The UK’s second electric car service station opens today, welcoming plug-in vehicle drivers to a new state-of-the-art facility in Norwich.
It comes some sixteen months after British start-up Gridserve opened a flagship ‘Electric Forecourt’ in Essex, which has already sparked a huge uptake in zero-emission vehicles in that area.
Its follow-up site – located at Broadland Gate Business Park on A47 on the outskirts of Norwich – intends to make a similar impact here by doubling the number of high-power public chargepoints in the city, which has one of the worst regional charging infrastructures in the country and below-average levels of EV ownership.
The site hosts 36 charging devices in total that can boost the batteries of any electric car ever sold in Britain, from decade-old models with sub-100-mile ranges to the latest long-distance Teslas, and is one of 100 Gridserve plans to build before new petrol and diesel cars are banned from showrooms in 2030.
A day ahead of first customers silently rolling into the charging station, we were invited for an exclusive tour to see what the new site offers – and to find out if there could be an electric service station like this built near to you soon.
Norwich’s new charging service station for electric car drivers: The new ‘compact’ Electric Forecourt has opened in Norfolk today – and we’ve already had an exclusive tour of the impressive site
The Norwich forecourt comes almost a year-and-a-half in the wake of the opening of Gridserve’s enormous forecourt just off the A131 in Braintree in December 2020.
Since then, EV ownership in Essex has increased by 82 per cent, which is more than double the UK’s average rate of growth.
The Norfolk destination is the first ‘compact’ electric forecourt – a smaller service station built on a plot not nearly as expansive as the massive Essex site, but still offering equivalent charging, refreshment and relaxation facilities. A third, smaller, variation – ‘Flexible’ – will also be created in urban areas chosen for future Gridserve projects.
Arriving – by EV, of course – for our pre-ribbon-cutting preview this week, the building’s modern structure instantly catches the eye, with its contemporary architecture and eco-inspired features raised above the backdrop of the busy dual carriageway and surrounding rural landscape.
Pulling into the sustainable service station, it’s impossible to ignore the noise and fast flow of traffic on the A47 that runs adjacent to the site. And to think, so many of these passing fossil fuel cars will soon be replaced with near-silent EVs that will want to flood into charging facilities like this one by the end of this decade.
In order to maximise the limited space available at the Norwich plot, the majority of the charging points sit underneath the first floor of the two-storey building – yet, despite the smaller footprint, this location offers the same number of devices as the larger Essex site.
The site hosts 36 charging devices in total that can boost the batteries of everything from decade-old electric models with sub-100-mile ranges to the latest long-distance Teslas
In order to maximise the limited space available at the Norwich plot, the majority of the charging points sit underneath the first floor of the two-storey building
There are some 22 of these ultra-fast 350kW chargers. If you drive one of the latest zero-emission models, these devices can add up 100 miles of range to an EV’s batteries in just five minutes
Norwich and the East of England has one of the smallest public charging infrastructures in UK
Norwich was earmarked as one of the 100 UK destinations for an electric forecourt due to its severe lack of existing charging infrastructure.
New figures – published on the same day the Norwich Electric Forecourt opens – shows that public charger installations across the UK has now surpassed 30,000, though there is huge disparity across regions.
The East of England’s has just 30 chargers per 100,000 people compared to the UK average of 45 per 100k.
There’s a massive gulf compared to London, which has 111 public devices per 100k people, according to the Department for Transport’s figures for April.
As a result, EV adoption in the Norwich area is way behind other parts of the country – which could become a sticking point for locals and commuters very soon.
That’s because Norwich recently received government funding to assess the viability of a zero-emission charging zone as part of the council’s bid to cut air pollution from the city centre.
If the plan goes ahead, all petrol and diesel vehicles could be banned from parts of the city, making emission free electric vehicles essential.
The East of England has only 30 public electric car chargers per 100,000 people. That compares to the UK average of 45 per 100k and 111 per 100,000 people in London
There are some 22 ultra-fast 350kW chargers, each of which can add up 100 miles of range to an EV’s batteries in as little as five minutes.
While few electric models on the market today can extract the full charging potential from these devices, by installing them now will futureproof the forecourt for the arrival of next-generation vehicles over the course of a decade, CEO Toddington Harper tells us.
These chargers cost 45p per kilowatt hour (kWh) to use. Gridserve says this is the cheapest price for such rapid charging speeds across the public network. While it is almost twice what it will cost per kWh to charge at home, the higher capacity means much shorter charging periods.
