Huge increase in micro charging networks across UK
The latest news from the world of EVs
Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, a weekly British EV newsletter.
In today’s edition… the International Energy Agency publishes its annual EV outlook, SMMT calls for a new van push, and the number of EVs being ‘rescued’ has halved according to the AA.
Further down… I take a look at the growing number of ‘micro’ charging networks in the UK and what might become of them.
As ever, if you have any questions or comments, please do drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) or simply reply to this email.
In the last week…
TESLA CHARGERS: Maybe one of the biggest pieces of EV related news last week, Tesla has now opened 15 of its supercharger sites in the UK – something that has long been expected but will also no doubt be hated by many Tesla owners. The sites to be opened are Aberystwyth, Adderstone, Aviemore, Banbury, Birmingham St Andrews, Cardiff, Dundee, Flint, Folkestone Eurotunnel, Grays, Manchester Trafford Centre, Thetford, Trumpington, Uxbridge and Wokingham. I suspect that these sites, which host 158 chargers, will be quieter compared to others so that Tesla can monitor congestion. On the opening, Tesla Owners UK wasn’t overly emphatic but has been very supportive tweeting “we hope the transition from Private to Public Charging network for the 15 UK sites in the trial goes smoothly.” Read more.
NEW PUSH: The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has called on the government to come up with a “national van plan” after research found that a third of all light commercial vehicles now came with a plug-in variant but that take-up among van drivers and fleets this year was only 5%. Most van drivers — 57% in SMMT’s poll — cited fears of the lack of availability of public charging infrastructure as the reason for not going electric. Read more.
RIDE HAIL: Arrival, the UK based start-up, last week unveiled its first prototype of its purpose-built EV for ride-hailing at TechCrunch’s Mobility event. The company also revealed it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Breathe, a British car subscription company, to enable drivers to access its new ride-hailing vehicle once available. To note, the vehicle won’t just be for use by taxi drivers. Read more and check out some pics.
DFT REVIEW: For anyone who often consumes statistics produced by the Department of Transport, they are surveying how often to publish them via Twitter. The winning option at the moment is monthly. Vote here.
SLOW MAIL: Last week the MailOnline ‘exclusively’ revealed that “Britain’s electric car charger rollout has stalled” and is set to fall short of the 2030 target unless it speeds up. Fortunately for readers of this newsletter, I published a near-identical story about the slowing pace with the same data a month ago when pondering if we needed an EV charger mandate. Anyway, you can read the Mail’s version here, should you have missed my email in April.
GOOD MAIL: In better Daily Mail news, I saw a story they shared following new statistics from the AA that revealed the proportion of EVs rescued by the breakdown assistance company for being 'out of charge' has halved in the last two years from 8% to under 4%. Nice. Read more.
GREEN CHANNEL: Yesterday it was said that the ferry routes between Dover, Calais and Dunkirk will become the first zero-carbon shipping lane in the world. The ports of those three areas, plus P&D, DFDS and Irish Ferries have all signed a declaration of intent to make it a reality. On the route, there are currently 100 crossing a day, so being able to decarbonise is good news. Though, naturally, it will be a challenge. Read more.
PAY PARTNER: Visa has teamed up with JustCharge, the community charging operator run by JustPark, to provide rewards to customers using the service on their debit or credit card as part of a new partnership. The hope is that this will make it easier for people to use the JustCharge service which allows EV drivers to book someone else’s home charger. Read more.
BIG REPORT: The International Energy Agency (IEA), a very influential group globally, yesterday published its annual Global EV outlook for 2022. According to the IEA, the number of EVs on the world’s roads by the end of 2021 was about 16.5 million, triple the amount in 2018. In China, electric car sales nearly tripled in 2021 to 3.3 million, accounting for about half of the global total. Sales also grew strongly in Europe (increasing by 65% to 2.3 million) and the United States (more than doubling to 630,000). The IEA’s report highlights how, in the short term, the greatest obstacle to continued strong EV sales is soaring prices for critical minerals essential for battery manufacturing, as well as supply chain disruptions caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, as well as Covid-19 lockdowns in some parts of China. In the longer term, the IEA believe like many of us that greater efforts are needed to roll out enough charging infrastructure to service the expected growth in EV sales. Read the press release here and the full report here.
Rise of the UK’s micro charging networks
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to ubitricity, the charging operator owned by Shell, about its role as the UK’s largest network. In our chat, ubitricity’s managing director talked me through how they’d run things at scale, such as providing quality reliability and a great user experience. But then I got thinking, what about the small charging networks… what role are they playing in the EV transition?
Well, according to my analysis using Zap-Map data, these ‘micro’ charging networks are playing a growing role. In fact, currently, 29.4%* of the UK’s charging devices are run by a network with a smaller than a 1.6% market share – that’s up from 23% two years ago.
