Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

PartnersDecember 6, 2022

The long-range thinking that’s driving our EV network

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As the EV transition picks up speed, how will our charging network keep pace with demand?

When Elke Chilwell and her family travel outside of Auckland in one of their two electric vehicles – a 2011 Nissan Leaf they bought in 2018 that gets about 80km on a full charge, and a slightly newer Nissan van they bought in 2020 that runs for about 100km – they really need to plan ahead. 

A trip to the Coromandel in the van with their three boys requires two stops – one charge at the top of the Bombay Hills and another in Thames. While they’re waiting, they skip to the loo and, depending on the time of day, they’ll grab an ice cream or have a bite to eat. Sometimes the boys will even go for a hoon on their scooters.

“We probably spend more on food doing it this way, but I’d rather spend it on that than on petrol,” she says. 

Some trips around Auckland – like to Waimauku or Whitford and back – also require a quick stop for a top up. But other trips slightly further afield – like Dargaville to Opononi or from Auckland to the Bay of Plenty – aren’t even considered, because there aren’t enough charging stations along the way and the roads are hilly and windy, so they’re not confident they’ll make it. 

She knows her EVs and their small batteries aren’t really designed for longer trips but she still wishes “there were more chargers in more locations so we could go to more places”. 

Home on the range

Most of the time, however, this lack of range isn’t really an issue for Chilwell because there’s more than enough juice to do their daily driving, most of which is ferrying the kids short distances. 

The bulk of their charging is done at home through a standard three-pin plug in the carport (they also have solar panels so they make the most of the sun when it’s out and are saving thousands per year on fuel and electricity). It’s a slow trickle charge, but they have had the carport wired so that a faster wall-mounted charger can be installed. 

Chilwell’s situation is quite a common one, according to a survey of around 1,000 EV drivers by EECA in 2021. Eighty-two percent of EV owners do most of their charging at home; 78% of those who own older EVs (pre-2018) say they don’t do certain trips because of range anxiety; 86% plan and know in advance which public charge stations they will use; and just 30% have a wall-mounted charger.

Seventy percent of those surveyed had cars that were from 2018 or older and many of those were Nissan Leafs. And because of this, Z Energy’s Head of EV Charging Kieran Turner says “you get a lot of what’s called ‘snacking’ behaviour”. 

“ABC – always be charging. This is something people say when you’re on longer trips. People aren’t sure where they’re going to see a charger, or they see one that’s free. The one down the road might have someone on it, because there’s only one bay, so we get quite a lot of really small charges.”

Fill ‘er up

So do you build charging infrastructure for the older cars that can only go 100km, or do you build it for what’s coming? Turner and EECA’s Richard Briggs say it’s about trying to find the sweet spot. 

“As much as we want to look after the 50,000 EV owners now, they’re the early adopters. Early adopters love trying to figure this all out themselves,” says Turner. “That’s part of the thrill. They’ve researched it and done it for good reasons, but it’s the next 300,000 or 500,000 people who need a bit more certainty and need it to be easy.”

In Norway, a country often held up as a paragon of the EV transition, Briggs says its early investment in charging infrastructure undoubtedly sped up the country’s EV adoption and its forecasts on EV penetration are now regularly being beaten. But the arrival of newer, more advanced EVs mean a lot of those chargers are now not fit for purpose and are having to be replaced. 

Image: supplied

Some new EV models now sport ranges of over 500km and are able to add 200-300km of range in 10-15 minutes on the latest “hyperchargers”. There are also a growing number of slower charging options available around the country at places like supermarkets, gyms, pools, malls and workplaces, so some of the anxieties around charging or taking longer trips may soon disappear. But Briggs says the second-hand market is still very important in terms of allowing households with lower incomes to transition to EVs because right now the high upfront cost of new models is still out of reach of many.

I’ve been everywhere, man

EECA’s charging strategy is based around three areas: home, where it is looking at smart charging projects so EV owners don’t strain the already-groaning grid by plugging in their cars in at 5pm; destination, where cars can charge slowly for a few hours when the owners are away; and journeys, where drivers require fast charging on main transport routes. 

EECA has co-funded more than 300 fast DC chargers nationwide through the Low Emissions Transport Fund (LETF). Its funding will be increased to $25m by 2023/24 and its current funding round is focused on building dedicated fast charging stations with multiple bays that aim to limit queuing – an area Z is also committed to support through its own EV charging network. 

In the early days, Chilwell used to stop in at Vector’s free Hobson Street charging station in central Auckland, and Pokeno also had one free charger, but as the number of EVs steadily increased, she would often have to wait. Briggs is amazed at how long some EV drivers will wait to get a free charge, but even at paid public chargers there are fears that the recent bump in EV numbers, in large part due to the Clean Car Discount, could lead to a summer of discontent as cars line up at charging stations on the way to holiday hotspots. 