Eight Tesla Superchargers are also on site, and it’s clear that Toddington [who genuinely is named after Toddington services in Bedfordshire] takes immense pride in this, admitting that Elon Musk and his market-leading EV brand is one of his biggest inspirations.
While use of these devices is exclusive to drivers of Tesla cars for now, this could soon change with talks of the Supercharger network being opened up to all EV drivers in the UK – which is already the case in France and the Netherlands.
The remaining six devices are lower power units, which cost 39p per kWh to access. These will cater for older EV models to ensure that the earliest adopters can replenish their batteries with an electricity ‘splash-and-dash’.
Every device allows for contactless payment and staff are on site to offer a helping hand to new EV owners who might still be baffled by the practicalities of swapping a fuel pump for a plug.
Powering the chargers – and the service station building – is 100 per cent renewable energy.
The company uses a ‘sun-to-wheel’ philosophy, meaning every kilowatt of electricity zapped into cars is covered by energy generated by its solar farms – and an array of panels installed on the roof.
And because the peak charging periods at these service stations will be during sunlight hours, electricity is being generated at the same time as consumption.
This should reduce the strain on the grid and, in theory, result in cheaper electricity as it will not need to be stored and excess energy can be sold back to source during hours of high demand.
There’s also a six megawatt battery on site to hold surplus energy generated which connects to a six megawatt grid.
The company uses a ‘sun-to-wheel’ philosophy, meaning every kilowatt of electricity zapped into cars is covered by energy generated by its solar farms and panels installed on the roof (pictured)
There’s also a six megawatt battery on site to hold surplus energy generated which connects to a six megawatt grid
Gridserve opened the nation’s first dedicated charging station for EVs in Braintree, Essex, in December 2020. It is built on an enormous plot, while the new Norwich facility has a far smaller footprint. More ‘compact’ forecourts like the one in Norwich will follow…
The next project – which is another ‘compact’ site – is this one currently under construction close to Gatwick Airport. It will be opened later this year
The Norwich site is an impressive setup, and comes at no burden to the taxpayer, with not a single penny from government incentives used to build this carbon-neutral charging facility.
Gridserve has rounded up funding in the region of £1billion investment in its long-term projects, much of which is coming from the leading UK financial services company, Novuna.
‘Giving drivers the confidence to switch to an electric vehicle and enabling a widespread transition away from fossil fuel vehicles is a central aim of our Electric Forecourts,’ Toddington says.
‘That’s why we have put the consumer at the heart of our design, with our Electric Forecourts serving the needs of local communities in their transition to electric vehicles.
‘Norwich Electric Forecourt showcases a brand new design, where we have been able to provide both charging and a great customer experience in a smaller footprint than our first site at Braintree. By elevating the facilities above the chargers, we make the best use of the space available and are able to deliver a great EV experience without compromise, even when space is at a premium and sites are more constrained.’
Robert Gordon, CEO at Novuna, adds: ‘This is a remarkable project and a game changer for people and businesses in the area interested in transitioning to electric vehicles powered by clean energy.
‘Projects like this really make a difference in providing the confidence people need to become electric vehicle drivers.’
Since opening the Braintree site in December 2020, EV ownership in Essex has increased by 82%, which is more than double the UK’s average rate of growth. Gridserve hopes the opening of the new Norwich site will have a similar impact in Norfolk
Here’s what it looks like inside the service station. There is super-fast wifi access, plenty of comfortable seating and a pair of bookable – soundproof – meeting pods for EV-driving business types
In terms of shops, there’s a Costa Coffee, M&S Food and WH Smith. Staff were still stocking shelves, setting up tills and serving the first round of cappuccinos during our pre-opening visit earlier this week
What can you do while your EV is charging?
While driver waits for their vehicle’s range to be boosted with green energy, they can head inside the service station building, which offers plenty of amenities.
There’s a Costa Coffee, M&S Food and WH Smith all on site, with staff still stocking shelves, setting up tills and serving up the first round of cappuccinos during our pre-opening visit.
Visitors also benefit from access to super-fast wifi and there’s a pair of bookable – soundproof – meeting pods for EV-driving business types who need to make important conference calls while their motor recharges.
