What’s it like at the UK’s first bespoke electric car forecourt?

Sustainable energy firm Gridserve has cut the ribbon on its new electric vehicle charging forecourt near Braintree in Essex, in what could be a landmark moment for EV ownership as the UK approaches the 2030 end date for the sale of new ICE cars.

Designed, by CEO Toddington Harper’s own admission, with inspiration from Apple, the forecourt (which is categorically not a service station, for reasons we will discuss later) is spacious, futuristic and simple to negotiate both inside and out. There are 36 individual charge points, ranging in output from 7kW to 350kW, which can all be used simultaneously with no drop in output.

In line with the nascent company’s ‘sun-to-wheel’ business model, electricity is generated by solar panels – mounted on the forecourt roof and at an array of partner solar farms – and stored in a 6mWh (6000kWh, or roughly enough for 26,000 miles of EV range) on-site battery, which can balance the grid in peak hours, helping to keep charging costs down.

As such, users pay just 24p per kWh to charge at the Braintree site, making it cheaper than any other ‘ultra-high-speed’ charging provider in the country.

It’s an impressive sight to behold, and Gridserve’s expansion ambitions are equally eye-opening. “The plan is to build over 100 in the next five years and provide people with the confidence to make the transition,” outlines Harper. “We need a lot – probably a lot more than 100.”

Details on future sites remain under wraps (the Braintree site opened first largely because it was the quickest to get through the planning process), but Gridserve isn’t exclusively eyeing sites near high-traffic areas, as you might expect of a traditional fuel provider.

“We’re not a service station,” Harper notes. “There are about 150 service stations in the UK that allow people to get from A to B, and people just pass through. But there are 8400 petrol stations, whose primary need is serving the local community, and that’s what this is. The primary purpose of this electric forecourt is to serve the local community.”

Siting its first location at the side of the A131 may have positive implications for footfall, but it wasn’t the ultimate ambition. With plush office ‘pods’, exercise bikes (which power the forecourt), a high-tech kids’ play area and even shower facilities upstairs – in addition to the more conventional WH Smiths, Costa and supermarket on the ground floor, it’s clear that Gridserve wants its facilities to be seen more as a destination than just as a means of facilitating a journey.

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In terms of market competitors, Gridserve’s charging facilities essentially sit in a class of one – for now, at least. Energy providers including Polar, Ionity, Ecotricity and Podpoint operate banks of chargers at busy locations but usually as part of a larger service or fuel station designed for ICE cars.

Not that Harper dreads the prospect of rivalry: “Our purpose is to deliver sustainable energy on such a scale that we can move the needle on climate change, so when I see a major fossil fuel company getting into electric cars, I think ‘that’s awesome’. We welcome competition, but not because we’re cocky – because it aligns with what we’re trying to achieve.”

When electric cars have gained a larger market share and the charging infrastructure is better developed, he says, it will “come down to which offers the best experience,” but in the meantime, it’s about “collectively” delivering the services needed to facilitate mass EV adoption.

Gridserve isn’t solely a charging provider, however, and its new EV leasing service will supplement its growing infrastructure network by offering electric cars from Audi, Mercedes-Benz, MG and Mini, to name but a few.

It’s being described as the UK’s “first net-zero electric vehicle leasing business,” with the inclusion of charging at Gridserve sites for the length of the lease “enabling people to accurately compare the cost of leasing a petrol or diesel vehicle, plus fuel, with an electric vehicle with fuel included”.

Removing the cost of a home charger installation and the price of charging at devices provided by other firms will serve as a further incentive.