In March, InstaVolt celebrated the opening of the UK’s largest public rapid charger motorway hub located at Welcome Break’s service area on the northbound carriageway of the M6 at Corley in the Midlands.
It came as part of a £50 million investment by InstaVolt to help meet its goal of installing 5,000 rapid EV chargers by 2025, and followed on from the announcement of rollout partnerships with McDonalds and KFC.
Current± caught up with InstaVolt’s chief executive officer, Adrian Keen to chat about the development process of the hub, bringing rapid charging to motorways “with a twist” and the importance of partnering with well-known brands.
What are the challenges of developing rapid charging sites at this scale?
In many respects, the process of developing a motorway hub isn’t different to a retail park or McDonald’s. The challenge is it’s a bigger grid connection because, you know, more chargers more power, and being a motorway site, you’ve got a couple more interested parties but in all respects, we follow the same process as we would for any site.
It took a bit longer because of some extra challenges along the way – it was a slightly more complicated grid connection, but I would say that’s due to the fact that it’s on a motorway. I think the challenges of power on the motorway are well documented.
We’ve got new substations each side of the carriageway and so that itself brings extra work processes. That’s not unique to motorways, it’s just how it was. We actually first started working with Welcome Break about two and a half years ago on this project, and we moved location throughout that process where we were originally going to go somewhere else on the site but we ended up carving out some bays from unused land.
What was the process of working with the DNO for this site like?
We do all of the design work in house, so our pre construction effort includes all the legal negotiations, the DNO application and then working through that connection with the DNO, the planning applications, any required consents – so we don’t outsource anything. We think that’s a really unique skill set within InstaVolt. Many of our team are themselves ex-DNO, and I think this is a bit of a USP for us. We understand grid – we’re not just coming into this slightly cold.
So when it came to working with WPD in particular for the site, we didn’t just take the grid offer and run with it. We sat down and we engaged with them. We sat down with their network engineers and looked at all the available solutions to essentially grab as much power as we possibly could to be able to put as many rapid chargers on that site as we could.
Are motorway hubs going to be more of a focus for InstaVolt moving forwards?
It’s well known that one of the challenges for the motorways are: one, the Ecotricity exclusivity, which itself has been well covered over the years, but two, due to the quite remote nature of MSAs [motorway service areas], getting power to them can be quite difficult and expensive.
So we thought to turn it on its head – can we take a site to where the power is and the spaces and the land? So the M40 hub was a project with a local landowner, there’s a Costa Coffee, a couple of restaurants and a Premier Inn adjacent to the site and we looked at that as a fresh take on a service area. We started construction last May and it was energised last July. So that was for us a real showcase that we can bring really reliable, easy to use rapid charging to the motorways with a twist- without needing to work with with a traditional motorway services.
We’re looking at other projects like that on the busy motorway junctions with some facilities for drivers and good access, but of course we’re watching the situation with the motorways very carefully. We know there’s a CMA study that is looking at the motorways as well, and there have been developments around Ecotricity and GRIDSERVE, so we’ll watch the space with interest.
Of course we want to do more with the traditional operators – Moto, Roadchef and Welcome Break and bring our own hubs to the motorway as well.
InstaVolt has also partnered fast food chains – how important is it to have those relationships with big brands?
It is fundamental to our business case, really. With electric vehicle charging, you’re freed from the constraints of petrol and diesel. You don’t have to be on a forecourt with great big underground tanks, you can bring the chargers to locations where drivers want to stop. And in the case of rapid charges, stop for 30 odd minutes, have a comfort break, get a coffee, check their emails, get a bite to eat. McDonald’s is such a well known brand and in great locations, and the same for KFC, that these are the sorts of brands where drivers immediately feel confident that they can go and get a reliable service.
It’s about putting chargers in the right place to give the drivers the confidence they need. So in that respect it’s really, really important. McDonald’s has a really long standing brand, really visible commitments to sustainability over recent years and so we’re part of that drive. I think it’s a really mutually beneficial relationship.