Weekly Brief: A Milestone Week for Electric Vehicles in the UK

Something must be wrong here. 

That’s the first thing I thought when I saw Phil Oakley’s article last week on TU Auto, whose headline declared that in the United Kingdom EV public charging locations now outnumber fuel stations. I know there’s a lot of hype around EVs these days, and that their popularity is no doubt on the rise, but the fact remains that we live in a world where cars with internal combustion engines make up the vast majority of all cars on the road. They continue to make up the vast majority of all new car sales as well. This includes in the UK, where cars with fully electric powertrains have accounted for a measly 1% of all new cars sold so far this year. Ninety nine out of 100 new vehicles sold are ICEs, yet there are now more EV charging stations in the UK than fuel stations? It seemed like a missprint.

It wasn’t. As the article went on to detail, across the whole of the UK there are now 9,300 EV charging stations as compared to 8,400 fuel stations, according to Nissan UK. The number of fast charging stations, where EVs can charge up in about half an hour, is 1600, but that number is on the rise as well. In July 2019 two new fast charging stations opened every day of the month. The number of fuel stations, by contrast, is on a sharp decline, with just 20 percent of all fuel stations that were open in 1970 still open in 2019.

What does this mean? For one thing, it’s a major milestone for EV charging infrastructure and has the potential to turbo boost EV adoption in the UK in the coming years. How many people have you heard declare that “the day EV charging stations are as commonplace as fuel stations, I’ll buy an EV!”? In the UK, that day is today.

Evidence suggests that a fraction (around 5 percent) of all EV charging takes place on public chargers. That makes sense, since not many people want to sit around for 30 minutes or an hour while waiting for their ride to ramp back up to 50 percent battery life. As the technology continues to improve, however, charging times should go down. Last week Paul Myles reported that UK charging company InstaVolt is installing a new technology called the Supercharger into all of its stations. The Supercharger can theoretically pump more than 100 miles of range into an EV in 15 minutes. If it’s true, use of public charging stations could rise dramatically.

Even if use doesn’t go up much, the presence of public charging infrastructure is still important, as it makes more drivers aware of EVs as a viable alternative to ICEs. It also psychologically helps owners with one of the biggest impediments to EV adoption: range anxiety. If owners get into a pinch, they know that they won’t be stranded on the side of the road late at night calling for a 200-mile tow home. To the contrary, it’s now easier to find a charging station than a fuel station.

The same cannot be said in the US, where public charging stations number around 22000, with about 3000 of those qualifying as DC fast charge stations. On its own those numbers don’t sound bad. Indeed, it’s more than twice as many charging stations as in the UK … a distinction that quickly loses its luster when you learn that the total number of gas stations in the US is 168,000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a disparity that won’t be easy to fill. In fact, it’s so large it begs the question whether it even makes sense to try right now or whether it would be better to wait until more EVs are on the road, when the companies installing the infrastructure can recoup more of the expense.

It’s the classic chicken or the egg dilemma. Does the infrastructure create the EV wave, or does the EV wave create the infrastructure? The UK and the US are set up to land on two different sides of the evolutionary divide. My bet is that the US will lag well behind the UK and other Western European countries in EV adoption, due to lower levels of EV infrastructure and less regulatory pressure from the US government. One way or another, we’re about to find out.

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