These micro charging networks are classed by Zap-Map as ‘other networks’ in their statistics. In short, they are too small to get on the main leader board. While I don’t know how many charging networks were operating in 2020, based on counting up the options on Zap-Map, today there are about 80 named chargepoint operators running devices across the UK.
The top three operators (Ubitricity, PodPoint, and BP Pulse) operate about a third of chargers. When you add the ten other larger operators with a market share greater than 1.6%, such as GeniePoint and Source London, it equates to about 70% of charging being run by 13 entities in the UK - though there are some shared operations between them.
What this means is that there are potentially 67 separate businesses running 29.4% of the country’s devices. Obviously, they are not all going to be equal in size or provide the same services – some will be rapid chargers while others may be community focussed – but that’s a lot of operators running only a handful of devices each.
Likewise, that 67 figure doesn’t even take into consideration the hundreds, potentially thousands of unnamed chargepoints classed as ‘other’ by Zap-Map, such as those at pubs, hotels or shops operated individually.
Why does this matter?
On one hand, it’s great we are getting so many new entrants into the market. This uptick in the ‘other’ segment has all happened since the government announced the end of the internal combustion engine in November 2020. So it seems indicative of various businesses looking to get in on the action, which should be welcomed.
The government certainly seems to be happy with the current course, as part of the EV infrastructure strategy was a big announcement to empower regions, through the new Local EV Infrastructure funding, to grow and maintain their local areas’ networks.
However, with the new consumer protection rules, such as mandating contactless payments, coming into play this Summer, and demand amongst all drivers for a high degree of reliability, could having lots of smaller networks make it hard to maintain standards across the board?
History tells us that without the proper quality assurance guidance in place, the answer is going to be no. The good news, though, is that EV chargers are still quite regulated, though much less so for networks not building on-street devices – as they deal with other businesses rather than requiring large council involvement.
Certainly, many small networks will be brilliant operators, but my fear is for the few that won’t be. Some could be set up, thanks to the ocean of local funding, by inexperienced people, or by those hoping to make a quick return. And in an industry like EV charging, which is a bit of a loss leader, operators will need patience and be ready to fix problems. As the government isn’t going to be mandating non-rapid networks to have 99% reliability, is there a risk some of these smaller networks could end up festering without robust operations. Nobody wants Ecotricity part 2.
The micro mix
To get a feel for the current networks in this bracket, I decided to take a quick look at some of those operating - many of which I’ve never heard of. For example, has anyone heard of Plugngo? I hadn’t, but apparently, they run several stations near the Suffolk coast and are popular on the Island of Guernsey. Citicharge is another. They seem to operate at just two locations in the UK (Leeds and Glasgow). Their Twitter account has been inactive since 2020 and, as of yesterday, both chargers seem to have faults.
Elsewhere, there are some slightly more well-known networks operating in this ‘micro’ bracket, like Fastned – a rapid network which is just getting a foothold in the UK – and Ionity which operates a handful of ultra-fast 350kW chargers.
There are also several regions where proactive local authorities have already established their own networks, such as Bristol, Kent, Brighton, Islington and a few other councils who all operate chargers.
What does this mean?
In my mind, the present conditions look ripe for some larger networks to start acquiring smaller players with more gusto. Perhaps to bring alongside their wider chargepoint growth plans. This has previously been the approach that the oil and gas giants, like BP and Shell, have used to take huge portions of the market share. Shell acquired Ubitricity in 2021, TotalEnergies took hold of Source London, and in 2018 Chargemaster, then the UK’s biggest network, was bought up by BP.
However, given that it’s looking increasingly likely the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, may impose a windfall tax on oil companies, potentially more so on those not reinvesting their profits in the UK, could they soon be in the market for new deals?
There’s certainly been a drumbeat of acquisition activity in EV charging this year already. Last month, American company Blink Charging bought Electric Blue for about £23.4m, taking 1,150 devices in the process. Popular rapid network InstaVolt was acquired by EQT Infrastructure in February, backed by private equity firm Zouk Capital. And at the start of the year, Mer, a company owned by European’s largest renewable energy provider Statkraft, bought Elmetronics, gaining a large foothold in the UK to expand from.
Looking to the future
I suspect what could happen with EV charging is it’ll eventually become an oligopoly in the UK. Much like phone networks, energy providers, supermarkets and petrol stations. There will be a handful of large firms that operate most devices across the country, either through direct ownership or as part of franchise/partnership arrangements.
Perhaps that’s a bold predicition, but in my view this is probably the ideal situation for EV drivers. As while with an oligopoly there is a risk that industry players follow each other’s tails on pricing, I suspect this may provide more consistency for reliability and better cost benefits for consumers.
*When this article was originally published, this figure was 41%. However, since publication Zap-Map has corrected an error in their stats which had inflated these figures. The current percentage is nearer 30%.
By Tom Riley