Councils are failing to deliver public chargers or have infrastructure that is frequently broken and free charging has led to some drivers treating charge points like car parking spaces.
According to EV experts, two local authorities stand out as winners – East Lothian and Dundee, which are performing particularly well.
But less inspiring are the two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, while amongst the poorest performers are East Dunbartonshire and East Renfrewshire.
Dr Euan McTurk, battery electrochemist at Plug Life Consulting, said: “Some local authorities have charging infrastructure that they own, that has been out of service for a long time. Often the problem is a combination of expired maintenance contracts, a lack of a designated (and proactive) charging infrastructure officer within the Council, and/or a painfully prolonged internal decision-making process regarding the future funding and business strategies for the Council’s charging infrastructure.
“Some Councils have even been made aware of funding opportunities that could have given them hundreds of charge points for free, only to let those chances pass them by, and some have been warned about the notorious unreliability of certain charger-makes, models, and suppliers from painful past experience of other local authorities, only to award tenders to those companies anyway.
“If they had bought reliable hardware in the first place, and taken advantage of grants that are or were available to expand their network (including the existing Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Fund, which brings in additional funding from the private sector), they wouldn’t be having these ongoing issues.”
Across the country, the roll-out of charging infrastructure, hitherto mostly installed by local authorities, said Neil Swanson, director of the Electric Vehicle Association (EVA) Scotland, needs to be greatly accelerated. “We really need commercial operators to move in,” he said.
There is also a huge variation in terms of what tariffs, if any, are charged. Mr Swanson said EVA Scotland strongly recommended the shift from free-to-use charging to tariffs.
He added: “This is a good thing. If charging is free-to-use, people just abandon their cars to get as much as they can, whereas if you have to pay for it, you take as much as you need and move on.”
The public network in Scotland is operated by ChargePlace Scotland which publishes monthly network performance, including the number of tickets raised, which relates to a range of charge point issues including “tariff query, RFID request, remote activation assistance, how-to advice, user error, machine fault”.
For January, City of Edinburgh Council saw 204 tickets raised – which worked out at around one ticket for every 1000 kW drawn over the 159 chargers in the city. Glasgow City Council prompted an enormous 367, which works at around 1 ticket for every 1,300 kW drawn.
It’s also possible from that data to get a picture of the number of chargers per area, during January, and relate that to population density. East Lothian emerges as an outright winner with 1.3 chargers per thousand people. Orkney Islands is also out front with 1.43 per thousand. But Scotland’s capital is trailing far behind with only 0.29 per thousand, and Glasgow has only 0.3.
ChargePlace Scotland, however, only includes two-thirds of the charging points in Scotland – as some private providers (Tesla, Fastned, Pod Point, InstaVolt, Osprey, MFG, FOR:EV) are not part of the network, which is a contracted service for Transport Scotland, currently run by the Austrian traffic technology group, SWARCO.
ChargePlace Scotland is not responsible for the hardware, which is owned by local authorities and businesses, who set their own tariffs.
The result is that there is a wide range in the ever-changing tariffs, from zero through to the current highest on the list, Crerar Hotels and Arbuthnott Community Association, both at 85p per kWh.
Local authority EV frontrunners
EV experts agreed that East Lothian is “leading the way” on multiple levels in terms of EV infrastructure and, in January, had a generous 1.3 public chargers per thousand people.
Mr Swanson said: “They have been really good. They put them in places where nobody has asked and people have come along and got electric vehicles because the charger has appeared.
“They are working to develop a plan that will encourage private investment. They are very enthusiastic about developing on-street and near-home charging so that nobody gets left behind.”
This represents quite a turnaround for the local authority, which, according to Dr McTurk, has gone from “being probably one of the worst in Scotland for public charging infrastructure, because they had more chargers that were broken than operational, to one of the best in the space of 12 months”.
He added: “They didn’t stop improving. They are actively working with commercial charging networks to coordinate the siting of high power charging infrastructure brought in by the private sector.”
Dr McTurk said that the council has also been forward-thinking on tariffs. “They were the first to really look at differentiated pricing between slower “destination” and rapid “journey” charging, and decide to encourage people to only use rapid charges when they genuinely need a rapid charge by making rapid charging more expensive and destination charging cheaper. That encourages people to use the speed of charge point they actually need to use. East Lothian Council were the first to adopt this pricing model in Scotland, and that was promptly copied and pasted by Highland Council, West Lothian, Midlothian and others. Edinburgh has also spotted what their neighbours are up to, and has done something similar.”
