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Top-up your charging knowledge

Date: 17 June 2016   |   Author: Jack Carfrae

The public and private electric charging network for plug-in vehicles has grown exponentially, but it remains a daunting prospect to uninitiated fleets. Jack Carfrae dispels the myths

You know where you are with a petrol station, but less so with an electric vehicle charging point.

Anyone who's run a plug-in car or van for a while will have got their head around it, but charging is still a foggy area and knowing how, when, where and even if you or your drivers can top the thing up, is arguably the biggest stumbling block facing plug-in vehicles.  

The good news is that there are plenty of places to top up, even if you don't have a dedicated spot on site.

"There are over 10,000 public vehicle charging points around the country," says Poppy Welch, head of plug-in car campaign Go Ultra Low. "96% of motorway service stations have them. On average you're never more than four miles from an EV charging point; in London it's a lot less."

A dose of Government funding early this year increased the number of charging points in several cities, as Welch explains: "In January, the Government awarded cities around the UK funds from a £40m pot to implement schemes to help the uptake of electric vehicles. Four of the main cities were London, Milton Keynes, Bristol and Nottingham - they received £10m each.

"Examples [of how the money is being spent] are what we call electric filling stations. They look a bit like a petrol station, but they're basically banks of electric chargers with a shop, cafe etc. so the experience is very similar to going to a petrol station. That will help a lot, not only from practical point of view but it's also about reassurance.

"Most journeys in the UK are actually incredibly short and you don't need to rely on charge points. The public needs reassurance and just knowing they're there helps people's perceptions - even if in reality they don't end up using them."

"We're putting out about 100 [units] a month at the moment," says David Martell, CEO of charging point specialist Chargemaster. "The level of interest in electric vehicles and charging points is noticeably better than last year when fleets said they couldn't practically operate an electric car; and they can now."  
He adds that it's not uncommon to find charging points at public sector organisations in particular; something employees should embrace if they happen to be dealing with them.

"Increasingly, when we go to meetings the customer might have a charging point. I went to a meeting at Harrow Council [in northwest London], parked in the visitor's spot and plugged in. I was in a meeting for two hours and had a fully charged battery afterwards."

Get to the point

As adept as fans of the public charging infrastructure suggest it is, fleets generally need on-site charging facilities if they're to operate plug-in vehicles successfully. Most drivers charge at home and at their business premises because they know they can and because they'll typically have a full battery each time they make a routine trip.

"It's chicken and egg, I suppose," says Wayne Millward, fleet consultant at leasing giant Arval. "We get customers saying 'we want [plug-in] vehicles on the fleet'. 'Okay [we say], brilliant, can the drivers charge when they come to work?' Then they respond with 'no, we're not looking at that'. If you're going to do one, you've really got to do the other. But which comes first? Do you look at demand and get the vehicles or do you have an infrastructure in the hope that people take that route?"

"A lot of people who have bought [plug-in vehicles] have installed charging points themselves," adds John Hargreaves, general manager of fleet and remarketing at Kia. "We've got a couple here [at Kia HQ]. They're not the really rapid ones that enable you to get up to 80% in 30 minutes, but they'll fully recharge the vehicle in about four hours and a lot of people have those at their offices - either that or they charge at home.

"[Drivers] are using the public infrastructure, which is growing all the time, [but] mainly, people are saying they've got a circuit they do every day that's less than, say, 100 miles, and they use work charging or home charging."

The downside is that businesses currently have to foot the entire bill for a charging point, even though grants exist for domestic units, but that could be about to change. In the previous issue of BusinessCar, we revealed the Government's plans for a workplace charging point grant, which is tipped for launch this summer. Although details are still scarce, a formal announcement about the scheme is expected next month, so companies looking to install their own infrastructure could be in for a cost reduction.

There remains a degree of scepticism about the public charging infrastructure and its usefulness to fleets. While some sing its praises, others think there is still work to do to make it truly viable.

