Currently reading: What's it like at the UK's first bespoke electric car forecourt?
New Gridserve site in Essex aims to make charging a destination activity. Just don't call it a service station
Autocar-Felix-Page
News
6 mins read
7 December 2020

Sustainable energy firm Gridserve has cut the ribbon on its new electric vehicle charging forecourt near Braintree in Essex, in what could be a landmark moment for EV ownership as the UK approaches the 2030 end date for the sale of new ICE cars

Designed, by CEO Toddington Harper’s own admission, with inspiration from Apple, the forecourt (which is categorically not a service station, for reasons we will discuss later) is spacious, futuristic and simple to negotiate both inside and out. There are 36 individual charge points, ranging in output from 7kW to 350kW, which can all be used simultaneously with no drop in output. 

In line with the nascent company’s ‘sun-to-wheel’ business model, electricity is generated by solar panels - mounted on the forecourt roof and at an array of partner solar farms - and stored in a 6mWh (6000kWh, or roughly enough for 26,000 miles of EV range) on-site battery, which can balance the grid in peak hours, helping to keep charging costs down.

As such, users pay just 24p per kWh to charge at the Braintree site, making it cheaper than any other ‘ultra-high-speed’ charging provider in the country. 

It’s an impressive sight to behold, and Gridserve's expansion ambitions are equally eye-opening. “The plan is to build over 100 in the next five years and provide people with the confidence to make the transition,” outlines Harper. “We need a lot - probably a lot more than 100.”

Details on future sites remain under wraps (the Braintree site opened first largely because it was the quickest to get through the planning process), but Gridserve isn’t exclusively eyeing sites near high-traffic areas, as you might expect of a traditional fuel provider. 

“We’re not a service station," Harper notes. "There are about 150 service stations in the UK that allow people to get from A to B, and people just pass through. But there are 8400 petrol stations, whose primary need is serving the local community, and that’s what this is. The primary purpose of this electric forecourt is to serve the local community.”

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Siting its first location at the side of the A131 may have positive implications for footfall, but it wasn’t the ultimate ambition. With plush office ‘pods’, exercise bikes (which power the forecourt), a high-tech kids' play area and even shower facilities upstairs - in addition to the more conventional WH Smiths, Costa and supermarket on the ground floor, it’s clear that Gridserve wants its facilities to be seen more as a destination than just as a means of facilitating a journey.

Harper has driven an EV for eight years and freely admits that slotting one into your daily life is “not for the faint-hearted”. He argues that public infrastructure as it stands is “expensive”, “not very reliable” and, above all, sparse. Add to that the fact that some 40% of UK drivers have no access to off-street parking and it’s plain to see why there are widely held doubts about the UK’s ability to go largely electric in the next nine years.

So where does Gridserve come in? “We’re trying to make it really easy and build infrastructure that people in this community can depend on,” Harper says, pointing out that even drivers of older and cheaper EVs like the Renault Twizy and Skoda Citigo-e iV are catered for by lower-capacity chargers, while a bank of Tesla devices at the rear puts the site on the American firm’s ever-growing Supercharger network. “We’ve built something that’s designed for people to turn up to. It’s a place you’d be happy to be at,” he suggests. 

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Certainly, the vast array of electric cars joining our Vauxhall Corsa-e long-termer at the ‘pumps’ is reflective of the site’s potential universal appeal. Tesla Model 3s, Nissan Leafs, Porsche Taycans and even a new Mazda MX-30 are each present and correct, providing not just an opportunity to see how diverse EVs have become in recent years but also how much more useful charging facilities would be if they weren’t so restrictive in terms of membership, connection type and charging capacity. 

Understandably, Harper is especially ebullient in recognising that the government’s announcement came just two weeks before his firm’s first facility switched on the lights. “Investors used to say, ‘what if no-one turns up?’, and I said ‘they will, because they’ll want coffee and things from the supermarket - and the battery will still stabilise the grid, so the lights will stay on’. The good news of the government’s 2030 news is that I don’t need to hide behind charging anymore. People will turn up; they have to.”

Along with funding from Hitachi Capital, the Braintree site was developed with financial assistance from Innovate UK, the government-backed organisation that supports research and innovation, but Harper is keen for follow-up locations to stand on their own two feet. “Innovate UK is designed to demonstrate innovation," he says, "and, having demonstrated it, we don’t need subsidies to make it happen. So we won’t be coming back to the government for handouts.”

In terms of market competitors, Gridserve’s charging facilities essentially sit in a class of one – for now, at least. Energy providers including Polar, Ionity, Ecotricity and Podpoint operate banks of chargers at busy locations but usually as part of a larger service or fuel station designed for ICE cars.

Not that Harper dreads the prospect of rivalry: “Our purpose is to deliver sustainable energy on such a scale that we can move the needle on climate change, so when I see a major fossil fuel company getting into electric cars, I think 'that’s awesome'. We welcome competition, but not because we’re cocky - because it aligns with what we’re trying to achieve.” 

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When electric cars have gained a larger market share and the charging infrastructure is better developed, he says, it will “come down to which offers the best experience,” but in the meantime, it’s about “collectively” delivering the services needed to facilitate mass EV adoption. 

Gridserve isn't solely a charging provider, however, and its new EV leasing service will supplement its growing infrastructure network by offering electric cars from AudiMercedes-Benz, MG and Mini, to name but a few.

It’s being described as the UK’s “first net-zero electric vehicle leasing business," with the inclusion of charging at Gridserve sites for the length of the lease “enabling people to accurately compare the cost of leasing a petrol or diesel vehicle, plus fuel, with an electric vehicle with fuel included". 

Removing the cost of a home charger installation and the price of charging at devices provided by other firms will serve as a further incentive. 

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spqr 7 December 2020

Should be "blocks of flats usually do not have provisions for charging points. 

spqr 7 December 2020

Thousands more of this type of "charging station" are going to be needed if the UK has any hope of going electric by 2030. At the moment nobody has their own petrol station at home as that is not how we distribute petrochemical fuels. Although many people can and will charge their electric car at home overnight huge numbers of people cannot as they do not have off road parking. Even where people do have off road parking they may still not be able to have home chargers. Blocks of flats usually have one provision for charging points. Even now new build blocks of flats are being built without providing for charging points in the parking garages. People will also want to charge up mid-journey due to range anxiety or because in winter electric battery range is slashed by cold weather. Unlike current petrol stations, instead of having say 10 pumps each used for 5 to 10 minutes to fill up or top up so that each pump gets used hundreds of times per day, the charging points at this type of station will be in use for hours at a time meaning each one might get used only six to ten times a day. This means there will have to be thousands of these charging stations to cope with demand. Just where these are going to be built, how many can be built each year and what the cost is going to be is not addressed in the article. I very much doubt practical issues like this have been thought through by up the current government. 

keithcsinclair 7 December 2020

Great (business) idea that makes a lot of sense. A municipal "green" power station with capacity to charge 36 electric vehicles simultaneously will go a long long way to overcome prejudice against the BEV and those without a home charge point. Sensible location for a "gym" to also contribute human driven power (provided of course you can earn credits based on how much you generate toward your next top up). Adding this type of facility to the ever increasing number of motorway and superstore locations can only help toward eliminating range anxiety for good.