The mistake we always make with new technology is that we try to define it in terms of what we already know. This is sometimes known as horseless carriage syndrome — recalling a time when people defined automobiles in terms of what went before — and a similar mindset is holding back today's electric vehicles. People don't realize that the way you recharge an EV means learning completely different habits from how you refuel a traditional motor vehicle. As Cara Naden, director of Zero Carbon World, explains:
There's a misconception that people expect, because they have this mindset that they go to a petrol station to get the recharge, that electric drivers want the same. That's not necessarily the best application when 90% of the time your car is stationary — it's in those locations that you want to put in slower charging, which is not such a drain on the national grid. So it's about educating people who fit the chargers to understand how the interaction works.
Thus installing a rapid charge station at somewhere like an Ikea store makes no sense at all, when instead of moving on after fully charging the vehicle in 20 minutes, the driver may well end up spending several hours in the store before they return, blocking the charging point for other users. Providing a larger number of less costly, lower-speed charging points that will still recharge most EVs during a typical visit is much more appropriate.
Encouraging electric vehicle ownership
With climate change rising up the agenda, more and more people support moves to decarbonize the economy. Switching to electric vehicles is one way that individuals can use less fossil fuel and thus reduce their personal carbon footprint, while adding less pollution to the atmosphere. This is especially true in the UK, where renewables recently became the largest single source of electricity generation. But one of the biggest deterrents that puts off prospective EV owners is range anxiety — the worry that your vehicle will run out of power before completing its journey.
While charging points are becoming commonplace at motorway service stations and in city centers, they're inevitably sparse in other areas, particularly more remote destinations. But this distribution of charging points is an example of why it's a mistake to apply established refueling patterns to a completely different technology. A motorway service stop is the last place an EV owner wants to hang around recharging — it's far more convenient to do it once they're relaxing at their destination. This is especially true in a country as geographically compact as the UK, where even a long-distance drive is within the range of many EVs — it's just 130 miles from London to Cardiff, less than 250 from London to Liverpool.
Zero Carbon World's mission is to bring affordable, open-access charging points to destinations around the UK in order to encourage take-up of EVs.
National network of open-access charging points
Its network currently spans nearly 700 locations across the country, with a target of more than 1,000. Originally founded by one of the UK's first Tesla owners, the non-profit organization raises funds from donations, and provides its charging points free-of-charge for installation by hotels, guest houses, restaurants, leisure centers, golf courses and similar locations — anywhere drivers are expected to spend three hours or more at a time.
In return, sites must agree that drivers will pay either nothing, or at most a low wifi-style access fee, for using them. Instead, the charging points act as a value-add that brings in extra custom from EV owners. For the charity, what's important is to ensure that charging is simple, accessible and affordable, helping to make it more attractive to make the switch.
Funding these charging points also fills what the charity sees as a gap in UK government policy. Grants are available to businesses from the Office for Low Emission Vehicles towards the cost of a charging point, but only if it is for use by employees rather than customers. Open-access charging points get no subsidy, which means that where site owners choose to install them, they often end up adding payment terms that make them relatively expensive to use.
Filling the gap in provision
This policy background reinforces the importance of the charity's efforts to fill the gap in providing open-access charging points, and thus encourage more drivers to switch to electric, says Naden:
That's why we are very grateful, to those not just in the electric vehicle driving sector but also environmentalist community groups that give us money to help donate a charging station in their community to encourage takeup of electric vehicles ...
What the charity is set up to do is to speed up that transition by creating that network, that people felt more confident, that they would be switching that much more quickly.
Appropriately, Zero Carbon World operates as a virtual organization, with all of the team working remotely from home. It runs its operations on NetSuite cloud ERP software, licensed under the vendor's Social Impact program. It uses NetSuite to streamline project management for its charging station installations and also to manage collection, tracking and distribution of funds. That's very helpful for "a small charity with a big mission," says Naden.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about the potential changes that autonomous vehicles might bring to our world, but it was not until I interviewed Naden that I realized how much of a difference simply switching to electric vehicles may make. It turns out that what works best in how you charge an EV means a big change from your old refueling habits with a conventional car — the 90% or more of time that you're not using it becomes much more important.
That's before you even start to add in the potential to use EV batteries as an off-peak storage resource that could charge cheaply at times of low demand and then resell power back to the grid when it's most needed. But first, there need to be a lot more EVs in use than the current very small numbers. The work of Zero Carbon World to help encourage take-up is a small but valuable contribution towards decarbonizing our present lifestyles.