"My thoughts are that there aren't enough charge points widely distributed for you to be able to go out without planning your journey in advance, and that's a critical thing," says Kia's Hargreaves. "If you're going on a 300-mile trip, you don't look at where fuel stations are, you just know that you're going to be able to flit between them. With EVs, you have to plan for it, and I don't know what the critical mass would be because there will always be one, but we're far from that at the moment.

"In my own experience of driving an electric vehicle, I've always looked in advance at where I can charge," he continues. "There are definitely hotspots for it. London, for example, and there are some councils in the Midlands that have got quite a few. Cornwall is a regional hotspot too. But there are also places where there is no infrastructure at all. There are quite considerable local variations and that goes back to planning your journey rather than just setting off."  

"There's still a lot of work to be done," adds Arval's Millward. "A lot more public places need to get on board - supermarkets, for example. Some of them have taken a stance on it - Sainsbury's and Waitrose seem to be the better ones, but I haven't seen any at a Tesco yet. If you charge up while you're doing your weekly shopping, I think that will encourage people. You're spending money and getting a full tank of fuel, as it were."

Three types and two standards, but it's still as easy as using a fuel pump

Despite its seemingly alien nature, the methods and apparatus for charging
plug-in vehicles can, with a little knowledge and experience, be no more complicated, if not easier, than your average petrol pump.

"There are three distinctive types of charging," says David Martell, CEO of charging point specialists Chargemaster. "One is charging at home, where you typically charge overnight on a 7kW charger and it's very similar to your mobile phone. [The second] is what you call destination charging, which typically takes a number of hours but it doesn't matter because you're at your office, for example.

"The other type is rapid charging, which is a much faster rate, and there are now some 500 of these across the UK. They are typically for extending the range when you want to go for longer distances, so if you need to go from London to Manchester, you'll perhaps stop in Birmingham for a cup of coffee for 40 minutes and charge the car up.

"There are two standards for rapid charging. One is called CHAdeMO - that's the Japanese standard, and cars like the Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV and the Nissan Leaf use it. Then there's the American and European standard called CCS [Combined Charging System].

"All rapid chargers we put out are able to charge both those different types. It's a bit like going to a petrol station where you've got diesel pumps and petrol pumps; you just have two different cables."
Businesses and drivers operating plug-in vehicles can locate charging points via and

'Don't give them a fuel card'

Leasing firm Arval has researched the effect of operating plug-in hybrid cars without charging them. Such models are capable of running solely on petrol or diesel, but businesses could be incurring much higher costs if drivers eschew charging points and simply take plug-in hybrids for the tax breaks.

"I picked the BMW 3-series and the Mercedes C-class - massive fleet vehicles," fleet consultant Wayne Millward tells BusinessCar. "I put them into a whole-life cost model and basically created a kind of fictitious vehicle - half hybrid, half petrol in the sense that you got all the tax benefits of a plug-in hybrid but you never actually plugged it in.  

"The whole-life cost increased by 15% when the vehicle was used purely as a petrol and not plugged in - a massive impact. Although there were still National Insurance savings to a company and benefit-in-kind savings for the individual, the fuel bill went up three times compared with using it properly. I also reduced all manufacturers' mpg figures by 20%, which as rule of thumb is about what you get in real life - and it was still about three times the fuel bill. Astonishing.

"If you've got a fuel card, it'll cost about £100 per month all-in as a 40% taxpayer, so it's a no-brainer for the individual, but the company's fuel cost goes through the roof because you're getting 30mpg rather than 150mpg.

"Strictly speaking, to discipline someone to use [a plug-in hybrid] properly, you don't give them a fuel card. They pay and claim and that will change their behaviour to make sure they plug it in whenever they can. When you reimburse them, because there isn't a rate for the electric part, you perhaps reduce the [Advisory Fuel Rate] by a penny, or say 'it's 4p for the first 25 miles, then you go up to AFR' because that will cover the electric part as an average."