As Ecotricity Ends Five Years of Free Electric Car Charging, Implements £5/20 Min Fee For Non-Customers, Drivers Complain

Ecotricity, the UK utility that has made a name for itself for championing renewable, responsible sources of energy generation, has for the past five years been something of a saviour for UK electric car drivers, offering free DC quick charging for electric cars at an increasingly large number of motorway service stations.

Called the Ecotricity Electric Highway, the network of charging stations — nearly 300 in total — has we’re sure played a part in encouraging many a car buyer to make the switch from petrol or diesel to electric. And with stations placed at almost every service station and most of the network’s early reliability and teething problems solved with redundancy and multiple charging stations at most sites, its free-to-use charging stations made it possible to travel long distances without burning a drop of fossil fuel.

Ecotricity Electric Highway Rapid Charger

Charging on the Electric Highway will cost you (if you’re not an Ecotricity customer).

But on Thursday this week, the company finally announced the end of its free-for-all charging philosophy, publishing details of a new £5 per 20-minute charging fee for all electric car drivers who don’t use Ecotricity as their chosen domestic energy supplier. Indeed with somewhat short notice, it informed customers that as of Monday the 11th July — that’s two days from now — customers will need to download and register for a new smartphone app to continue to use the network as it phases out its old Ecotricity cards.

It’s not going down well among drivers who have come to over-rely on the network.

Ecotricity's Electric Highway is impressive in its reach.

Ecotricity’s Electric Highway is impressive in its reach.

In an e-mail sent out to registered users of the electric highway, Dale Vince, Ecotricity’s owner, indicated that he now feels the time is right to move from the free-for-all to a free-for-some model, with Ecotricity’s customers continuing to benefit from the network at no cost. All other users will be required to pay a fee of £5 for a 20 minute charge. Whilst this has caused some consternation amongst pure EV owners, the louder complaints have come from purchasers of PHEVs – particularly owners of those that are equipped with DC rapid charging.

Why?

Well, for most owners of pure EVs – that price is still worth it. While perhaps irksome, £5 buys enough charge to still make using an EV cheaper than using a conventional car, provided you only need to make a handful of long-distance trips every month. And while that 20-minute charging window may not give you a full charge — the Nissan LEAF electric car generally takes between 30 and 40 minutes to get from its low battery warning to 80 percent full — that 20-minute, £5 charge is certainly enough to seriously extend vehicle range.

But it’s not just electric cars with DC quick charging ports that make use of the electric highway: the Mitsubishi Outlander Plug-in Hybrid SUV, the only car on the market to date in Europe with CHAdeMO DC quick charge capabilities, is also compatible with Ecotricity’s charging stations. And with a mere 12 kilowatt-hours of lithium-ion batteries on board (and a real-world range of just 25-30 miles in electric-only mode) the convenience of the DC quick charging stations offered by Ecotricity mean that for those with time to spare, stopping off and topping up their Outlander PHEV’s battery pack regularly has become quite the draw for many Outlander PHEV owners.

After all, if the electricity is free, why not top up when you stop for a coffee?

Mitsubishi's Outlander PHEV is a best seller in Europe, but plugging it in may now only save fuel, not money.

Mitsubishi’s Outlander PHEV is a best seller in Europe, but plugging it in may now only save fuel, not money.

With the introduction of Ecotricity’s new charging scheme, that’s unlikely to be a thought. Indeed, while that £5 buys sufficient charge in the Nissan LEAF, BMW i3, VW e-Golf or Kia Soul EV to be worth the cost, in the Outlander, it doesn’t pay off.

The challenge for Ecotricity is, of course, that giving away electricity for free to electric car drivers, while great for social kudos points, is  unsustainable from a business point of view, even if some of the charging stations on its network were installed in partnership with automakers like Nissan. And to its defense, Eoctricity has made owners aware for some time that the costs associated with maintenance and expansion of its rapid charging network meant that one day, it would have to charge customers for the electricity they use.

At this point, we should also note the kind of abuses that Ecotricity has sustained as a consequence of offering free charging thus far. Like any network offering completely free charging to customers — even Tesla has experienced issues — there are always a handful of users who take advantage, charging up at DC quick charging stations for free rather than charge at home, staying well past the end of vehicle charging, tying up the charging station and preventing others from using it, and generally treating the stations like their own personal property.

Our iMiEV sometimes required more than one go at the charger, depending on how it was configured.

Our iMiEV sometimes required more than one go at the charger, depending on how it was configured.

In some parts of the country, users report even more sever issues in the form of local taxi companies making use of the free electricity to charge their electric taxi cabs, essentially using the free power to benefit their own businesses, something that the network was never intended for.

To expect Ecotricity or any other charging network to continue offering free power would be, to say the least, optimistic. And while we here at Transport Evolved agree that a charge is not unreasonable, £5 per 20-minute charge is on the steep side, especially given the fact that most electric cars on the market today will need two 20-minute charging sessions (£10) to charge to 95+ percent full, or face stopping 30 or 40-miles further up the road for another top-up.

Of course, there are other networks in the UK that also offer rapid charging for electric cars, but it’s worth noting that Ecotricity has something of a monopoly on motorway service station charging (other than Tesla’s Supercharger network, that is). And given that the time you’re likely to use a rapid charger is when you’re travelling long-distance in between cities, it’s fair to note that there’s something of a Hobson’s choice right now. Consequently, it’s unlikely that Ecotricity will feel enormous pressure to change.

Which leaves electric car owners with a few options: either spend more time looking for alternative charging stations for long-distance trips (competitors Charge Your Car and Polar offer DC quick charging at prices from £4.50 up to £7.50 for quick charging sessions, but customers often also have to pay parking fees and/or a monthly membership charge on top); switch energy suppliers to Ecotricity (whose energy prices vary from region to region in terms of affordability); or simply suck it up and pay the cost.

Whether PHEV owners will continue to use them is a whole separate question – and one which may have negative impacts for the air quality on Britain’s motorways. But it’s worth reminding those outside of the UK that petrol prices are far higher in the UK than they are in say the U.S., which does tip the gasoline vs electric affordability scale in the favor of an electric car, even if you include the occasional long-distance trip (and multiple £5 quick charges en-route).

As for why Tesla can continue to charge nothing for its Supercharger stations at point of use? That’s simple: the Supercharger costs are built into the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X’s high sticker price. Ecotricity doesn’t sell electric cars, so it can’t offer the same service.

Are you frustrated by the Charge to Charge? Or do you feel it’s completely justified and reasonable? Would you like to see a different charging model? And just how should electric car charging networks monetize themselves in a way that allows them to take a fair fee for the overheads associated with installing and operating expensive charging infrastructure?

Let us know in the Comments below.

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