Electric Cars: How Do You Keep Them Charged Up?

Welcome to the fourth in our series of blog posts on electric cars. This week, we’ll be looking at one of the key areas of concern to most people considering the switch to an electric car: charging.  How do you charge them? Where do you charge them? And are you going to be left stranded with no charge left in them?

There’s still a little time to add your questions to be answered in our remaining blog posts of the series, so add your questions to our list.

As always, check back next week, or sign up for automatic updates using the ‘Follow Blog Via Email’ link on the right of this page, when we’ll be bringing you answers to a range of questions on the costs of electric car purchase and ownership.

This week, we’ve again spent time with Professor Phil Blythe, along with members of his research team, PhD student Andrew Robinson and Research Associate Graeme Hill, and put your (and our) questions to them.


Dr Sarah Sweeney, Theme Administrator, NIReS: So here we are again – as before, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to sit and answer our questions. This week we’d like to look at issues surrounding charging.  So, our first question is: will the availability of charging points depend on where you are in the UK, and what would be the situation if you were in Europe?

Andrew: At the moment, the simple answer is, yes – it does depend where you are. If you’re in the North East of England, you have the advantage of being in an area with an excellent (and expanding) infrastructure of charging points, but some other areas of the country are still a little way behind. This is improving all of the time though, so it is a case of thinking about where you might need to charge an electric car, and having a look to see how many charging points are available in that area.

Phil: The other factor is that the technology in the cars themselves is evolving all of the time, and the range you can get out of one full charge is expanding, so over time, those two things coming together (the improving charging infrastructure and the improving range of the cars) will help to allay those concerns. But yes, as things stand, coverage of charging points is variable.

Andrew: In Europe and elsewhere overseas, electric car charging points are becoming more widespread, as they are in the UK. As in the UK, however, they do tend to be clustered around the major cities, although this is likely to change as electric cars gain in popularity. Norway, the Netherlands and Germany currently have the most charging points in Europe, with other countries being slower to catch up.  If you are looking to see where charging points are located in a particular country, The OpenChargeMap project is an open source database with a public API for sharing and distributing charging information globally: http://openchargemap.org/. The project aims to provide globally relevant data freely to other application developers and navigation providers. Individual countries also have their own systems for helping drivers to find charging points, similar to the POD Point system in the UK.

Sarah: OK. So, if someone was considering making the switch or had already bought an electric car, how would they find out where charging points were located?

Graeme: Local authorities provide maps of where charging points are located in their area; electric car manufacturers such as Ford and Nissan also offer in-car location services, and mobile apps which will help you locate charging points and plan your journey around them.

Phil: As Andrew alluded to earlier, the North East has the most well developed charging infrastructure in the UK. Charge Your Car (CYC) is the scheme brand for the Plugged in Places project for the North East of England, funded with £7.8m by the Office for Low Emission Vehicles, One North East and regional partners.  Its aim is to create a comprehensive connected network of electric vehicle charging points throughout the North East of England by March 2013.  To date over 300 charge points have been installed in public, commercial and workplace locations with a further 80 domestic charging units in use at the homes of electric vehicle drivers in the region.  A growing network of eight 50 kW DC Quick Chargers along the main arterial routes is also providing an 80% charge in 30 minutes.   The Charge Your Car back office and EV User Membership Scheme has been successfully supporting EV Drivers and operators of charging infrastructure since October 2010, providing a single access tool and live charge point status map which can be accessed at:  http://chargeyourcar.org.uk/

Charge your car web map

Charge your car web map

Andrew: There are also several independent websites now available which can show you where charging points are located. For example, a map of charging points is available at www.ev-network.org.uk. The website also has a smartphone app, allowing you to search for charging points along your route. There are also community websites – for example PlugSurfing.co.uk – that allow individuals and organisations providing charging points to share information about their location and the type of charging facilities that are available. Both public charging points and private facilities – provided by PlugSurfers, the site’s users – are included and drivers can contact locations beforehand and review charging points after using them.

Sarah: Fantastic, so it’s quite easy to find out where there’s a charging point near you?

Andrew: Absolutely – couldn’t be easier!

Sarah: Great, thanks. Our next question is closely related.  So, you’ve found that there’s a charging point near you, but can you see whether or not it’s actually in use or available at the time? Is there a way of avoiding arriving needing a charge and finding that there isn’t actually a charging point available?

Graeme: Some charging point operators, like PODpoint, actually publish live availability of their charging points and in the future intend to allow users to book their charging points, precisely to get around this issue.

Phil: The North East’s Charge Your Car scheme does indicate whether a charging location is being used. At this point in time, there’s no pre-booking system for this, but we, at Newcastle University, are developing a booking and payment scheme under the EU SmartCEM project, so it’s possible or even likely that, in time, this will be available as an option.

Sarah: So now to the crucial question that everyone wants to know about. What happens if you run out of charge before you find an available charging point? Will I end up getting stranded on my way to somewhere?

