I just drove to Birmingham at the weekend and got my first taste of long distance electric car journeys outside the Tesla bubble and, I gotta be honest, it’s pretty bad out there. The UK needs a massive investment in charging infrastructure if EV ownership is to be a viable option for most people.
Here’s the scenario; a day trip to the Birmingham Resorts World Arena to watch the Vitality Netball Super League season opener [Link]. For me, that’s a round trip of 260 miles, all on motorways. My car has a range of 200 miles on a full charge so I’m going to have to charge somewhere if I want to get home.
Here’s the plan: leave about 7am with a full charge, drive for an hour and then plug in for a top-up while getting breakfast. Drive on to the NEC and plug in to one of the destination chargers. Have a great day and return to a fully charged car and drive all the way home without stopping.
Spoiler: It worked out ok but there were three big issues that will put pretty much everyone off owning an EV because of the stress it creates.
- I had to queue for the chargers at the service station
- The charging power of the “fast” chargers is complete fiction
- There are only 6 EV chargers at the NEC
How do you know where the charging points are?
There are several apps out there that will show you where you can charge your car. I use the ZapMap app [link]. I found that Cherwell Valley services have 4 “fast” chargers according to Zap Map. Perfect for a top-up while having breakfast.
Queuing for the chargers
So we rock up at 8:15am and oh no! The chargers already full! And what’s more, there’s only 3 parking spaces for 4 chargers! We decide to wait and 5 mins laters someone comes out and drives off. They weren’t actually using the charger either. We plug in and then find it won’t charge.
It turns out ONLY ONE CONNECTOR ON A CHARGER CAN CHARGE AT A TIME!!
There are not four chargers. There are in fact only two!! So if you open your Zap-Map app and see this, be aware that there are in fact no available chargers — they are both in use and you will not be able to charge from a device until the people already using the other connector have finished.
The charging power of the “fast” chargers is complete fiction
10 minutes later we were hooked up to one of the 120kW CCS connectors and finally getting charged. So while munching on a surprisingly tasty chicken and basil sandwich from Pret, I checked my app to see how much charge we had gotten.
“Oh no!” for the third time! 38.7kW!! That’s less than 1/3rd of the stated power. Here’s the screenshot from my app at the time.
So instead of adding 4 miles of range per minute (240miles per hour), it’s adding just 1.3 miles per minute (80 miles per hour).
Put another way, I’m only gaining range a bit faster than I used it to get here!
Add to this the fact that both devices are already in frequent use and the conclusion is that the system is already at capacity, yet there’s hardly any electric cars on the road.
30 minutes on my journey time
I only planned to stop for 30mins but queuing plus slow charging meant I stopped for an hour instead.
Other chargers are available
It’s worth saying here that this wasn’t my only option to charge. I had two. Had we had to wait longer I would have headed up the road to the InstaVolt hub at Stroud Park [link]. Less choice of food but, with 8 charging devices, more chance of a working charger. But if this was full there were no other chargers on my direct route and we’re looking at taking detours into nearby towns. Already my mind is having to think ahead.
But did you really have to charge?
Well, no, I could have gone all the way to Birmingham without charging. But the thing is, I’m already concerned about how I’ll get home. I really want to get home in one go as it will be late. So I want to have at least 80% charge before I leave. I’ve booked a destination charger at the NEC but I’ve never used them before and they only promise 3.5kW [link], although you might get 7kW if no-one is using the second connector on your charger.
If I’m there for about 8 hours that means I can only plan on getting 28kWh of charge, or about 30%. So I really need to arrive with at least 50%.
And then there’s the concern about if the chargers will actually be working. I definitely want to have plenty of range left in case I can’t charge at the NEC either.
It’s already getting complicated!
You can see that living with an electric car is already getting complicated. I like maths and I enjoy the challenge but, if you don’t, this is a complete headache.
There are only 6 chargers at the NEC
So I get to the NEC and I’m the first EV to arrive — I can take my pick. I’ve booked one so there should be one free, but you’re always worried if they will actually be working or if someone else will have just parked in the space.
I download the Swarco eConnect app, set up my account, register a payment method, work out that connector “1” on the app means “A” on the charger and start the session.
In the end no-one else uses the other connector on the charger so I get the full 7kW the whole time and my car is 100% charged by the time I leave. Happy days.
But seriously, the capacity of the arena I was in is 8000. There’s 16,500 car parking spaces at the NEC. But only 6 charging points! There needs to be 16,500 if we’re all going to switch to EVs!
As I’ve argued in another blog [link], destination charging is the key to widespread uptake of EVs. If I was sure I could have hooked up to a 7kW charger I wouldn’t have needed to charge en-route at all and the whole journey would have been stress free.
What does this mean for EVs
I‘m realising that the UK has a long long way to go before electric cars are a viable alternative. I love mine and I would not change it, but let’s be realistic here; they only work as a second car and if you have off-road parking plus your own 7kW charge point at home.
The public charging infrastructure is still woeful and is nowhere near ready for an increase in EV ownership.