Electric car charging in public

How to power up on the go

Planning to get from A to B can be a challenge for electric vehicle (EV) owners. If you’re on the go with your battery running low, you’ll need to recharge – and that can mean finding convenient public chargepoints, allowing time to power up and being able to easily pay.

To help you plan for smoother journeys, here’s a guide with expert help from Energy Saving Trust.

What is public charging?

For decades, millions of drivers haven’t had to think twice about a car trip. Low on petrol or diesel? You can fill the tank with a quick stop at a nearby fuel station – often taking just a minute or two – before hopping back in to continue your journey. But rising numbers of EVs on the road are changing this approach – and charging an EV is a very different experience.

The idea is that most of your battery charging will be done at home or at work when you’re parked for long stretches, usually several hours or more. But sometimes you’ll need to power up when you’re out and about or midway through a long journey. This is known as public, on-the-go or destination charging.

Why is public charging so important?

Its significance has grown in line with a Government announcement to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, to help the UK reach its target of net zero carbon emissions. It means anyone shopping for a new car will now likely be considering an electric vehicle. And a key concern for many – especially for those buying for the first time – is how they’ll be able to charge their car on the go.

As of January 2023, there are more than 37,000 public chargepoints in the UK. But the Government is behind plans to introduce many more than this. It wants to see 300,000 installed across the country by 2030 – that’s almost five times the number of petrol and diesel pumps available in the UK back in March 2022.

To help prepare drivers to make the switch, it wants those behind the wheel to be confident they can find a public chargepoint wherever they go. This can help to reduce ‘range anxiety’ – a fear your EV will run out of battery while you’re on the go because you can’t find a charger in time.

How is public charging different from home or workplace charging?

The most common (and convenient) way to charge an electric car is when it’s sitting unused for a long period of time – for example, overnight or during your working day. That's why slower chargepoints are usually installed outside houses and workplaces (including on the street), because they tend to take between six and eight hours to fully charge an electric car battery.

By contrast, public charging gives drivers the chance to top up when they’re mid-journey or if they’re heading to popular destinations with car parks such as railway stations, shopping centres or supermarkets. Known as ‘fast’ and ‘rapid’ chargepoints, they allow you to give your battery a boost much more quickly. The most rapid chargers allow you to power up your car from empty to 80% in as little as 30 minutes, according to Energy Saving Trust.

Where can I find public chargepoints when out and about?

You can find chargepoints across the country at existing petrol forecourts, motorway service stations, car parks and shopping centres, as well as on many residential streets. As chargepoints are operated by different companies, they all look and work slightly differently. This means it's not the same as pulling into a fuel station and filling up. So it’ll help to get used to a bit of forward planning, especially on longer journeys.

Fortunately, there are lots of apps such as Octopus Electroverse, ZapMap and PlugShare to help make the process easier. Features include being able to look up chargepoints by location and charging speed, so you can plan the time needed for a charging break when you stop for a rest.

You can also discover which network the chargepoint is on, so you’ll know whether an app or what's known as a radio frequency identification (RFID) card is needed to pay (more on this below). And when you’re on the move, you’ll probably spot on-street chargepoints too. But many of these are intended for local residents (and so may well be busy) and might not be able to charge your battery as quickly as you’d like.

Can I charge my EV at all public chargepoints and how long might it take?

As long as your car’s socket (and any cable it may come with) is compatible with those available at the chargepoint you drive to, you can charge your battery at most charging locations, according to Octopus Energy.

In a nutshell, for public charging, you’ll see a difference between two types of chargepoint – AC and DC (named after the different types of electric current):

  • A fast AC chargepoint uses what’s called a Type 1 or Type 2 plug to connect to your car – and all electric cars in the UK have a Type 2 socket, research from Octopus Energy shows. A full charge can typically take two hours.
  • A rapid or ultra-rapid DC chargepoint offers what’s known as a CCS plug type (common in European and North American cars) or CHAdeMO (largely in cars from Asia). Getting to 80% can take as little as 30 minutes, but it depends on the type of car and chargepoint. All EVs are compatible with rapid chargers.

At a rapid chargepoint, you can choose whether to use the CCS cable or a CHAdeMO cable to charge.

What types of charge costs could I face and how can I pay?

Public chargepoint costs vary across the country but, in short, you’ll pay the most for the speediest top-up. Whenever you use a public chargepoint, you’ll usually pay a standard connection fee plus the charge for the amount of electricity your battery then consumes (shown as the price per kWh).

There are more than 60 chargepoint networks across the UK, but payment has not always been simple. Even though some networks have offered discounts for signing up, many drivers have had to download different smartphone apps or order RFID cards to pay for charges with each one.

However, the payment process is starting to become smoother with more networks set to roll out contactless payment. And to make things even easier, you can now sign up for one card or app to use across lots of different networks. You’ve got a small selection of such services to choose from but one example is Octopus Electroverse which gives you access to more than 380,000 chargepoints across the UK and Europe.

All information is based on the most up-to-date research from Energy Saving Trust as of 31 January 2023 and the UK Government. This article does not constitute advice and is for general guidance only. Always undertake your own research before taking any action.

If you decide to access any of the third-party websites, you do so entirely at your own risk.

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