Power and the gory details: Life in an electric vehicle is great, writes Eimear McGovern, as long as you can get a charge
I’m driving between Newry and Armagh when I have my first experience of range anxiety. This is my first time driving an electric vehicle (EV) and behind the wheel of the sumptuous Volkswagen ID4, I’m certainly the most comfortable I’ve ever felt in a car. But at the back of my head is that niggling fear that this EV won’t reach its destination before running out of power.
This morning has been spent driving around Belfast while testing out this SUV — nice work if you can get it.
This latest addition to Volkswagen’s EV offering certainly looks the part, complete with futuristic LED lights and an almost inaudible hum while driving that is characteristic of this type of vehicle.
It’s large, but nimble and I try it out on some of our more narrow streets, creeping along outside City Hall and testing impressive acceleration (within speed limits, of course) around the Docks area, before making my way down towards Newry to put this car through its paces.
I’m in Heaven driving along and feeling confident and I decide it’s time to try out charging the car for the first time. Although the ID4 is sitting comfortably with 100 miles left on the clock from the range of 220 with which I started, I consult my Zap-Map.
The app details the location of each charge point around Northern Ireland, some of which are free and others for which you have to pay a fee. I pick a functioning charge point and travel there, unravelling the charging cable from the boot and plugging it in before waiting for the dashboard to light up to show I’ve been successful. Nothing.
The car I’m driving is one of nearly 5,000 plug-in cars currently being used across Northern Ireland, a market that is growing all the time. Our share of the EV and hybrid market has increased this year, jumping from 23% in 2020 to 38% in 2021 according to the Agnew Group, which loaned me this car.
To serve EV drivers, there is a network of 337 public charge points, many of which are operated by the ecarNI charging network. It’s owned by the ESB Group and is the largest electric-car charging network in Northern Ireland and is free to access for those with an account.
As a group which sells electric vehicles, Agnew Group said they want to encourage and support their wider adoption by working as a local representative to influence decisions being made at Northern Ireland government level to boost the EV charging infrastructure. They’re also investing over £3m for EV upgrades and charging stations across its entire group, including investing in rapid charging.
Group managing director Yuile Magee tells me: “The number of new cars sold across the UK has been fuelled by consumers increasingly looking to more environmentally friendly forms of transport. The continued acceleration of electrified vehicle registrations is good for the industry, the consumer and the environment.”
It’s a movement that has gained political attention. A Department for Infrastructure ‘Blue Green’ fund has been launched which could see a 500% increase in rapid chargers over the next two to three years as well as providing dedicated chargers for homeowners without off-street parking.
Recently, announcements have been made by providers including ESB and the FASTER project, a cross-border consortium which includes Ulster University and Louth County Council, to step up provision with 73 extra charge points in Northern Ireland alone.
At the charging points, you can plug in your car for as long as you like, and it takes eight hours for it to charge fully, whereas rapid chargers, of which there aren’t many in Northern Ireland, do the same job in less time. That’s as long as they’re working, of course.
Soon, I’ve visited four separate charge points around the Newry area, none of which are actually functioning, before I make my way to Armagh to see if I have better luck there.
I pull over to consult Zap-Map because while with a petrol or diesel engine, you can pull into any garage you see, with an electric car you have to find out if you can ‘fill up’ there. I read some of the reviews users can leave of the different charge points. “It was working a year ago, but hasn’t been for a while,” said one. Another said: “Appears to be offline — couldn’t start a charge.”
At face value, there is definitely a lot to be said for the financial aspect of owning an electric car, while the outlay can be significant initially. This car, for example, costs £50,000 and there are obviously cheaper available. You will, however, spend less charging it than you will on buying petrol or diesel weekly as many drivers do.
Agnew Volkswagen claims I will spend on average £36 a month in electricity charging my vehicle from a home charging point, albeit one that can cost up to £1,000 to install and for which, in recent times, small grants have been made available. For high initial outlay, it appears the driver will soon start reaping the benefits, especially considering many of our public charging points in Northern Ireland are currently free.
I often associated electric cars with smaller, city-style vehicles, but this particular car puts paid to that. SUVs are already large, but this is cavernous — it has a massive boot and a spacious back seat, in which even the person sitting in the middle would be very comfortable. This car is available with four battery options and power outputs ranging from 148hp to 299hp and range figures starting at 213 miles and rising to 322 miles.
After visiting no less than five charge points, I eventually decide my remaining energy and that of my car is better spent guaranteeing I get home to Coleraine rather than searching for different points and travelling to them with a dwindling power supply.
If I had errands to run, children to pick up from school, or a grocery shop to do without the time to look for charge points, this would have proved an obstacle to say the least.
Mark McCall is the director of EV Association NI and has said in the past that the lack of infrastructure around car charging has created issues for their members and in some cases forced them to change back to petrol or diesel.
“There’s still much work to do, particularly around grid capacity and the cost of connections for charging companies,” he said, highlighting hopes for a new energy strategy from the Department for the Economy.
“Our members love their electric vehicles and look forward to seeing our public charging network transform from its current position as the worst region of these islands, to one of the very best.”
As an electric car driver for one weekend only, I do my best to conserve what I have left in terms of range. The ID4 is snug and I’ve been advised by Keith at Volkswagen to use the heated seats to warm up on what is a cold day instead of the air conditioning, which uses a lot of energy.
As I pass through Swatragh and towards Coleraine, that light blinks on that I recognise from my iPhone, telling me I have around 50 miles left in the proverbial tank and should consider locating a charger.
It’s not long before, you’ve guessed it, I’ve arrived back in Coleraine and found my first functioning public charge point just around the corner from my house. I test it out, but soon drive home to use the three-pin charger.
My fiance and I settle in to watch a film while the car is plugged in and, after two-and-a-half hours, we take a look at the results. The car had 16% battery left in the tank and it now has 22%. Safe to say, plugging in your car for a short amount of time isn’t going to cut it in this instance.
If I had an electric vehicle, I would of course have my own dedicated charge point in my driveway. I can picture it now, arriving home, plugging in the car straight away, or perhaps taking advantage of off-peak electricity rates to ensure I’m getting the best deal possible.
But until I can guarantee I won’t run out of battery, I won’t be leading that particular charge.