Petrol stations are useful things, aren’t they? You can fill your car with fuel, obviously, but how else can you secretly indulge in a sneaky chocolate bar, finally pick up that bottle of screenwash you need to clear all those bugs – and grab a bunch of flowers for that (temporarily) forgotten birthday or anniversary?
That will all change with electric cars, though. No petrol, no petrol station.
After all, according to charger supplier BP Chargemaster, 80 per cent of us will charge our EVs at home. Why go somewhere else to pay more for the same electricity?
Because despite home charging being the best option for the vast majority of usage, sometimes we have to leave that comfort zone and travel beyond the range of our EV (although range will increase in EV models over the next few years, easing most ‘range anxiety’). It might be for work, to visit friends and family (when that’s again allowed) or get away from it all on a staycation.
There are plenty of public chargers around the country already – around 34,000 at the current count – but the infrastructure will need to scale up, while also becoming more efficient and sustainable, over the next few years to accommodate a greater number of electric vehicles on our roads.
Enter Gridserve, a start-up that has plans to build 100 ‘Electric Forecourts’ around the country over the next five years.
The first of these is at a site at Braintree, Essex, not far from Stansted Airport. Not perhaps the most obvious location for such a pilot scheme – London has the highest number of EV registrations – but it makes a lot of sense to Gridserve CEO, Toddington Harper, when describing the concept behind the project.
He said: “This is designed as a public charging solution, to be able to charge any type of electric vehicle, as fast as that vehicle would allow, in a setting that's suited for people. They can turn up to charge with all the convenience you would get from a modern petrol forecourt.
“What's needed now is dedicated infrastructure like this, designed to serve particular communities. This is more like an alternative to a petrol station rather than a service station.
“There's over 800,000 vehicles and Essex, but not many of them are electric yet, so what we're trying to do is to convert as many of those people into electric vehicles, and net zero electric charging, as quickly as we possibly can. That’s why, for us, this was a really good location. And there'll be many more coming.”
Despite being on the cutting edge of motoring’s future, there’s a familiar feel to the Electric Forecourt. Yes, there are no petrol and diesel pumps, but there are 24 rapid chargers (12 capable of charging up to 350kW, the other 12 charging up to 90kW), six 22kW units and six Tesla Superchargers. You’ll be able to drive up, make a contactless payment and charge. Easy.
Depending on how quickly your EV can take on a charge – and the technology is improving rapidly, so newer models can charge faster than older EVs – you’ll have 20-40 minutes to kill. Which is where the main building comes in.
On the ground floor are all the retail opportunities you expect from a service station: a WH Smith, Booths supermarket, Gourmade frozen food store, Post Office branch and Costa Coffee. Upstairs, there’s a lounge with wifi access, meeting pods, a kids area, wellbeing zone and a showcase for EVs, which will feature a new model on display, plus information on EVs. If you take advantage of just some of these activities, that 40-minute charge will go by in a flash.
One of the most significant aspects of the Gridserve project is that the company is aiming to supply net zero carbon charging. This is because the company is, as much as possible, twinning solar farms that it also owns with its Electric Forecourts: for Braintree, a solar farm 44 miles away will supply the national grid with a kilowatt of power for every kilowatt used by the chargers. There are also onsite solar panels and a 6 GWh battery for storing electricity.
It’s an impressive set-up, but the big question is whether Gridserve can survive, financially, to roll out the rest of the 100-strong network, but also until EVs increase in numbers to the kind of saturation point where most of us are driving them.
“We've modelled these projects as infrastructure projects, critical power infrastructure. We model that over many years, so 30 years is how we look at the timeframe of a project like this. Our business case is not based on a year or two, or three or four. It's literally based on 30 years,” Harper explained.
“The other thing that allows us to do is to keep the cost of charging lower,” he continued. “We’re not actually announcing until we launch what our pricing strategy is, but it's going to be very competitive. If the plan was to charge people and arm and a leg for that energy, then you're shooting yourself in the foot, because that's going to not encourage people to want to make the transition to electric vehicles.
“And that's what we need: to make this work well for everybody. It was a lot more difficult four years ago, when we were trying to persuade investors that this was the right solution to trigger the mass migration to electric vehicles. It's a lot easier now, because our ambitions are very conservative, compared to what the government has laid out [banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, potentially by 2032 or even 2030].”
Harper is confident that Gridserve can last the course. “Gridserve is a business built on sustainable energy – and sustainability in our mind also means sustainable business models. Sustainable business models mean you're not dependent on subsidies.”
The Braintree site is set to open in late autumn, with Harper suggesting that the number of Gridserve sites will be in double digits within the next 18 months to two years.
This will be music to the ears of EV drivers, because although there are 34,000 public chargers in the UK now, reliability of the various networks can be patchy. Gridserve, when it has 100 Electric Forecourts open across the country, should offer a reliable, rapid-charging option for those who have to charge away from home.
And who knows? You might even be able to pick up some flowers, too.
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