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Firms take EV charging underground to combat 'curbside clutter'

As electric vehicle demand surges, two new projects show innovation in EV charging infrastructure is also beginning to take off.

A Connected Kerb system.

A Connected Kerb system.

As demand for electric vehicles continues to surge, the race to provide requisite charge points to cater for the growing number of battery car models coming to market is also heating up, as two novel EV charging infrastructure initiatives launched this month in the United Kingdom serve to demonstrate.

In London, start-up firm Trojan Energy is installing 200 "underground" EV chargers across the boroughs of Brent and Camden. Aiming to avoid cluttering streets pavements with additional clutter, each charge point is slotted into the ground and only becomes visible when a vehicle is charging, according to the firm.

Set for installation across the two boroughs between now and spring, the technology consists of two parts: a charge point slotted into the ground, and a "lance" inserted into the charge point in order to charge. The connection can provide charge rates from 2kW to 22kW, with up to 18 chargers able to run in parallel from a single electricity network connection, Trojan Energy said.

The intiative forms part of the Subsurface Technology for Electric Pathways project (STEP), a consortium including Trojan Energy, energy consultancy specialists Element Energy, electricity distributor UK Power Networks, and the University of Leeds, which has been awarded $3.92 million in co-funding by government innovation agency Innovate UK. 

If the initiative proves successful, Trojan Energy claims entire streets could be filled with its charging technology, offering drives the ability to charge up their EV no matter where they part on the road. Moreover, EV owners also may be able to use spare car battery capacity to provide services to electricity network operators, which could drive down the cost of owning and running EVs, added the firm, run by a team of former oil engineers.

Each charge point is slotted into the ground and only becomes visible when a vehicle is charging.

"Our technology will allow us to electrify whole streets at a fraction of the cost of traditional charging infrastructure and without the need for curbside clutter," said Trojan Energy managing director Ian McKenzie. 

Elsewhere in the U.K., too, another project is aiming to install innovative EV charging points, starting at a new 3,000-home development near Swindon. Designed by specialists Connected Kerb, these charging units also are housed beneath the ground, but connected to a small plug-in socket or wireless charging pad above the surface, thereby minimizing the ground space required compared to traditional charging points.

"Our design allows us to efficiently deploy our enabling infrastructure with the rest of the developments below ground services, and then simply install the charge points in response to requests from residents," said Andy Carr, Connected Kerb CEO.

The project ultimately aims to install 130 charging points in the Wichelstowe housing project, a joint venture between Barratt Developments and Swindon borough council, in a bid to support residents in their transition to EVs. The first phase of 208 houses is already under construction, with people expected to move in later this summer, at which point Connected Kerb aims to have installed 20 active chargers in shared bays.

"I'm proud to see Wichelstowe leading the way again with an electric vehicle charging network that is available to visitors as well as residents and whether you live in a four-bedroom home with a driveway or a stylish waterside apartment," said Swindon borough council leader David Renard. "Having such an extensive network of charge points will help give people the confidence to make the switch to electric."

Many people living in urban areas do not have access to off-street charging — including 60 percent of Londoners, it is estimated — and such infrastructure projects therefore may play a crucial role in overcoming lingering challenges in the shift to EVs, sales of which have continued to perform strongly even despite the impacts of COVID-19.

EVs have longer lead times between order and delivery — in some cases up to a year — compared to petrol and diesel cars.

Indeed, the latest car sales data from auto industry body Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) shows battery EVs weathered the devastating impacts of the coronavirus lockdown on the sector far better than traditional fossil fuel internal combustion engine vehicles in the U.K. 

Analysis of the SMMT data by research consultancy Cornwall Insight found almost 1,400 new battery EVs were registered during April, accounting for 32 percent of all new vehicle registrations and for the first time outselling diesel cars, which notched up just over 1,000 sales.

Yet the car sector as a whole suffered a particularly tough period during the start of lockdown in the U.K., with overall vehicle sales down 97 percent through April, the analysis shows.

Battery EV registrations as a proportion of new vehicles also remained high throughout May, at 12 percent, while June saw the second highest monthly battery EV registrations at over 8,900 vehicles, Cornwall Insight said. More recent data from July found just under 8,200 battery EVs were registered from a total of almost 175,000 vehicles that month, meaning battery EV sales took a 4.7 percent share of the market, marking a slight fall to levels seen before lockdown.

Katie Hickford, an analyst at Cornwall Insight, highlighted a series of policy changes in 2020 which have helped to drive the positive sales figures for EVs. "From 6 April, changes to the Benefit in Kind company car tax means zero-emission vehicles pay no tax in 2020-2021, providing an incentive for businesses to transition their fleets," she said. "Also, there have been changes to the Plug-in grant in the March 2020 Budget, meaning that hybrid cars with fewer than 70 zero-emission miles are no longer eligible for funding."

Crucially given the context of the pandemic, EVs have longer lead times between order and delivery — in some cases up to a year — compared to petrol and diesel cars, meaning EV sales in recent months were less directly affected by the lockdown as they were more likely to be pre-orders. "The last few months have provided a snapshot of how BEV sales may look in a few years, where the expectation is that BEVs will account for a third of monthly new vehicle registrations," Hickford concluded.

Such conclusions support assessments from the likes of BNEF and Deliotte in recent months that global sales of petrol and diesel cars already may have peaked, with the latter estimating EVs are on course to make up around a third of global car sales by 2030.

But if large numbers of U.K. drivers are to switch to EVs in the coming years, reassurance that they will have widespread access to charging points will be crucial. And, as Trojan Energy's and Connected Kerb's efforts demonstrate, growing numbers of companies are working on innovative infrastructure to meet the growing, increasingly varied demands of battery car drivers.

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