What is urban charging and why can it be a problem for electric vehicle owners?

30 January 2018 | OVO Energy

Why do we want more electric vehicles in cities?

Most people know that air pollution is a problem in cities – especially anyone who’s tried to cycle down a busy main road during rush hour. In the UK, air pollution contributes to 40,000 premature deaths every year, with more than 9,000 in London.

Electric vehicles present a huge opportunity to turn this around, as they don’t produce ‘direct emissions’ – the kind that come from the tailpipe of a car. This could be especially beneficial in cities, where cars (and therefore direct emissions) are all squashed together in a concentrated area. Electric cars are also greener than petrol and diesel cars, thanks to the amount of renewable energy that now powers the grid. Switching to electric vehicles could therefore set us well on our way to meeting our carbon emissions targets.

The urban charging problem

The challenge in cities is in finding a place to charge. A petrol or diesel car can fill up in a matter of minutes, but even the fastest EV chargers takes 20 minutes to get to 80% charged. This means it’s far more practical to charge while parked up. The issue is that many drivers in cities don’t have off-street parking, so can’t install a home charging point.

If you can’t charge your electric vehicle at home or at work, then your options are limited to public charging points – which might not be anywhere near your house. And as EVs become more popular, these charging points could get congested.

Find out more about the various connector and plug options for charging your EV, with our how-to guide.

Where can I charge my car in a city at the moment?

The good news is that public charging points are being installed at quite a rapid pace, with almost 3,000 new points added to the network in 2017. The points are run by different charging networks – some are free, others are pay as you go, and others are free if you’re a subscriber. You can see the location and details of each individual charging point on Zap-Map.

How will we charge electric vehicles in the future?

Urban charging is becoming easier: public charging networks are growing, and rapid charge points are becoming faster and more widespread. There were only 844 rapid chargers (the ones that can charge most batteries in under 30 minutes) in the UK in 2014, but this has grown to 2,734 at the start of 2018.

One promising solution comes from a Berlin-based technology company, ubitricity. They’ve developed a socket which can be cheaply installed into street lamps, allowing EV owners to plug in right outside their front door, and track their charging with an app. We’ve been involved in a trial of their technology in Kensington and Chelsea.

We’re not the only ones looking into lamp-post charging though, and we’re confident that on-street charging will become more and more prominent as new innovations like ubitricity spring up.

Wherever you’re charging in a city, it’s likely that in the future it will be ‘smart’. With smart charging technology like OVO’s VNet platform, eventually drivers will plug in their EVs and the tech will wait until energy demand (and therefore prices) drops, before it starts charging. This keeps energy bills as low as possible and is also better for the environment, as the EV is charging when electricity is abundant and generated from renewables. It’ll even be possible for EV owners to sell electricity back to the grid, through vehicle-to-grid charging, which in turn will help manage national energy supply and demand.

This fancy sci-fi stuff will happen automatically, so all you’ll need to do is plug in. And, at some point, you won’t even need to do that. Technology is being developed that can charge your car when it parks on top of a wireless charging ‘pad’, without plugging anything in. Battery capacities are also rapidly increasing, which means you’ll need to think about charging less and less.

Thanks to these clever technologies, driving an electric vehicle in a city will soon be cheaper and easier than driving a combustion engine car.

Read more on how to charge an EV not just in the city, but at home and at work, in our comprehensive guide. Plus: find out how you could save money on installing a charge point at home or at work, in our complete guide to government grants for electric cars.

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