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Workplace charging: A chargepoint in time

Date: 25 June 2021   |   Author: Sean Keywood

Financial incentives could make now the ideal moment for fleets to install workplace charging - but what are the pitfalls they need to watch out for?

No company car fleet manager has ever needed to worry about meeting the needs of their drivers by installing petrol or diesel pumps in the office car park. But with the move towards electric vehicles, the supply of workplace chargers to keep them going is increasingly a consideration. And not an easy one - partly because, rather than being a pure fleet matter, facilities teams in organisations and property landlords will also be involved. And also, because fleets will need to weigh up just how important or otherwise workplace chargers might be, compared with employees' need to have access to home or public chargers.

Alan McCleave, Newmotion regional manager for the UK and Nordics, is convinced of the benefits of workplace charging.

He says: "I personally think [workplace charging] is really important. 40% of UK homes don't have off-street parking, or they live in apartments or blocks of flats where they don't own the land, so they have got high barriers in terms of getting access to plug-in vehicles, and even if they had them where are they going to plug them in? 

"A good case study was at our sister company Shell Energy - we put 20-odd chargepoints in at their Coventry HQ in 2019. Before we put the chargers in they had one plug-in vehicle in the entire car park, and within three months they had six or seven, so it told you straight away that a number of people went 'hang on a minute, I can now drive to the office, plug in, drive home and drive back to the office', so it gave them an alternative way of charging their car, and operating a cleaner and more cost-effective lifestyle."

Another believer in the importance of workplace charging is Natalia Peralta Silverstone, head of propositions for Octopus Electric Vehicles.

She says: "I think today, if you were to ask an everyday person, they wouldn't say [workplace charging is] very important, they are going to say rapid charging, replicating the petrol pump experience, or home charging is more important, but in reality, when we have more cars on the road, workplace charging forms an important part of that experience. 

"Because, ultimately, the way you charge your car is a top-up model for most people - you top it up wherever you go, that's the concept. When your car is doing nothing, it should be charging, and the workplace is an important part of that. 

"The way we are seeing EV uptake at the moment, there is a massive uptake within the company car and salary sacrifice market, and workplace charging is a signal of 'I'm here to support you as a business, to make it easy', so it plays that role now, but longer-term too workplace charging is important."

Workplace charging got a potential boost earlier this year with the UK government's budget announcement of a 130% tax super deduction for plant and machinery, which can be applied to EV chargers. While neither of the charging company representatives we spoke to saw it as a game changer at the moment, they do think it forms part of a better-than-ever financial landscape for charger installation, alongside the Workplace Charging Scheme run by the Office of Zero Emission Vehicles.

McCleave says: "I think [the super deduction] went under the radar for a lot of people. What we're seeing for a lot of finance directors is it's the cherry on the cake, but it's not the cake itself. 

"It's never going to be cheaper to [install workplace charging] it than it is today. If you decide you're going to wait five years, it's going to be a lot more expensive to do it then. 

"If I was a finance director I think I'd be looking at my cap-ex budgets and saying now is a better time to do it."

Peralta Silverstone, says: "There was a lot of noise [about the super deduction], but it was a recent change, so it will probably take a bit of time to see that impact. But that combined with the workplace charging grant are good incentives for businesses. 

"And not only that, the biggest incentive for businesses to switch is BIK rates at the moment. The grants and incentives are never going to be better than they are today." 

A question businesses might be pondering is whether they should wait for employees to start driving EVs before providing charging facilities, or install chargers first to encourage adoption.

Responding to this, McCleave says: "You have to start with chargers. You can't expect your employees to turn up at work, everyone in a plug-in vehicle, then queue at the door going 'Come on then, when are you going to give us some chargers?'

"It is never going to work that way, and the example at Shell Energy - they are an energy business, so if anyone understands energy they certainly do, and you saw the infrastructure had to go in first, so I think there is a real responsibility on employers."

Peralta Silverstone says: "In our opinion, businesses should always be encouraging employees to be lower carbon. From that perspective, the more you can do in that space the better. Installing workplace chargers even if there are no EVs is a great way of indicating that you are there to support them, and good for CSR and PR. 

