EV users have no shortage of horror stories about journeys thrown into chaos by non-working chargers, and the need for 17 separate phone apps for the plethora of charging providers. As West Sussex County Council launches a public consultation on new sites, this blog by Thalia Griffiths looks at the challenges facing the nascent industry

West Sussex County Council (WSCC) is launching a public consultation this month on new sites for the second phase of its charger rollout, which is being carried out by Connected Kerb under an innovative concession contract.

WSCC approved an EV strategy in December 2019 and is overseeing installation of chargepoints across the county, on streets, in council car parks and at community facilities. At the same time private sector operators are installing chargers in privately owned sites like pub and supermarket car parks.

The government has announced a ban on sales of new diesel and petrol vehicles from 2030, but more electric cars on the road will mean far more chargers are needed. And good charging networks are needed to create consumer confidence in EVs. The government says its “vision” is to have fully removed charger provision as a barrier to EV adoption by 2030, but of course that is easier said than done.

The move to EVs is important because 27% of the UK’s GHG emissions come from transport, of which cars contribute 60%. Even including manufacturing, lifetime emissions from EVs are still 65% less than petrol vehicles according to the government’s Office for Zero Emission Vehicles (OZEV).

Like any new technology, the market is full of small players keen to make their mark, but at the same time this is a massive national infrastructure project being left to the market to figure out.

What are councils doing?

Transport for the South East (covering the SECA area plus Berkshire) issued a strategy document in March 2023 with the headline finding that 28,000 chargers are needed by 2030 (compared to 2,300 existing and planned when the report was published). It found just three of 16 Local Transport Authorities had published specific EV or ULEV strategies (West Sussex, Surrey and West Berkshire) and of these, only two (West Sussex and West Berkshire) had included detailed forecasting or commitments to specific, quantified targets.

Other councils have included EV targets and aspirations within their transport strategy, local transport plan or environmental/air quality policy documents.

As well as West Sussex, Connected Kerb is also active in Surrey, where they announced plans in March to play a leading role in delivering 10,000 public chargers required across the county by 2030. Plans involve charge points at over 1,500 locations on streets and public car parks.

In Brighton & Hove, EV plans are part of the 2030 Carbon Neutral Programme. Over 350 chargepoints have been installed with funding from OZEV, and investment from installation and maintenance contractor Electric Blue (now Blink Charging). To promote EV uptake, the council offers a 50% discount for resident parking permits for eligible low emission vehicles.

East Sussex County Council has said it plans to develop a strategy. Meanwhile for example in Hastings, mindful of the visitor economy, the council has installed charging points in seafront car parks, while more chargers are popping up outside pubs and supermarkets.

If you build it, they will come

Having completed the first phase of its charger rollout, WSCC is now working on phase 2, to involve another 150 locations around the county. Head of Transport and Network Management Andy Ekinsmyth told SECA a public consultation was starting in July, giving residents in the area around each proposed charging point the opportunity to feed back on the proposed site.

The public consultation is just one part of the site selection process, once practical considerations have been taken into account. “The third part of the story is what it will cost to do it. Laying electrical cables or digging up highways is an expensive business, particularly if you’re having to trench over quite a long distance to the nearest substation that is able to provide you with sufficient power. The equipment above ground is in the few thousands of pounds worth, but the connection underneath it can easily run into the tens of thousands if you’ve got a site that is not particularly well served or there is not sufficient capacity locally.”

Ekinsmyth said there were a number of factors to consider in positioning chargers and the planning process aimed to make sure all of these were considered. Part of WSCC’s role is to ensure that chargers were not just sited where they would be most profitable.

“If you just allow the commercial market to determine sites then you’re not going to get any charge points in areas where there’s very low usage, so we need to ensure that there’s a level of social equity associated with the process.”

Phase one saw a charger rollout initially in council-owned car parks, followed by a first phase of on-street charging points, all of which are either commissioned or very close to commissioning. Ekinsmyth said the single biggest criticism from the public was that parking spaces were being lost. “Of course that is a problem until it’s no longer a problem, because once people have electric vehicles, they’ll want chargepoints. So there’s a real balance for local authorities in terms of how much of a lead you put in in advance of people buying EVs.”

Planning for future demand is a huge challenge. Most EV users charge at home overnight, as it’s cheapest, and the vast majority of car journeys are well within an EV’s range. And with battery technology constantly improving, an individual user’s need for on-the-go charging will decrease. “Our indication at the moment is that we probably need about 3,500 or so sockets in West Sussex in order to be able to meet what we expect to be reasonable demand over the next five to 10 years. But what we don’t know is what BP, Tesco or Travelodge’s plans might be. There’s a lot of players out there,” Ekinsmyth said.

“The danger is that if you don’t have the infrastructure, then people won’t switch to electric vehicles. So at some point or other, you’ve got to take essentially a leap in the dark in order to be able to do it, and that requires public funding.”

Installing a low-speed charger at an existing streetlight can be done quickly and cheaply, but UK Power Networks puts the cost of an on-street charger at £5,000-10,000, and a charger in a car park at £10,000+.

West Sussex has benefited from the government’s On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme and Local EV Infrastructure funding streams. Ekinsmyth said West Sussex’s concession contract was the first of its kind, though other local authorities are now looking at the model.

What can Green groups do?

Helping to identify sites is one possibility. Connected Kerb has a facility on its website for the public to register interest for a charging point, and Ekinsmyth said he’d encourage groups in West Sussex to do that. Instavolt is one charging provider that has told us it is actively looking for suitable sites.

Carrie Cort of Sussex Green Living says Green groups can play a role in providing information as well as campaigning for more sites. Many EV owners do not realise they should be on a green tariff with their electricity provider to ensure they are charging their car with renewable electricity.

“Having had an EV since 2016, we are now in 2023 and it is pathetic the pace at which the industry is progressing,” she says. “At the minimum we should be encouraging more chargepoints that are easy to use with a simple swipe of a credit card and not the requirement for an app to be downloaded with each chargepoint.”

As so often with Green policies there’s no shortage of positive messaging, but this is definitely one for Green groups to keep an eye on if they don’t entirely trust the wisdom of the market.

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