Motorway services fear grid not ready for electric cars

Britain’s electricity network is “not fit for purpose” and is stifling the rollout of electric vehicle chargers along key trunk roads in the UK, say motorway services operators.

Electric vehicles currently account for only about 2 per cent of sales in the UK, but a steep rise is expected during the next two years as carmakers strive to meet new stringent CO2 targets and as the country gears up to hit its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Motorway service areas are preparing to increase their charging provisions to meet the jump in demand.

But Simon Turl, chairman of operator RoadChef, said his company’s attempts to add charging services have been held up by distribution network operators (DNOs), which own local electricity grids and demand millions of pounds and waits of up to three years, to install new power lines.

“It feels like our power network at times is not fit for purpose to serve this massive charging need that is coming,” said Mr Turl. “We can fund this, there is no cost to the state. But we can only make that provision as quickly as the DNOs can make it happen.”

The UK has said it will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and the government’s climate advisers have recommended bringing forward the deadline to 2035. The Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official advisory body, has estimated that 214,100 public chargers will be needed to meet UK’s net zero goal.

There is no official target for the number of chargers on major roads in the UK but long-distance charging on motorways is considered essential to allay motorists’ concerns over longer journeys in battery vehicles.

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Most of the country’s 91 service areas have at least two chargers that can be used by any battery vehicle but many more will be needed to provide guaranteed charging for the increased number of electric cars expected to be on the road in the coming years.

National Grid, which manages the UK’s electricity network, has mapped out 54 sites along major roads in England and Wales where “ultra rapid” chargers could be connected to existing local electricity grids or its own high voltage transmission network. But construction costs are expected to be up to £1bn and there will be added annual connection charges.

“If you want people to be able to have their first and only car to be an electric car, you’re going to need to be able to go outside the range of the car and charging not to be a problem,” Graeme Cooper, National Grid’s head of electric vehicles, told the FT’s Future of Mobility conference in November.

But service station owners face a lottery as they look to boost their charging provision. Their most rural sites, which will be in areas that offer fewest charging alternatives for electric drivers, will also be the sites that are most costly to connect.

Welcome Break, a large motorway service operator, was quoted tens of millions of pounds for establishing a high-speed connection to one of its sites. “This is a nettle that needs to be grasped,” said John Diviney, chief executive.

BP Chargemaster, which is about to begin installing charging points at BP filling stations on the motorway network, is also facing connectivity issues. “This is one of the challenges that as an industry, we need to be able to try and address and make it more of a level playing field,” said Dave Newton, chief operating officer.

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Electricity network companies acknowledge the problems, particularly in rural locations. They say their investments are constrained by regulations that only allow them to spread the high costs of strengthening grids if they can prove there is sufficient demand; otherwise, the beneficiaries must bear the full cost themselves.

Network companies say they are trying to find alternative solutions where costs and the time involved in upgrading grid infrastructure are prohibitive. “Installing high speed chargers at service stations could require significant additional investment in network infrastructure depending on location, so the network companies are now innovating to offer customers a range of smarter, flexible options to help to reduce costs and the time of connection,” the Energy Networks Association said.

These include a cheaper “flexible connection” that, on a few occasions a year, means motorway services may receive less power. This would typically be on a cold, dark winter’s day during rush hour, when electricity demand across the country is at a peak but some motorway services operators may have access to another power source or battery to make up for any shortfall during that time.

Other grid companies argue that government intervention is needed to ensure that there is adequate provision of charging facilities along key motorways. National Grid said that for its plans to succeed, the government would be required to underwrite the overall construction cost and “pay the early years’ annual connection charges”.

The Department for Transport said the government was “reviewing the provision of rapid and higher powered electric vehicle chargepoints along England’s strategic road network”.

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