The goal is to get as many chargers of as many different types as possible to make the EV ownership experience better, remove the barriers to going electric and decarbonise transport, which makes up around half of our energy-related emissions. 

At present, Turner says there’s a fast DC charger for every 320 EVs in Auckland. If you add in slower AC chargers, it’s in the mid 100s; it’s around one for every 70 EVs in other parts of the country. In the US and UK, they’re trying to get closer to one for every 10. 

Plugging the gap

Looking at this shift to EVs from the perspective of a company that sells fuel makes for pretty scary reading, says Briggs. At present, everyone with an internal combustion engine needs to visit a petrol station. But if around 80% of EV charging is done at home, that’s 20% of the market left. For that 20%, there are many other charging options available and petrol stations will be competing with them all.

“There’s strong demand for EVs and most importers are bringing in as many EVs as they can,” says Turner. “Most of the car advertising is starting to push towards the EV as the hero model. I wouldn’t quite call it a frenzy but there’s a lot of people trying to get into the charging game at the moment.” 

Just as there’s a need to find the sweet spot in terms of creating the appropriate charging infrastructure, Z is also trying to find the sweet spot in its transition away from fossil fuels. 

Z has modelled the decline of fuel sales in New Zealand and while it expects annual growth in fuel demand to turn negative by 2026, it believes demand for fuel could be higher than the Climate Change Commission expects up until 2040, in part due to the age of our vehicle fleet and the lack of options for heavy transport. Either way, Z is committed to helping its customers make the transition and meet their needs throughout the journey. 

Briggs and Turner see Z playing an important role in the charging network, as BP and Shell already do overseas. The Emissions Reduction Plan is aiming for 30% of our light vehicle fleet to be electric by 2035 (it is estimated there will be 4.3 million EVs on our roads by 2050) and petrol stations are well located, they have plenty of space for cars, and have many of the things that EV drivers want when they’re waiting, like toilets and food. Z already has a growing number of charging sites dotted around the country, with hopes to have a total of 10 live by Christmas and 15 in total by March. Eight of these sites have been part-funded by EECA. 

Town and country

Typically, petrol stations are seen as playing a role in journey charging, but Turner says it has noticed a lot of urban charging at stations in Auckland and Wellington. 

In growing cities where apartment or townhouse living is becoming more common and people may not have access to off-street parking, or when they don’t want to spend a few thousand dollars on a wall-mounted charger and are happy to run an extension cord out the window, this makes some sense. 

“There’s a lot of that happening and it’s not always sufficient. The majority of people aren’t buying a charger. They’re doing trickle charge. And that means we can put slightly smaller capacity urban charging in because we’ve seen there’s quite a strong need.” You can also expect to see Z chargers on other destination sites beyond its own stations to meet this need.

A Z Energy EV charger (Image: supplied)

In the UK, all new builds now need to have a wall-mounted charger installed. There are also EV chargers being put in lamp posts and experiments looking at charging wirelessly as cars are parked or driving, so things are changing quickly in this space.

Turner says he’s been really clear with his team that Z’s first round of experiments into EV charging is “to go as fast as we can and learn as much as we can”, but, like all good infrastructure plays, you need to think ahead and success needs to be measured in a few years. 

“There will be some things that work really well and some things that won’t. It’s good to do it on the first 10 sites, figure it out, work with different charging vendors, and ask the right questions.” 

Guiding lights

It’s not just about swapping out petrol for electrons and hoping EV owners buy more pies and coffee. That won’t get close to replacing Z’s revenue from fuel sales. Turner says it will be playing in the home charging space through its electricity retailer Flick as well as helping its commercial customers make the transition. Z also sees an opportunity to help install, manage and maintain chargers for third-party destinations outside of its station network and to help them generate customer insights and greater loyalty (Briggs says some retailers are experimenting with paid charging that becomes free if customers swipe their loyalty card). 

The early adopters may have it all figured out, but Turner says Z has talked to a lot of customers and there’s still a fair bit of confusion around charging, both from individual EV owners and businesses hoping to install chargers (or flip their fleets to EVs).

“We want to leverage our experience in this space and play the trusted partner role,” he says, and its existing relationship with customers, its suite of apps and other digital innovations, its own EV fleet experiments and the engineering and electrical expertise that already exists within the business makes that possible. 

Chilwell has become accustomed to driving her older EVs. In fact, she finds the enforced stop-offs on those occasional longer trips to be quite good fun. But she has contemplated upgrading the batteries or buying a newer EV with more range so they can take off without needing to pore over a map and locate the chargers on the way. That’s how drivers of petrol or diesel cars tend to operate now, but even if they do upgrade, they have kids, which means they’ll probably still need to stop off along the way. As Briggs says, there aren’t too many bladders that have a range of more than a few hundred kilometres anyway. 

Keep going!