan charging needs.
This could include training staff and even funding specialist roles. “Whilst there are capital grants available . . . to help local authorities pay for charging points, there’s no revenue support at the moment for local authorities and they don’t have the staff resources to start planning charging networks within their areas,” Mr Archer said.
Even with existing chargers, there can be problems with reliability. Drivers also have to carry multiple membership cards or download separate apps to charge at points run by different companies.
Companies such as Zap-Map are trying to address this with a system that allows drivers to pay through a single app regardless of whose charging network they are using. But Mr Archer said stronger action may be required to address such problems.
“The industry has been promising to tackle this for a number of years, they haven’t done. Now it’s really time I think for the government to legislate in this area . . . they can bring in mandatory levels of reliability,” he said, pointing out that primary legislation already exists in the form of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act.
For some, though, the electricity grid is the bigger challenge.
Service area chiefs have warned about the high costs — at times millions of pounds — of getting adequate power to existing sites, which are often rural, to support high-speed charging facilities. Such costs “blow a big hole” in the business case for sites that want to install bays, according to an executive at one charging group.
Prime minister Boris Johnson announced in November that £1.3bn would be made available to accelerate the rollout of charging infrastructure in England, including £950m to support rapid charging on motorways and major A-roads.
Electricity network companies such as National Grid hope the government will this year name a delivery body to oversee how that money is spent reinforcing grids in strategic locations where rapid charging will be needed.
Erik Fairbairn, chief executive of charging group Pod Point, said difficulties accessing charging were still deterring some drivers from buying electric cars.
But he added that the “rate at which that’s changing gives me enough confidence” that the 2030 target “is achievable”.