Despite the service station’s smaller footprint, there is enough comfortable seating for groups and even space for an education centre where EV ‘Gurus’ can show you around one of the latest electric cars to hit the market. Toddington darted away from our tour a couple of times to help choreograph the position of a £80,000 Porsche Taycan Cross Turismo entering the premises for display via a hi-tech car lift.
One feature not carried over from Braintree is the exercise bikes. When pedalled, they can generate a tiny amount of electricity for the Essex site’s vehicle chargers. This always felt like a bit of a gimmick, and hasn’t proved popular with customers, Toddington admits.
And it’s not just electric car driving customers Gridserve wants to attract through the doors. The aim of the appealing structure is to attract petrol and diesel owners passing on the A47 to take a break, shop and buy a hot drink – also providing a perfect opportunity for the company to show them the potential benefits of making the switch to an EV.
In fact, in the coming months, motorists will be able to arrange test drives of the latest electric cars from the Norwich site – and even lease an EV directly through Gridserve’s vehicle business.
Gridserve’s flagship Electric Forecourt in Braintree has exercise bikes plugged into the service station’s grid that can help supply a tiny amount of energy. This hasn’t proved popular and has not been carried over to the second site in Norwich
Q&A: Toddington Harper, Gridserve CEO
It’s been a busy couple of years for Gridserve and its founder.
Not only has Toddington overseen the development and creation of the World’s first electric forecourts but his company has also completed the purchase of the ‘Electric Highway’ – the network of charging devices at motorway service stations up and down the country.
Earlier this month, Gridserve confirmed it had replaced over 300 older chargers installed at motorway services by the former operator – and for years criticised for being out of date and unreliable – with new medium-speed charging devices with contactless payment functionality. Mr Harper says the Electric Highway hubs charged some 85,000 EVs in March alone.
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To find out more about plans moving forward, we had a quick chat with him in one of the Norwich forecourt’s meeting pods…
Founder and chief executive of Gridserve, Toddington Harper
How are the Electric Forecourt sites being funded – and are they being financed by government?
Toddington Harper: The Government has been extremely helpful in terms of setting the direction of travel for EVs. It would be very difficult for us to achieve what we’re doing if the deadline for the switch to electric cars wasn’t made so clear and binary. When we were showing potential investors the plans for Braintree, it was before the 2030 deadline had been announced, meaning they were having to calculate if – and when – it will happen and how long it will take. The 2030 target makes it very straight forward for investors. Fortunately, we met Hitachi Capital – which is now Novuna – and they loved the concept. Construction of the Braintree site was partially financed by the Government’s Innovate UK scheme, but all there is no government subsidy at all for following forecourts.
How many Electric Forecourts do you think you will have by 2030?
TH: While Novuna [the company formed by Mitsubishi HC Capital UK PLC] is a well-funded organisation, we have other investors on board. Providing we continue to demonstrate that the projects deliver the right returns, then we have significantly more forecourts in pipeline. Since the 2030 deadline has been set, we’ve had no shortage of options – now we have people knocking on the door offering funding. The plan is to have more than 100 Electric Forecourts by the end of the decade and we already have a portfolio of locations to achieve this.
How do you decide the whereabouts of the 100 sites?
TH: A lot of companies looking to add to charging infrastructure will likely analyse the number of EVs that could be in a particular area by – and beyond – 2030. But we are looking at this from a mass-market perspective. If people don’t currently drive an EV, a location like this can incentivise uptake. We have mapped the whole of the UK and want to give the greatest number of people the greatest ability to charge in the earliest possible time frames with the best experience. Each forecourt is funded on a project-by-project basis and there are metrics we need to put in place to explain why we think a particular location will work.
Where are the next Electric Forecourts going to be?
TH: Our next Electric Forecourt at Gatwick Airport is already under construction. And we have several additional sites approved, including Uckfield, Gateshead, Plymouth and Stevenage. A further 30 locations are also under development.
The Braintree site allows for users to parallel park next to the charging points, but because car manufacturers have different locations for the charging sockets in their vehicles Gridserve says it is better for users to have conventional parking bays
Is there anything you’ve learned from the first site in Braintree that has been incorporated here?
TH: We’ve changed the charging layout significantly. At Braintree, we designed the sites like a traditional petrol station, where drivers parallel park when they want to refuel. But we’ve since learned that because manufacturers are putting charging sockets at the front, back and side of EVs that parking next to a device makes it difficult to reach sockets. Here in Norwich, customers can either drive forwards or reverse into a charging bay to allow for easier access, which will be the case for all forecourts in the future.
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