How much is too much to pay for the installation of an electric car charging station?
Last spring, the Finance, Housing and Resources Committee of the Highland Council in Scotland announced plans to install rapid charging stations for electric cars in several locations throughout its area, courtesy of a £150,000 grant from the Scottish Government.
Yet a year later, none of the proposed rapid charging stations have materialised. Only four public charging stations have been installed so far, and, say local electric vehicle owners, they’re of the type 2, 7-kilowatt fast charge stations which while they are capable of charging most electric cars on the market today, take far, far longer to do so.
Has the Highland Council spent £150,000 of taxpayer money on four fast charging stations? Was it confused about nomenclature? Was it overcharged for installation of charging stations? Or is there a bigger plan lurking behind the scenes?
We’re here to set the record straight, and detail what we know so far.
Last April, the Finance, Housing and Resources Committee of the Highland Council in Scotland detailed the donation of a £150,000 grant from the Scottish Government to ‘supply publicly accessible electric vehicle charging points at locations through the Highlands.” In its document, which you can see here, rapid charging stations were referred to as the ‘preferred model’ for electric vehicle recharging, and were already confirmed for installation in Ullapool, Tyndrum, Pilochry and Scrabster.
In addition, four new sites were proposed for rapid charger installations: Inverness, Fort William, Kingussie and Helmsdale, further facilitating electric car travel throughout the Highlands.
Without them, the low population density of the Highlands, combined with its mountainous topography and large distances between towns makes everyday travel especially difficult for the would-be electric car owners, so it’s understandable EV owners in Scotland got more than a little excited last year when they heard the news.
Looking forward to the possibility of longer-distance electric car trips, many electric car drivers in the Highlands were pleased to see the charging stations come online earlier this year, listed on various public charging databases. Instead of rapid quick charge stations however, they were listed as being type 2, three-phase charging stations capable of providing a maximum power of 22 kilowatts.
For cars like the Renault Zoe, that equates to a charging time from empty to full in a little over an hour. For most electric cars not fitted with three-phase on-board charging capabilities (the Smart ForTwo ED and Tesla Model S being the only other two cars to offer this facility as an option) it equates to a charging time measured in hours — not minutes.
Worse still, on contacting Transport Scotland to ask why the charging stations were listed as 22 kW charging stations, EV owners were told that the charging stations were even lower-powered: the installed charging stations were in fact 7 kilowatt, single-phase type 2 charging stations, capable of recharging most cars in an agonising 4 hours, not 30 minutes.
The result? A quick drive from one side of the highlands to the other, which would theoretically take a few hours using rapid charging stations, would take a day, maybe more.
It’s the kind of discrepancy you’d laugh about — especially if you heard about it, like us, on April 1. But when we dug a little deeper, we found those who had tipped us off were deadly serious.
Intrigued, we reached out to the Highland Council to find out why the promised rapid charging stations hadn’t materialised — and why far slower ones had been installed in their place.
“The programme to install the four charging facilities was always significantly constrained by other works already underway,” a spokeswoman for the Highland Council told us in an email. “In order to align programmes and achieve Financial Year end objectives to utilise the limited time meant that the Fast Chargers were installed as a first phase of work, so that at least some facilities were available in the short term.”
“At the same time as part of a rolling program to establish ‘The High Powered Interoperable Network of Charging Facilities across Scotland,’ later funding is being sought and provided for more advanced Combo CCS rapid charging units,” she continued. “[These] have only been very recently in 2014 release to market offering a greater more inclusive charging facility.”
In other words, it appears both financial and logistical challenges prevented Highland Council from installing the promised rapid charging stations before the end of the financial year — or April 5 in the UK. In order to provide some charging facility, it went ahead with installing lower-powered ‘fast’ Type 2 charging stations instead, with a plan to install rapid charging stations at a later date.
£82,000 spent on four charging stations?
In order to clarify things, we asked the Highland Council’s spokeswoman if the entire £150,000 earmarked funding had been spent on the four new fast charging stations.
“Not all the £150,000 was used as the four units cost £82,000 [to install],” she said. “We will be working to secure some additional grant funding and plan to deliver Rapid charging units in nearby locations accessible 24/7 to complement the four fast chargers.”
Also worth noting is the fact the while the Highland Council hasn’t specifically detailed the specification of the rapid charge stations — or if they will be single, dual, or triple-headed units to support all or a a selection of DC and AC quick charging standards — it has said that “the spec for the chargers will be the one that supports the most vehicles.”
If you think that £82,000 sounds like a lot of money for four, 7 kilowatt rapid charging stations, you wouldn’t be alone.
To see just how reasonable these costs are, we reached out to some industry contacts for comment. While none were willing to go publicly on the record to tell us what they thought of the prices paid, we were given some potential explanations behind the unbelievable fees paid by the Highland Council.
First off, our industry contacts tell us that while charging stations themselves are relatively cheap — up to £3,500 depending on the type of type and power output of the type 2 ‘fast charger’ — costs for installation vary wildly.
In an ideal situation, where there’s already suitable power cables near to the proposed charging station location, installation costs can be fairly cheap. In cases where the charging stations are a long way from power, or there’s no mobile phone signal coverage for the charging station telematics to use, costs can easily spiral out of control. This is particularly true when armoured cable is used — a must for any outside installation. And the more power required for the charging station, the thicker the cabling needs to be and the more expensive it is.
As one of our industry contacts told us, both the installation company and the council should have at least had multiple different sites to choose from to keep costs low. If that wasn’t the case, it’s easy to see installation costs soar — although we are still struggling to see it soaring quite that much.
Perhaps most shocking however, is the way in which public charging station funds are often distributed, either by organisations like the Office for Low Emissions Vehicles or other local development groups.
In many cases, we’re told, local governmental bodies are given a set grant to cover a nominal percentage of charging point purchase and installation costs. Typically, we’re told, it’s around 75 percent of the total project cost. It’s then up to the local council to fund the remaining amount.
Because of the ways the grants work and the projects are put out to tender however, it’s often more advantageous for councils to spend the maximum grant amount than it is to try and save money. As a consequence, some charging station providers charge an unusually high price for the installation of the required charging stations, just so all of the grant money available can be used.
The result is that charging stations are more highly priced than they would be if traditional market forces — rather than government grants — dictated their cost.
The system of awarding grant money to charging stations — and the way in which contracts are awarded — needs to change, several of our industry contacts admitted.
A waiting game
Moving forward, the Highland Council — along with other parts of Scotland — will eventually be in a position to install rapid DC (and we hope AC) quick charging stations for members of the public to use around the clock.
For now, however, if you’re planning a trip to Scotland by electric car, you may want to plan for some extra time to charge.
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