700,000 EV chargers needed by 2030, says ubitricity UK boss
The latest news from the world of EVs
Hello and welcome back to The Fast Charge, a weekly British EV newsletter.
In this morning’s bumper edition… I speak to ubitricity, the UK’s largest charging network, about the government’s infrastructure targets, providing high-reliability rates, and their plan to install 50,000 chargers by the end of 2025.
Further down and elsewhere… Arrival’s electric bus gets permission to drive, VW’s Diess calls for the end of the war and used EV transactions double.
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.
The UK boss of ubitricity on getting to 2030
“To me, looking at the numbers of EVs we might grow to, closer to the 700,000 is the more likely need,” explains Toby Butler, the UK managing director of Britain’s largest charging network ubitricity. We’re talking about the EV infrastructure strategy, published by the government last month which included a target of having 300,000 EV chargers across Britain by 2030.
Toby and his team at ubitricity, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Shell Group, believe the government’s target is short. "I would say, what is needed is nearer to 700,000 than the 300,000 figure, because what we believe and what we see and what we hear from customers, and what I know as an EV owner without off-street parking, is that the next best thing to a home charger is one as close as possible to your home or on your street where you can overnight charge or charge for a long time. I really believe for towns and cities that is a critical part of the mix.”
The 700,000 figure is the highest estimate for numbers of chargers required that the government included in its EV strategy. It was largely buried in the appendix and related to a scenario whereby there would be a strong reliance on residential on-street charging.
Though it’s estimated that a third of households in the UK don’t have off-street parking, meaning potentially 10 million motorists one day relying on chargers on their streets, the government picked the 300,000 target believing current behaviours would remain – whereby many EV owners will use a home or work charger. However, perhaps this assumption was wrong.
Toby, who drives a VW ID.3 and was involved with EV charging at Shell for several years before joining ubitricity in 2021, seems to think so.
“Around 40% to 60% of residents in cities and towns around the UK don't have off-street parking,” Toby tells me saying, “you could end up with this sort of two-tier speed with the EV transition. You've got those with off-street parking who can move really fast with the convenience of a home charger. Then you’ll have this other tier of, apart from really committed people who don't mind some of the inconveniences, they will be locked out of the EV transition unless ubitricity and lots of other companies get their act together and speed up deployment.”
Since the government announced the end of the combustion engine in November 2020, ubitricity, which innovated the ingenious practice of retrofitting streetlights as chargers, has been top dog. In the UK, it currently has a 14% market share and operates some 5,300 chargepoints around the country, though mainly in London. Their next nearest competitor has 1,300 fewer chargers.
It’s this market leadership that led Shell to buy ubitricity in January 2021. At the time, some wondered if this was greenwashing, but shortly afterwards in September 2021 Shell made a bold announcement that, through ubitricity, it would build a network of 50,000 chargers in the UK by the end of 2025.
That’s ten times was it has today and some 20,000 more than the current total number of chargers installed (across all networks) – there are currently only 31,000 chargers in the UK. But, given Shell has just reported record profits thanks to extraordinary oil prices, is there more the company could do? Especially ahead of a threatened windfall tax? Toby does not think so. When we spoke a day before Shell’s market news, he explained the 50,000 target was already “stretching.”
“The 50,000 target is really ambitious, that is really stretching ourselves, though we 100% believe we can get to it,” Toby defended adding that “Shell is fully committed to the EV transition, and I’m sure some people think ‘are you sure?’ but then I always point to the actual evidence.”
Delivering mass installations
While Shell is obviously still making a handsome living from oil, Toby is right that there is evidence that Shell is seemingly putting its money where its mouth is. Outside of ubitricity, the company has recently signed partnerships with Waitrose to build 800 rapid chargers, opened its first hub in Fulham last year and already operates 140 chargers on its ReCharge network.
But how the hell will Toby and his ubitricity team deliver ten times more chargepoints in three and a half years? “The lamppost product is ideal when you're looking at big scale,” he explains. “You can do it fast, you can actually install a charger in 1 to 2 hours. There is no major digging up of pavements or civil works. It's a fast process, it uses the electrical connection already there and in the right place… and it's in keeping with the look of the street."
