Van User
The UK’s first electric forecourt promises fast-charging for all and a glimpse of the future. Dan Gilkes plugs in. FUTURE FILL-UP

The UK’s first electric forecourt promises fast-charging for all and a glimpse of the future. Dan Gilkes plugs in.

Gridserve has opened the first of 100 Electric Forecourts planned for the next five years, on a site near Braintree, Essex. Capable of providing rapid charging for up to 36 vehicles at the same time, the company is investing £1bn in a UK-wide programme, with additional funding from Hitachi Capital (UK), Innovate UK and OZEV, to make EV driving more convenient and less stressful for drivers.

In preparation for the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans, the Gridserve site is much like a conventional service station, but without any petrol or diesel pumps. In their place are four rows of high-speed charging points. Two of the lanes offer a maximum charging power up to 90kW, while the other two can deliver up to 350kW, to those vehicles capable of taking that level of input.

The site also has a lane pre-wired to cope with heavier vehicles including trucks, though there are no actual charging points yet, due to the lack of suitable customer vehicles. However, the existing canopies are 5m high, so even the tallest van and some smaller electric trucks should be able to use the current charging points.

The forecourt is part of Gridserve’s wider sun-to-wheel infrastructure, that aims to provide net zero carbon energy. The electricity is generated from solar panels on the forecourt canopies and from a network of local solar farms. There is also a 6MWh battery on site to help balance the local energy grid. The battery is capable of storing enough energy to power up to 24,000 miles of travel in EVs.

The opening rate has been set at 24p/kW, meaning a typical 20-80% rapid charge should cost less than £10. We used the site to top up a Mercedes-Benz eSprinter, from almost empty to 100% full, consuming just over 32kWh in less than 28 minutes. With a Costa coffee shop and a WH Smith on site, alongside a mini market and toilet facilities, drivers can take a break as well. 

Though not currently in use due to Covid restrictions, the site also has a wellbeing area with exercise bikes and business meeting pods, making it more of a destination that the usual service station.

“Charging has to be simple and free of anxiety, which is why we’ve designed our Electric Forecourt entirely around the needs of the driver, updating the traditional petrol station model for a net-zero carbon world and delivering the confidence people need to make the switch to electric transport today,” said Toddington Harper, founder and CEO of Gridserve.

Van User has visited the site twice now, in the eSprinter and also in an LEVC VN5. In both cases we had no trouble connecting to the charging units, which take payment from a credit or debit card. As part of a paperless operation, you can get an invoice e-mailed after use.

The Electric Forecourt is a very impressive site, though the vagaries of vehicle design mean that manufacturers are currently putting charging points all over their vehicles. The site has been primarily laid out for those vehicles with charging points along the side, but unfortunately both of the vans that we arrived in had their charging inputs in the front grille. This meant parking slightly out of our marked space, though that is no problem at present as attendance is understandably low.

The charging instructions are easy to understand and the transaction is seamless. Even under the current Covid restrictions it is possible to use the facilities and top up on coffee and a newspaper, though you have to enjoy them in the cab at present. As a glimpse of the future it is an impressive site and once they start to appear around the country the Electric Forecourts will no doubt go some way to make life easier for those that have to use an EV on longer journeys.