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Feeling blue

It has been said somewhere… and therein lies the state of the art when writing something that sounds profound on the Internet in the first half of the 21st century. Somewhere or other I read, unattributed, or with forgotten attribution, something vaguely like what I’m about to repeat without attribution: Greater London as a city does not really exist, instead it is dozens and dozens of small villages that have expanded until they have grown into each other.

Flying over it, or using Google Earth or Google Maps to virtually fly, the eye can be tricked into believing that the sea of buildings within the M25 is some sort of cohesive entity. After all, the buses and tube go all over the place, the road rules are the same everywhere, and there is a Costa on every corner. The reality is far more complicated, and it is frankly a small daily miracle that the conurbation does not collapse into rioting and arson as an entire nation’s worth of people wade through a morass of niggling annoyances resulting from subysystems of the city not… quite… working…

I had the pleasure last week of meeting Maryline Marilly, Stakeholder and Partnership Manager for Bluepoint London, who generously took the the time to answer some of the issues and concerns I’d raised around Gill-Hank.

When Bolloré, or rather their sub-entity Blue Solutions, purchased the car charging network set up under the SourceLondon scheme by TfL, they did so with an unabashedly and transparent commercial intent: they really want to get their electric car club system up and running inside the M25, and on the back of that promote and push for more widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Particularly their electric vehicles, using their battery technology. They certainly were aware at the time of purchase that the charging network was a shambolic, malfunctioning mess, but saw it as a good entry point into the infrastructure.

We don’t perceive the infrastructure that exists to support the use of cars reliant on fossil fuels, any more than a fish perceives water. The infrastructure is pervasive and unremarkable, and any driver in London unthinkingly and correctly assumes they are only a few miles from a fuel source, which will be open, functioning, and trivially easy to use. I have no idea how much it costs to build a petrol station inside the M25, but at a guess would expect it to be a six-figure sum. Buying the land, sorting out the legals, constructing the building, installing the specialist equipment for dealing with fuel… not something you pay for with the change you find down the back of the couch. And yet, companies still build them, even though the income from selling fuel, energy drinks, fluffy dice and crisps will probably take decades to cover the construction cost. Of course, the actual cost is amortised over all the other stations that the company owns, and it’s not a huge financial gamble as long as their pockets are deep enough to deal with unexpected costs.

The infrastructure for electric cars is in many ways technologically much simpler, and largely boils down to “somewhere to plugin and charge”. There are of course some caveats there – the electrical network the vehicle plugs into needs to be fairly robust, and capable of carrying currents a bit above your suburban house light circuit, but this is not a huge ask. The charging stations themselves also have a small footprint, requiring much less space and supporting tech than a petrol pump, but the crunch is that they need to be placed where the driver can park for a non-trivial amount of time. Current vehicles largely need to be able to charge over 4+ hours to attain full charge, and that brings all sorts of complications: publicly accessible charging stations necessarily are in public spaces, such as road sides and car parks, which immediately means that the provider of the infrastructure has to negotiate with a startling array of third parties before they can plop a station down and advertise it’s presence.

It does feel a little that the vehicle manufacturers have a vision that the prime charging location is at home – mum and dad and three kids and a dog with the car in a garage overnight before Dad drives off to his Work with a full charge there and back. Looking around London, the reality is necessarily different. It has proved to be interestingly difficult to find overall what proportion of private cars are parked on-road. I did find this research by TfL on Residential Parking Provision in New Developments showing that 80% of Londoners live in some sort of flat or unit, 45% are renting, and 56% are parking on the street in new developments. The proportion parking on the street for all of London must therefore be somewhere north of this figure. This is not a city where the vehicle owner is probably going to be plugged into their domestic supply. Even if the building owner provides off street parking, it is not likely the renter will be able to access power in the car park (or talk the building owner into providing it).

Like it or not, during the transitional years before electric cars are the norm, Londoners are dependent on the charge points rolled out by the Source London scheme, and similar.

Which brings us back to BluePoint. They know they can’t make a profit on vehicle charging, or indeed I suspect come close to recovering the costs directly from charging, but they are willing to wear the cost. If the chargers are available, Londoners will use them, and if more people start buying or using electric cars, then more of the electric cars will be ones using Blue Solutions’ battery tech. They are happy to give away the safety razor handle, as long as they know they’ll sell a hell of a lot of razor blades and shaving cream.

One thing that Maryline admitted to was that BluePoint were not prepared for just how complicated it would be to deal with all the local authorities, and all the paper work. As she put it, when Paris decided it wanted a charging network, there was a single local authority, a single Mayor, who could just make it so across the entire conurbation. London has got 32 boroughs, each of which has to be bought to the table individually, each with variations in parking regulations, variations in how the pavement can be used or modified, variations in how power cables can be run to the charging units. Describing the time frames required for the negotiations they were going through, her frustration was palpable, and understandable.

None of this should be this hard. Oil prices will rise steeply some time soon. The pressures on consumers to move away from internal combustion engines will ramp up. BluePoint’s proposition is a sensible one: build the infrastructure now rather than doing it later when it is urgent and expensive. Oh, and if they wind up in a very nice commercial position as a result, well, good for them…

Coming back to Gill-Hank, Maryline was able to fill in the last pieces of the puzzle. It seems that PodPoint went somewhat off-piste when they replaced the older SourceLondon unit that was there (although it’s not clear why that happened, as nobody involved appears to have any records of who asked for it to happen). As a result the unit literally dropped off the radar of Source London, and it seems that Greenwich Council never had a particularly clear idea of which Source London units they had committed to. My previous rant managed to rattle the right cages, sufficient for Greenwich to lean on Berkeley to talk to BluePoint, and for an agreement finally made to replace the two dead units in Cadogan Road. The units are indeed technically on private roads on private land owned by Berkeley, even if at some point in the past they were Greenwich Council’s financial responsibility under the SourceLondon scheme. With the new arrangement stitched up by BluePoint and Greenwich, the unit reverts to BluePoint along with the rest of the SourceLondon network in the Borough, and Berkeley blesses BluePoint turning up with pick axes and cement mixers to replace the dead units.

It’s still going to be 6-8 weeks before the units are actually replaced, which is bloody frustrating, but I can understand why it is going to take that long. So, all is well that ends well. Except I am going to ring fence the new unit with traffic cones once it is put in place, and will go on the warpath for the next lorry driver that backs into it.

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