Electric dreams: charging electric cars will require major changes in electricity grids and the location of petrol forecourts

A plan by BP to install electric charging points for electric cars in UK petrol stations may be a turning point for battery-powered cars and renewable energy.

BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies, said that it will install mobile electric charging points for electric vehicles at petrol stations in the UK and mainland Europe.

The motorbike-sized “rapid charge” charging points, which can charge a car in about 30 minutes, according to the Guardian, will be installed this year, BP said.

“Mobility is changing and BP is committed to remaining the fuel retailer of choice into the future,” said Tufan Erginbilgic, chief executive, BP Downstream. “EV charging will undoubtedly become an important part of our business, but customer demand and the technologies available are still evolving.”

They certainly are. And so is the infrastructure to support a shift from the internal combustion engine to electric cars.

Location, location

As we mentioned in our December blog, existing petrol stations’ location may not be great for electric charging. Most stations were built because of their proximity to transport networks, or large numbers of potential customers (near retail parks, for example).

They may not be close to electricity grids, or those with enough capacity to cope with lots of EV chargers, questioning the strategy to ‘simply electrify’ all petrol stations.

A typical petrol forecourt is likely to have a power capacity of between 100 and 200 kilowatts. Add in 10 rapid charges for electric cars (to meet growing demand and avoid long queues) and the forecourt may need a power capacity of one megawatt, an increase of up to 900%. The cost to upgrade the electricity network to accommodate this increase can vary from a few thousand pounds to many millions depending on upstream network capacity – not obvious to companies looking to deploy rapid chargers.

Owners of petrol stations, including BP, will need to decide whether it’s worth upgrading them or building new ones on land that’s closer to local electricity grids with a higher power capacity.

Grid capacity

National Grid and local power Distribution Network Operators will also have big decisions to make.

Can they easily upgrade old networks to meet growing demand for electric vehicle charging? And can this be done in time? (There were about two million electric vehicles on the world’s roads in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2030, there could be 150 million units (10% of the total). By 2060 there could be 1.2 billion.)

Who will pay for improvements to power networks and petrol stations (electricity customers, investors, EV users, Government)? How much will it cost? Will there be enough project managers to oversee the work? Will there be enough demand for non-residential electric vehicle charging within the next two to five years to make them economic for both users and investors? Will the private sector be able to shoulder all the costs?

Investment incentives

The UK Government has promised tax incentives to encourage people to use electric cars. What about tax incentives or subsidised loans for investment in charging infrastructure?

We don’t know the answer yet. The market for electric vehicle charging and electric cars is still very new, but it’s important to have an open debate now about the best way to plan, fund and manage a national network of charging units.

We firmly believe that the electrification of cars is a good thing. But let’s not get carried away and overlook crucial matters about the power networks’ role in delivering the fuel of the future.

Decisions we make now may determine how quickly electric cars appear on our roads. And how they are perceived.

Blog by Dave A Roberts, Director-Smart Interventions at EA Technology