If something is free, does that make it worthless?

Since July 2011, a utility company called Ecotricity has been installing rapid chargers at Motorway Services and Ikea stores around the UK.

When the Nissan LEAF was first launched, there were only three rapid chargers in the whole of the UK, meaning that inter-city travel was, at best, tricky.

Thanks to Ecotricity, the “Electric Highway” was created – and currently there is 98% coverage of the motorway network. This is due to become 100% by September 2016, when the final three sites come online, providing over 300 rapid chargers across the country.Screenshot 2016-07-08 10.56.55

Since inception, the Electric Highway has provided charging for FREE. All you needed to do was sign up for an access card (which was posted out for free), and then you could charge wherever you wanted, taking as much free electricity as you wanted. In fact, I have met many people who, because they live near to an Ecotricity charge point, never paid for any of the electric they used for driving, as they just charged for free at the motorway services.

This is clearly an unsustainable business model. It is unsustainable for the provider of the electricity (as the electric obviously has a cost attached to it, plus the chargers themselves cost over £20,000 to install), and it is also unsustainable for the users – if something is free, does that make it worthless?

If something is free, people are more likely to take more than they need. This has certainly been the case with the Electric Highway – for example, people charging at Ikea, even if they don’t need the electricity to get them back home.

I live in the Yorkshire Dales, and the nearest IKEA stores to me are at Leeds (26 miles), and Ashton-under-Lyne (47 miles). So if I’m able to get to and from even my second-nearest IKEA store on a single charge, then I’d guess that most other people would be able to do so as well. But time after time, we’ll see people leave their car on charge for a full hour (or more!), just because it is free to use, and the parking is often quite handily next to the store entrance. This of course means that the chargers are often blocked, which prevents use by people who actually do need to charge their car to get home.

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VW Golf GTE (PHEV) charging at Leeds IKEA. Up to 31 miles electric range.

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The GTE charges at 3.7kW from a rapid charger, meaning that it would take 2hrs 15 mins to add 31 miles of electric range…

Likewise, Motorway Services tend to have the chargers located near to the entrance, so often people will plug in and get free electric whilst they go use the facilities, even if they don’t require the electric to continue with their journey.

So this week, Ecotricity delivered the expected, if not universally welcomed, news that they are to start charging for the use of the Electric Highway chargers.

The cost is set at £5 for 20 minutes of charge.

How much electric is that, and how far will it take you?

Well, it depends on a number of factors. It depends on the charging rate of your car, and also on the battery temperature and existing charge level of the battery. If the battery is fairly empty (less than 20% charge), then in a Nissan LEAF 30kWh you’d be able to add about 14kWh of electricity in 20 minutes. Depending how you drive, that could give you anywhere between 40 and 70 miles of range. So the cost per mile would vary between 7.14 pence and 12.5 pence.

In a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, assuming the battery was completely empty, you’d be able to add around 5.5kWh of electric in 20 minutes, giving a range of 11-17 miles. The cost per mile therefore would be 29-45p.

In the Golf GTE, you’d only be able to add around 1.2 kWh of electricity, giving a paltry 4 to 5 miles of range, and therefore a cost per mile of £1.00-1.20!!

Now on various social media platforms, EV drivers who had been used to getting free electric for the past few years are up in arms about the new ridiculously high cost of using the chargers. “It will cost more than my old diesel to run!”, they cry.

Will it though? Will it really?

Last weekend, I had to take a petrol car home with me, as all of our electric vehicles were out on demonstration with customers. It was a fairly typical 1.2 litre petrol vehicle, of a similar size to the LEAF. I put £20 of petrol into it on Thursday, followed by a further £10 on Saturday. I’d only driven 250 miles, at an average of 42mpg, but it had cost me £30. That same distance in my LEAF would have cost about £6 if I’d charged at home. I almost cried.

Last year, I drove around 30,000 miles on electricity. The vast majority of my mileage was from electricity which I paid for myself, as I charged overnight at home. The total cost was around £750 for the electricity used. In a normal petrol or diesel car, the cost would have been over £3,500.

Notwithstanding the couple of unusual journeys I have done (delivering cars to Cornwall and Brighton), I probably use the Ecotricity chargers once or twice a month when driving with my family. For argument’s sake, let’s say that I used them twice a month, every month, for 40 minutes at a time. Under the new Ecotricity charging scheme, that would have cost me £5 x2 (40 mins) x2 (twice a month) x12 (months). That’s £240 in the whole year. So my total fuel cost would be £990 – still over £2500 cheaper than it would have cost me in a normal car.

So for gawd’s sake, let’s not mourn the loss of free charging. Let’s celebrate the fact that we can travel pretty much anywhere in the UK on electricity, and that thanks to the Electric Highway introducing a payment scheme, you’re now more likely to be able to charge if you need to. If you were really using the Electric Highway more often than me, then it would probably be worth switching your home electric supply to Ecotricity – if you do, then they let you use the chargers for free.

Oh, and if you’re passing, call into your local Chorley Nissan dealership. We’ll let you charge your EV for free (up to 3 times a week). If you drive a plug-in hybrid, you’re also welcome to use our chargers. We’d love the opportunity to talk to you about how the LEAF would be cheaper to run than your PHEV…

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3 thoughts on “If something is free, does that make it worthless?

  1. bayrok says:

    I don’t disagree with charging for charging. However, this £5 charge is a blunt instrument: most of my charging is either opportunistic (quick ten minutes top up) or deep (thirty to forty minutes full charge from say 15% to 85% . In neither case is the £5 appropriate: it is also very expensive, at least £10 for a full charge, so it would be much more fair to pay in units of say £1.00 for ten minute increments, with the ability to pre-pay at the pump to give enough time to go and get a meal and a maximum of forty minutes charging before disconnection. There must also be some kind of automatic refund when the pump fails to deliver a decent charge in the ten minutes, otherwise there is no incentive to make the pumps deliver a decent charge in a set time – they vary wildly at present.

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  2. David says:

    I agree with bayrok. The £5 for 20 mins is blunt. Ideally it should be pay per kWh but with the slow charging PHEV’s around and those trying to eek out the last few %, this isn’t realistic. I’d suggest that the app (I disagree with App based charge initiation too) should have options for 10, 20, 30 or 40 mins and cost £2 per 10 Min segment. This allows greater flexibility in choosing a quick top up or a deep long distance charge, especially useful when cold battery charging in winter.

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  3. paso904 says:

    Well said Miles. I am amazed at the semi-hysterical over-reaction on a certain forum about this. This a good move in principle and we most hope that Ecotricity change the price structure to charge per kWh and ensure that the payment system is simple and very reliable. Fingers crossed!

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