Andrew: Well yes, if you completely run the car out of charge it will eventually coast to a stop, just like a petrol or diesel car would if it ran out of fuel. However, electric cars are generally equipped with many measures to try to prevent this from happening! The Nissan Leaf, for example, comes with a navigation system, programmed with locations of high-speed commercial charging stations as standard, so the driver of a Leaf always knows where electrical relief is available. As the charge begins to dwindle, however, the predicted remaining range is overlaid on the map, showing the driver where attainable charging stations are. As the charge decreases, the range indicated on the map continues to shrink. If the driver ignores that warning and keeps driving, a ‘limp home’ mode kicks in, limiting the car’s top speed and maximising the range left in the car. Finally, you can reach down and flip a switch for about two more miles of electricity, a sort of reserve fuel tank.

Sarah: Is there a protocol for behaviour at charging points? What would you do if you arrive and find another car plugged in but fully charged? Could you just unplug the other car in order to plug yours in?

Phil: Unfortunately, you would just have to wait until the driver returns to unplug their car as the charging points lock the plug in place exactly to prevent people unplugging other people’s cars without letting them finish charging. This is an issue that needs looking at further: from trials in the North East, busy city centre charging posts are, on average, occupied for 3hr 37 minutes after the electric vehicle has completed its charging, so some sort of management of this issue is clearly needed. Fast charges are managed in the North East, however, with a maximum of 40 minutes parking allowed at the charge point at any one time.

Sarah: We’ve heard a lot of different, and conflicting, information about the possibility of charging electric vehicles up at home, so what is the story there – can you charge them up at home, and how would you do this? Do you need a special type of socket installed to be able to do it?

Andrew: It is possible to charge an electric car using a standard household 13-amp three-pin plug, but there are safety implications to consider. The car will draw a lot of current, which risks overloading the circuits and, depending on the condition of your wiring, could cause a fire risk. It is generally recommend that you install a dedicated charging point on its own circuit. A dedicated charging point will also be robust, weatherproof and lockable, and you can position it in the most convenient place for your car. Home chargers also charge up your electric car up to 40% faster than using the standard home electricity plug points, and many energy providers offer special tariffs for electric car charging, which are cheaper than standard tariffs. It costs from £250-£1000 to have a standard charging point installed at home, depending on the difficulty of the installation. However, the fact that you can plug the car in anywhere means you could go on visits to relatives or on holiday and still be able to charge your car.

Phil: Smart meters are being installed with the charging points in people’s homes so that charging of your electric car takes place at times when there is less demand for electricity from the grid (from midnight to 6pm).  Coincidentally this is also the time when the CO2 in the UK’s energy grid is at its lowest.

Charging behaviour from SwitchEV trial

Charging behaviour from SwitchEV trial

Sarah: Great, so even more sustainable! What if you don’t have off-street parking: can you still charge your electric car from home if that’s the case?

Graeme: No. Unfortunately, as things stand, you need access to some form of off-street parking so that you can safely get a cable to your car. Trailing cables over the pavement is not on! So either a garage (with power) or a drive next to your house is definitely required.

Andrew: If there are several people on your street who would like a charging point installed, you could petition your local authority to install a public charging point, though.

Phil: Yes, and inductive charging is being researched which could reduce the needs for charging leads and potentially offers a solution to this issue.

Sarah: And how much does it cost to charge up an electric car from home or from a charging point?

Phil: Well, fuel costs are very low due to the competitive price of electricity (fuel duty is zero-rated) and the high efficiency of the vehicles themselves. The Peugeot Ion, for example, has a 16kWhr battery and costs less than £2.00 to fully charge which will give you approximately a 90 mile range. According to Nissan, the cost per mile for the Nissan Leaf is 1.75p per mile (when charged overnight at home on a special tariff); the cost of the average conventional petrol car is over 10p per mile. At present most public charging points are free and if you’re using one you often get free parking at the same time, often in order to attract customers to local businesses. This may change, and in London there are some charging networks now in place where you pay for the electricity.

Sarah: One of our team had mentioned that she wouldn’t be able to charge a car at home at all, as she has no parking near her house. So, if someone always had to drive to a public charging point, would it really still be more efficient or cheaper to have an electric car than a petrol or diesel car?

Andrew: Yes, it would certainly still be cheaper to run an electric car if it was only being charged at a public charging point, particularly if you were using a free charging point and not having to pay for the electricity! However, it could be very inconvenient and would probably take some planning. Not impossible though …!

Sarah: And is it true that it takes ages to charge a car?

Graeme: It takes about 8 hours to fully charge most models on a standard charger; fast chargers can fully charge a car in 1-1.5hr hours and there are some ‘rapid’ charging points which can give 80% charge in 30 minutes.

Sarah: That sounds great, but does it affect the life of the batteries if you consistently only part-charge them?

Phil: That really depends on the model of electric car or battery. In the newer models such as the Ford Focus Electric this would not be an issue and only part-charging will not degrade battery life.

Graeme: Generally speaking, the batteries are well managed by an internal battery management system.  Our team here at the University have been monitoring a fleet of 44 electric vehicles for almost 3 years and the battery degradation is significantly less than what the car manufacturers plan for.

Sarah: Fantastic: well as always you’ve given us plenty of food for thought and a lot of very useful information. Thanks once again, and we’ll see you next week when we’ll be firing some questions at you around how to decide if electric cars fit your lifestyle or not.

Phil: Our pleasure as always – see you next week!

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