Nissan says customers can charge for free at Ecotricity's electric highway -- but you'll need to register for an RFID card first.

Rapidly Charging from London to West Wales on the M4

I truly believe that the availability of charging is one of the keys to unlocking the general acceptance of electric cars. More so if this charging is ‘rapid’. When competing against an internal combustion engine car – which can refuel at any petrol station – an electric car just has fewer choices.

But that isn’t always the case any more.

Last week I got very excited when Ecotricity, a UK energy supplier that specialises in green energy, installed and activated their latest Rapid Charger completing a charging chain that takes in every service station on the M4. This makes the M4 the first motorway in the UK where electric cars have the same number of locations to re-fuel at as other car.

Rapid Charging On and Around the M4

Rapid Charging On and Around the M4

Beginning on the A4 in London and finishing at Pont Abraham, Wales 193 miles later, the M4 connects the UK’s capital with the tranquility of the Welsh coast. Electric car drivers can now make this journey and simply pull into any service station when they need a top up.

The charging stations offer both Rapid AC and DC charging meaning that all electric cars with rapid charging capability in the UK can use them. At the moment the charging stations are not comparable with the CCS system meaning that next year, when the BMW i3 and other cars that use it start to get into the hands of consumers, these charging stations will need to be upgraded. This, Ecotricity says, has been planned for.

But right now the network serves those who can use it. And, as far as I can see, topping up with electricity has a number of advantages over filling up with petrol at the same locations.

Ecotricity's UK Network

Ecotricity’s UK Network

Firstly, this service is free. Ecotricity offers the electricity to drivers free of charge. EV drivers just need to apply for a card online that activates the charging stations and then they can fill up to their heart’s content. I have yet to see any petrol station offering free fuel to customers.

Secondly, charging is something that is done while doing other things. Recently I stopped at one of these service stations with friends who were driving their petrol car. We went in, nipped to the loo, had a burger and coffee and headed out. While my Leaf was full and raring to go, I had to wait while they pulled in to the petrol station and filled up. They had to spend more time at the service station that I did!

Rapid charging in the UK is really coming along leaps and bounds. It isn’t too hard to see that in the next couple of years, when travelling along any motorway there will be the just as many charging stations as there as petrol stations. While some journeys may be made quicker by using the cross-country A roads, the motorways will offer driers a range-anxiety-free way of travelling.

At the moment each location only has one rapid charger, with some sites not having any redundancy on site – not even a dumb socket. This does leave some weak points in the chain which I hope will be looked at soon. But this network is setting course to make EVs more mainstream. As cars gain greater range (due to lighter construction materials or bigger batteries) I can see EVs becoming an option for more and more people.

Which leads me to believe that these charging stations have two important roles at the moment. Firstly they are useful to the current drivers who want to make longer trips in their cars. Secondly they show that electric cars are a ‘thing’ and are usable. I still run in to a number of people who don’t know electric cars exist or think of them as ‘milk floats’ – these charging stations challenge this idea.

One day I hope to be writing a story about how there are now more charging locations in the UK than petrol stations. If this is how far we have come in the three years since the first production electric car went on sale in the UK, this may be happening sooner than we think!


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  • Kieron

    Ecotricity are just Gods to the EV world. Without them in the UK, we’d be lost. Great article. I wish the mainstream media/top gear (ha ha) would run a similar article.

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