From small beginnings come great things, or so the proverb goes. There may be only around 2,000 electric vehicles (EVs) on Britain’s roads today, but by the end of the decade, some expect EVs and hybrids to account for 5-10 per cent of car sales. That’s 100,000-200,000 vehicles making demands on the power industry – needing sufficient supply, requiring demand to be managed, tariffs to be arranged, bills to be produced and network connections to be made.
A lot needs to be done before we can get from 2,000 EVs to a hundred times that number – to start with, the vehicles themselves have to be developed and an infrastructure put in place to enable them to charge. Manufacturers are stepping up to the plate: 29 new electric or hybrid models are expected in the next 18 months from most of the big car makers, including Renault, Ford, Vauxhall and BMW. Leading the charge on the infrastructure front is Chargemaster.
The company has three years’ experience under its belt of selling EV charging equipment in the UK and Europe. Last summer, it raised its game with the announcement of the Polar Network, which will be the UK’s first nationwide EV charging infrastructure.
Polar uses a subscription model. Drivers become members for between £19.50 and £39.50 a month, depending on which package they choose. For that, they get a heavily discounted home (or work) charging unit (£95 rather than nearer £1,000), and for higher priced packages, access to what will by the end of the year be a network of 4,000 public charging bays.
Most public bays will be privately hosted by Polar partners, which include supermarkets Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Asda, and car rental firms Enterprise, Hertz and Europcar. Chargemaster also has partnerships with 15 local authorities to deliver on-street charging bays.
According to chief executive David Martell, home charging will be the bedrock of the EV market and is of most interest to energy suppliers. “Most people will charge at home. We have been working very closely with particularly SSE, British Gas and EDF on the home front, where they are most interested,” he says. ” The public network is very much a support to the home network, so you don’t have to get back home to charge.”
Martell says the home charging unit is typically installed by SSE or British Gas, following a free survey of the customer’s home wiring by an electrician. The electricity consumed by EV charging is billed as part of the normal household bill. Martell says than under a normal tariff, 100 miles’ worth costs about £2. However, both SSE and British Gas offer special EV tariffs.
SSE’s is a time-of-use tariff whereby the driver leaves the car plugged in (typically overnight) and the power is drawn when it best suits the network. One hundred miles’ worth of charge costs between £1 and £1.50. The British Gas tariff offers renewable electricity rather than a cheaper price, but Martell says he expects British Gas to launch a time-of-use tariff in March. In fact, he says: “EDF will have an EV tariff soon too. We anticipate deals with all suppliers in due course; all suppliers will bring out an EV tariff this year. As EVs become more popular, there will be more and more incentives to get them to charge off-peak.”
Martell is full of praise for energy suppliers for grasping the opportunities EVs offer. “They have vision,” he says. “They see EVs as a big part of their business over the next 30-40 years. They have been very forthcoming to work with – they want to get into this market. They see it as part of the whole smart package and have dedicated teams to it. British Gas has about 20 people on it.”
The plan for the public charging rollout is to have 40 points in 100 towns by the end of 2012. Martell confirms that so far, “approaching 1,000” points have been installed. The rollout is being done area by area, with emphasis placed on where EVs are selling most. Wales and southern England are taking priority in the first nine months.
Chargemaster has plans to dominate the charging infrastructure market within a few years. Martell says: “Apart from ours, there are 800-900 charging points installed now, most part of the Plugged in Places (Pip) initiative [a government-supported EV programme focused on eight locations]. By the end of 2012, we will have three-quarters of all posts. And we hope to take over Pip units once the initiative ends in April 2013.”
He notes, too, that while Chargemaster has competitors in its equipment sales business, no other company has yet launched an extensive national infrastructure programme. He says Ecotricity has come closest, with plans to install charging points at Welcome Break motorway service stations across the country.
Polar members pay a flat rate of 90p to use public posts, which covers electricity costs. These charges are added to monthly membership direct debits. Posts can be supplied by any electricity supplier – this is the choice of the host organisation (NCP, for example, or a local authority). Chargemaster pays each host monthly and the host then settles the power bill with its supplier, usually as part of its wider electricity supply bill.
In installing on-street points, Chargemaster has dealt (alongside councils) with distribution network operators (DNOs) to arrange network connections. Getting electricity connections has long been a thorn in the side of developers such as housebuilders, who complain of slow service and poor customer care. Martell is also far less enamoured by his dealings with DNOs than electricity suppliers.
He notes that at between six and nine months, it “does appear to take a long time” to get a connection and this is “one of the reasons installing on-street can be problematic” [points installed on private land can usually come off the established supply]. He also notes that the cost of getting a network connection (he says Chargemaster is typically billed between £10,000 and £15,000 by the DNO) far outstrips the cost of the charging equipment (about £4,000).
Although loath to condemn them, he clearly thinks DNOs should show more enthusiasm for EVs. “EVs are coming,” he says. “There are 29 new cars coming out in the next 18 months. They should see it as an opportunity. Infrastructure is very important; it should be an interesting area of the market for them.”
This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 17 February 2012.
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