Even if the approach can be scaled, as anyone who’s ever wanted to drop a kerb will know, making changes to public infrastructure requires the input of local authorities. This is something that could delay Toby’s teams as “with on-street it has to be a partnership” with councils. On this, Toby says he experiences a lot of “looking into a crystal ball with local authorities trying to work out the best network for 2030.” This seems to frustrate him who says, “of course, there should always be a clear strategy and ambition, but why not start with putting in the infrastructure where there is no regret.”
Toby believes that as local authorities and charging operators work together they can both “learn as we go along” but that “the idea that you can gaze into a crystal ball, I think we are kidding ourselves. It’s really important that local authorities understand that there is a limit to what a strategy can predict, don’t try and over-engineer it.”
Maintaining quality at scale
These bureaucratic annoyances I’m sure many other charging operators have been experiencing as authorities try to grasp how to tackle EV growth. Though, the government’s newly announced £450m funding (including £50m directly for staffing regions with expertise) should ease the way.
However, what about the frustrations of users? Getting the chargers into the lampposts at pace is one thing but running a huge, reliable, network for millions of people day-to-day is a totally different kettle of fish.
“For me, that’s where ubitricity has to win,” insists Toby who explains he has high hopes for the improving reliability of networks. According to Toby, one of the ways we’ll see the industry develop is by “making the hardware and software and firmware as intelligent as possible, to resolve issues remotely.” He believes this will be the key to being able to “run a network at massive scale.”
However, that’s then and this is now. And in the government EV strategy, they said that while a 99% reliability rate would be required for rapid chargers (those faster than 50kW) by the end of 2023, slower chargers will be exempt. This means connectors, like the ones operated by ubitricity that deliver a charge up to 5.5kW, could be unregulated. But Toby believes that “high nineties is required for all chargers.” Adding that, “we want to get to a place where all chargers have the same high level of availability.”
Toby did explain that they would continue to work out the right mix to support these reliability rates as they grow and that it was a main focus area. This will be critically important as more people buy EVs but also as the pricing for charging matures.
Charging is a business
About two months ago, ubitricity had to increase the cost of its chargers from 24p to 32p per kWh. This is only a small rise but noticeable, especially with the 20% VAT rate on public chargepoints. Given the continuing war in Ukraine and wider energy crisis, I asked Toby if he would have to raise prices again. It was something he didn’t rule out saying, "you have to work within the market, of course, we want it to be seen as affordable and fair and commercially viable, but who knows, maybe energy prices will stabilise, maybe they will go back, maybe the opposite will happen. I wouldn't want to fall into the trap of trying to predict it."
Though, Toby added that charger costs is perhaps an area where our thinking needs to evolve as more people get into EVs. “I feel now the industry has to find its feet and to find the right pricing mechanisms to cover costs, to run the business, and to be fair to consumers. That’s the situation we’re in now and we’re trying to find that right mechanism.”
Despite all the change and speed of the past 18 months, EVs are still at the earlier stage in their journey. However, it will be interesting to see how ubitricity and its competitors handle the scaling of this critical infrastructure over the next few years. It’s totally new territory and I certainly don’t envy Toby’s task of having to build a business that not only lasts decades, pleases EV owners, but also provides a viable revenue stream in future. For now, though, they continue to lead the market.
My interview was with Toby Butler, Managing Director of ubitricity UK. You can follow ubitricity on Twitter.
Elsewhere in EV land…
USED STATS: New figures released this morning by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has shown that sales of used EVs have doubled compared to the same period last year. It’s still smaller numbers compared to transactions across the wider used market (going from 6,625 to 14,586, a rise of 120.2%) but a huge demand indicator. Read more.