The man he credits with this revolution is EV infrastructure officer, Ryan Robertson. “He’s probably,” said McTurk, “the most single-handedly proactive infrastructure officer for EV charging infrastructure in Scotland, and that’s factoring in the fact that Dundee is outstanding as well. But also he’s definitely in the top three in the UK. He’s been prolific in applying for grant funding to expand the amount charging infrastructure that there is, and he’s usually amongst the first to try new grant funding mechanisms and charger tech. Some local authorities either don’t have someone central in charge like that, or the EV charging officer role is basically stacked on top of someone else’s duties, and they’re a bit snowed under and reluctantly slower to act as a result.”
In 2018, Dundee was named the most visionary city in Europe for electric vehicles at a ceremony in Kobe, Japan, and, according to Dr McTurk, is “still going very strong today”.
The local authority has three multi-storey car parks that have been, or are being developed, as charging hubs. The city has a target of having 27 percent of its vehicles fully electric by 2027.
Mr Swanson said: “They’ve done some really good innovation work. They’ve got a fleet of electric refuse collection vehicles as well.
“Under the leveling-up fund they’re taking another one of their multi-storey car parks and making it into an EV travel hub with 350 charge points.”
He credits Fraser Crichton, corporate fleet operations manager for Dundee City Council, with this forward-thinking. “Dundee sits in a volcanic bowl and the air quality is notoriously awful.
“Previously, all the taxis were dirty diesels, and the bulk of the pollution came from them, and they had this idea to get the taxis to go electric and made it easy for that to happen.”
Dundee City Council charges 25p per kWh for fast chargers and 30p per kWh for rapid chargers (up to 43kW AC or 50kW DC).
Room for improvement
Glasgow is currently poorly lagging in terms of chargers per head, though the city council announced that a further 119 are planned to go live this year. Mr Swanson said: “Glasgow, of all the cities in Scotland, is probably the one that needs the most on-street or accessible charging for people who can’t park near their homes. “
A problem has been the free charging system with no time limits operated up until now, making Glasgow home to a familiar gripe about drivers using free charging bays as parking spaces.
Dr McTurk observed: “A couple of years ago Glasgow first introduced a charging tariff. Unfortunately, they didn’t put tariff stickers on the chargers, and when drivers complained about an unexpected bill, the council pulled the tariff altogether.
“The scale of the misuse as a result of that free charging infrastructure is quite apparent in the Kingston Bridge charging hub, where there’s 12 rapid chargers.
“Those are ultimately meant for taxis but currently the public can use them, and what you would typically find is that some commuters would come in first thing in the morning, and they would grab the Type 2 tethered plug on a rapid charger and use that as long-stay parking. The taxi drivers who needed those chargers were therefore prevented from using them by opportunistic commuters using a rapid charger as destination parking, without penalty.”
Glasgow City Council last month announced it would bring in a levy for electric vehicle charging this year.
A fleet of Glasgow City Council electric vehicles parked at the Duke Street multi-storey car park in Glasgow.
Particularly controversial in Edinburgh has been the choice of BP Pulse to deliver charge-point hardware.
Dr McTurk explained: “It has been dreadful. They were warned from day one by multiple experienced EV drivers that BP Pulse was to be avoided at all costs, and which hardware did they go for..?”
At Thursday’s meeting of the City of Edinburgh Council Transport Committee, councillor Sanne Dijkstra-Downie drew attention to the poor procurement decision, noting that BP Pulse ranked 20th out of 21 providers on the most recent ZapMap review for reliability.
She said: “When it was announced that BP Pulse had been chosen to install the latest phase of on-street charging, there was a collective groan from the Edinburgh EV community.”
But also, many drivers say that there is still insufficient charging structure for those who do not have a home-charging point. Edinburgh EV driver Robert said, “After my experience of having an EV in central Edinburgh for a year I would definitely recommend that people think twice before getting one if you can’t charge at home. The public charging network is patchy and increasingly expensive. To be honest I would think carefully before getting an EV if I lived in the suburbs if I didn’t have an ICE car for long journeys away from home”
The city has around 200 public charging bays and is due to add a further 44 to the network by the spring. 74 charging bays are also set to be installed for the exclusive use of the council’s Car Club partner, currently Enterprise Car Club.