"Often, if employees can charge at home, then it is definitely the cheapest and most convenient way of doing so, and leasing companies like ours will facilitate charging infrastructure as part of that process. 

"But [businesses] might want to go one step further and also introduce workplace charging. Or they know that a lot of their employees live in cities, don't have access to convenient charging, and, therefore, the workplace is the most natural place to do so. 

"If you think about where your car lives most of its time, it's at home and at work, and those are definitely the most convenient places to charge."

However, although echoing the message about vehicles needing to be charged where they spend most of their time, Paul Hollick, chair of the Association of Fleet Professionals, argues that many company car fleets will want to prioritise getting home charging right over workplace charging.

He says: "The battleground normally is overnight destination charging, which tends to be the home or the kerbside for a lot of employees. The strategies I have seen most companies deploy would be just offering, effectively, a top-up facility in the office for employees, rather than them needing to depend on those chargepoints, because they might not be accessible - you don't really want car park fights about who is using a charging unit and who is not. 

"I think the last thing a fleet manager wants to have to get involved with is there not [being] enough chargers and everyone starts arguing because they need a charger to get home. 

"When an employee takes an electric car, it's got to be the employee's responsibility to make sure they can charge it effectively. And if it's their responsibility, then the central hub for charging needs to be at home. But the reality is these vehicles very rarely need to charge every day anyway."

Peralta Silverstone says workplace charging strategies should start with an assessment of the businesses' needs.

She says: "Before you do anything, you want to assess the true infrastructure that you need. You want to figure out why people need to charge at work and, therefore, how much charging infrastructure you should actually install.

"[Businesses] might want to install more chargers than they have power supply for, so they have a couple of options. They can either upgrade their power supply to the building, which is likely quite expensive, or they can look at some intelligent charging solutions, either load management or load balancing, so if they have sufficient power for ten bays at full capacity, they might install 20 or 30 chargers with an intelligent system balancing the supply."

McCleave says: "There are two key terminologies I suppose: grid supply capacity, or ASC as we call it, and maximum demand. If you know those two figures for your site, you can then work out what available supply you have got to play with. 

"That could be a lot, [or in the] worst case scenario I've seen negative figures, where they already exceed capacity. 

"People need to understand that information before deciding even whether their footprint is fit for purpose. You could [have] 20 depots across the country, [where] ten just don't have enough supply, so then how much does it cost to upgrade the power supply or is it more cost effective to move site?"

When asked what pitfalls fleets should look out for with workplace charging, Peralta Silverstone says they should beware a short-term view.

She says: "There will be companies who will have installed infrastructure in the past several years that was pretty basic, and then a couple of years down the line realise it's costing them a considerable amount of electricity and they have no way of managing that, to set up a tariff or restrict access. And because of that, if they want to introduce that kind of system they probably need to replace the whole charger.

"You don't really want to get yourself in that position - you want to make sure that whatever solution you take today future-proofs your needs."

McCleave says: "The thing for businesses is to try and think beyond today, because it can be a big investment, and it's to not just put two chargers in and say 'That's it, job done'.

"Try to think ahead a little bit. If you're going to put two in now that's fine, but then put some investment in so if you do expand it won't be as expensive.

"What people tend to do is go in with a quick plaster, then before you know it they've got people queueing up at the two chargepoints and then dig the car park up again to put the next lot in. Whereas what we would say to them is have ducting in place, so when you need extra you just feed the cable underground."

Hollick says issues for fleets to be aware of include who is allowed to use chargers and landlord cooperation.

"Where we have seen things go badly wrong is when employees aren't allowed to use office-based charging, it's only for guests, which I think is the wrong approach," he says. 

"I understand why sales reps might say that in an organisation, but I think it's a bitter pill to swallow from an HR perspective. 

"I think the biggest issue we are seeing at the moment is landlord's consent. There are some mega-fleets that have completely scaled up their office-based operation in terms of chargepoints because they own the sites, but then they can't do much for the ones they lease."