ALL GONE: Speaking at the Financial Times ‘Future of the Car’ summit yesterday, Volkswagen’s CEO, Herbert Diess, has said that the company is “basically sold out on electric vehicles in Europe and in the United States” for the year. VW has faced supply issues with semiconductors and shortages due to the war in Ukraine. This has apparently left Diess with a 300,000 backlog for EV orders meaning the VW boss believes they might not catch up to Tesla for a while. It’s little wonder then that Diess has called for a negotiated settlement to end the war. Quite rightly, the CEO’s comments have faced criticism from Kyiv’s ambassador to Berlin who said, “In Kyiv people would prefer the VW CEO to address President Putin personally, a man he knows well and the man who has unleashed this war of destruction against the people of Ukraine.” Read more on the FT.
MUSK SPEAKS: Today at 6 pm Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, will virtually attend the FT’s Future of the Car summit. He will be interviewed by the FT’s motoring correspondent, Peter Campbell. There will be audience questions too. I really hope it’s not all spent talking about autonomous vehicles or Twitter – albeit I’m sure the FT will try. In any case, expect his appearance to create several news stories.
LITHIUM FACTORY: Speaking of raw materials, one of the world’s largest metal traders, Trafigura, announced yesterday that it will be supplying the UK’s first lithium factory with materials. Through this deal, the new refinery being built by Green Lithium will eventually produce 50,000 tones of lithium per year for carmakers across Europe. This will be critically important if we don’t want to rely on far away producers. Read more. FYI, I read this story first in the Off to Lunch newsletter, written by former deputy business editor of The Times Graham Ruddick, check it out.
SPENDING GAP: According to an analysis by FairCharge, the EV campaign led by Quentin Wilson, the government has spent 15 times more on installing chargers in people’s homes (£104.m) rather than on public on-street chargers (£6.8m since 2017). This is a sizeable gap, but we need to remember two points. Firstly, the government just made a huge £450m commitment to boosting on-street charging – which will ultimately be significantly larger than what it spent on home charger grants. Secondly, these early grants have been critical to reaching the EV tipping point. However, admittedly it does seem unjust and, as ubitricity’s MD told me above, could lead to a ‘two-tier speed’. Read more.
FULL UP: Apparently 23,000 people visited Fully Charged Live last weekend (29 April - 1 May). This is 50% higher than their previous event in September 2021. It just proves the growing appetite for clean living.
CLUCKING MAD: Amusing story in the Mail on Sunday over the weekend that ‘middle-class motorists’ are ‘flocking’ to fast food outlets like KFC and Toby Carvery’s as they offer cheaper EV charging. It is true that EV chargers at destinations, like restaurants, are often cheaper and can attract increased numbers of drivers, especially those near main roads. They will definitely be an important part of the charging mix in future. For now, KFC has said: “We’ve seen a real increase in customers, especially commuters, who might have previously driven past but now enjoy fried chicken while they plug in.” Read more.
NEW VAN: Ford has revealed its new ‘E-Transit Custom’ van due to go into production in 2023. The van, which is the electric version of Ford’s extremely popular combustion engine model, will have a range of 236 miles. The cost will be around £40,000 and the max charge it will take in is 115kW – which means recharging will be fairly rapid. The top speed is expected to be 85mph with a 0-62 in less than 7 seconds – mega! The van will also offer a vehicle-to-load power supply, so you can power tools from it. However, one thing I don’t understand, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, why is the main press picture of a girl in a snapback outside the E-Transit at night in a seemingly deserted car park? I’d love to understand the advertising spiel on that. Anyway, read more.
TEST PASS: Speaking of commercial vehicles, the EV start-up Arrival has confirmed in the past week that it’s achieved EU certification for its electric bus. In an announcement last Friday, Arrival wrote it was ‘the critical step towards Arrival Buses carrying passengers on public roads in Europe and the UK’. Learn more about the Arrival Bus here.
RIVIAN FEATURE: There was a great feature in the FT over the weekend with the CEO of Rivian, Robert Joseph (RJ) Scaringe. I appreciate not everyone has an FT subscription but, if you can get to it, the article is supremely interesting hearing Rivian’s story, why it’s picked ‘adventure vehicles’ plus how they are facing up to competitors like Tesla and challenges from trading analysts dubious of its wild valuation. Gift link here for the first few.
By Tom Riley