For once I can describe myself as an early adopter. I recently acquired an electric car. We are, partly from necessity, a two car family and our twenty year old petrol-driven motor finally gave up the ghost this year. We realised that the cost of keeping it roadworthy exceeded its value by a considerable multiple. It had been mainly an urban run-around, used for short journeys, and the final straw was the realisation that it would shortly cease to meet emissions standards within the M25, significantly limiting its utility.
However replacement was not the only or even the primary motive. I have long argued for electric vehicles as an important route to decarbonising the economy, so I had a strong professional interest in experiencing for myself the joys and pitfalls of ownership, and understanding what the barriers might be to their widespread acceptance as an alternative means of personal travel. Driving an electric car is a delightful experience, but purchase prices are significantly higher than conventional petrol driven vehicles, and there is currently less choice, particularly in relation to larger models.
But prices are likely to come down, choice to improve, and the other barriers are probably more important. The key questions are the connected matters of range and the adequacy of charging infrastructure. These may determine whether most motorists will be willing to have an EV as their only car. Will it actually meet their needs if they are travelling on holiday or to visit distant family?
So this is what I set out to test with a recent 240 mile journey to West Wales. This is just beyond the nominal range of my car, as claimed by the manufacturer, so after allowing for the effects of cold weather (which slightly reduces battery performance) and the need for a safety margin, it was clear that I would need a significant recharge at some point in the journey.
This is where understanding the options becomes important. Stopping on a four hour plus journey makes sense anyway, but that means that ideally one wants to be able to do a significant recharge in an hour. This where understanding the units of battery energy becomes important. My car has a total energy capacity of 52 kWh. I can recharge it from an ordinary 3-pin plug in my drive at home at a rate of 2 kW. That means a full recharge would take about 26 hours, although I would usually be thinking of recharging when it falls to about 50%. For much of the time 2 kW on an overnight charge might be quite adequate. However that’s not good enough for recharging on a long journey, or even if I’m doing a lot of local driving with longer daily journeys.
Fortunately it is possible to get much faster charging points. I have a home charger, paid for by government grant, which charges at 7 kW. There are plenty of publicly available charging points at 7 kW, and quite a few at 22 kW. Motorway service stations typically offer 46 kW or higher, depending on the type of EV. Remarkably, at the ancestral family home in West Wales we have access to four charging points, each offering 22 kW within 300 metres of our house, in the local village car park.
So the infrastructure is starting to grow. Long journeys still require a bit of extra planning, but ranges in excess of 200 miles mean that an EV will meet the needs of virtually all the UK journeys that we ever contemplate. Long journeys though will demand a good distribution of charging points at 22 kW or above. For people who are not fortunate enough to be able to do home charging, there will need to be a large network of local points, and many of these will be at 2 kW or 3 kW, although local supermarkets are increasingly a source for recharging at higher kW levels.
The current networks of lower power “lamp post” charging points will be adequate if not ideal for EV owners provided there is a reasonable density of these in their area. The main drawback of reliance solely on public charging points will arise if there are incentives to maintain a semi-permanent connection to the grid, as EVs could provide a valuable source of storage for the power system as a whole.
So what are the remaining issues. The first is the extent to which drivers can rely on a planned recharge. A number of charging locations, especially on motorways, provide only a single charge point for my type of vehicle. This will be a problem as EVs become more popular, and if a queue develops. The second is reliability. Too often some of the charging stations are out of order. Whether this is a simple technical fault, which ought to improve with experience and better maintenance, or whether there are local network constraints, is not clear.
The other irritation is the sheer number of different networks, each of which may demand use of their own mobile phone app, and each of which may have a slightly different tariff. This imposes a substantial cost on users in terms of time, setting up of accounts and passwords, and so on. One urgent need, therefore, is for a much simpler payment by contactless card that can operate across different networks.
But my overall positive is simply the experience of driving an electric vehicle, in terms of low noise, responsiveness (amazing acceleration), energy saving and reduced pollution. Once converted I can’t envisage returning to diesel or petrol power.