Edinburgh City Council charges 25 per kWh for standard chargers, 30p per kWh for fast chargers, and 35p per kWh for rapid chargers. These charges are set to rise to 45p per kWh for standard, 50p per kWh for fast, and 55p per kWh for rapid. Overstays incur penalties of £30 and the maximum stay on rapid chargers has risen from 30 minutes to one hour.
Bottom of the league
East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire
A study published last year by the International Drivers Association looked into the number of electric vehicle (EV) charging points available using the Zap-Map app and found that motorists in East Dunbartonshire were getting the worst service, with those in East Renfrewshire a close second. January ChargePlace Scotland data still reveals them to be bottom of the league.
Highlands and Islands
In remote Highland areas, the charging point density is, unsurprisingly, far less. Swanson also observed that the shift from council-installed charge points to private that he hopes to see over the coming year is unlikely to happen there.
He said: “I would guess right now in Scotland within the central belt it’s about 70-30 tops council to private and diminishing. It’s probably going to head to about 50: 50 by the end of the year. But when you go north, particularly north of the fault line, then it’s almost 100 percent. The vast majority are council because it gets very hard to make a commercial case. We have conversations with Transport Scotland regularly about this now. The commercial investment isn’t going to come up there. It’s going to require a different model, and they need to address that now. They are taking that on board.”
Tariffs: the key questions
Swanson urges that the shift from free-to-use charging to tariffs is progress and should continue. “A lot of our members complain that it’s an incentive being removed. Actually, once you have more vehicles coming, it stops being an incentive and becomes a block. Because if you’re free-charging people just abandon their cars to get as much as they can, whereas if you have to pay for it, you take as much as you need and move on.”
EVA Scotland, he said, is pushing for a tiered tariff. “Low-powered AC should cost less than higher-powered DC and very high-powered DC can probably cost a little more still, because the actual assets that deliver it cost more and more as you go up. You want more you will end up having to pay more – otherwise, the companies can’t possibly make a return on it.”
They would also like to see increased use of overstay fees. “There’s always a mixed response when we talk to people about this, but the same people who complain about people leaving the car on the charger and not going, then complain about the overstay fee applying too soon.”
McTurk also supports the tariff. He said: “Free charging was great in the early days. It was an incentive. It was helping to drive the adoption of electric vehicles, but we’ve now reached that tipping point where we’re seeing a vast increase in the number of electric vehicles being registered across the UK. As a result, if you can charge at home, but you’ve got the option to charge on a free public charge point, then some drivers take the opportunity to do a little bit of free electricity sponging.
“For the people who genuinely need that charge point and who are reliant on public infrastructure, that misuse becomes a major issue. The introduction of charging tariffs inherently encourages fair use, and it means that you can serve a lot more electric vehicles with the same amount of charging infrastructure.”
What’s still putting potential EV drivers off?
Euan McTurk said: “If you don’t have access to home charging, it can seem daunting. But it’s not as scary as you necessarily think it is, and even in a place like Edinburgh, where the infrastructure can be inconsistent, there are now many public charging options across the city, including a growing number of private sector alternatives as well. That’s not the case everywhere. There is still a bit of a postcode lottery, so check apps like Zap-Map that show you where the nearest public chargers are to you. You might be surprised.”
Co-charging: the future of EV charging?
One key reason often given for not getting an EV is not having the kind of home, without a driveway, where it’s possible to set up a home charging point. However, one company, Co-Charger, is making strides in creating possibilities for these people, through a sharing economy app that allows owners with charge points to rent them out to others. So far only 5 percent of their 4,500 hosts are in Scotland, but, said Joel Teague, they are “expecting to do good things in Scotland over the next couple of years”.
“In particular,” Teague said, “we are hoping to help with fleet and taxi electrification to help with air quality in urban areas, where professional drivers are struggling with a dependency on public chargers and the time lost to using them while on shift. Instead, we give them the means to plug in on a bookable, dependable, affordable basis while they’re off-duty at home. We’re also working to provide rural areas with a quick, cheap means to rapidly scale their EV charging provision for locals so that the overall number of EVs on Scotland’s roads increases more quickly. ”