Electric vehicles mark a new venture for British Gas. One of a number of new companies to take an interest in motoring as electromobility begins to gather pace, it’s found the emerging sector to be a natural fit within its portfolio and is working hard to make the transition from fossil fuels as easy as possible for potential customers.
Since 2011, those efforts have been overseen by head of electric vehicles Andreas Atkins, who sees knowledge and relationships between stakeholders as vital as the sector grows: ‘We’ve got knowledge and experience that we can share with the government, organisations and other businesses,’ he says.
‘Not everyone understands electricity, and we have experience which we can share. Every party can bring their own piece, and between everyone it’s about getting that pool of people together to make the industry work.’
Naturally, British Gas has already begun to roll out electric vehicles on its own fleet. To date, this includes 82 plug-in hybrids and fully electric models, most of which are company cars, and employees are provided with free charging at work. The company also has a fleet of seven Nissan LEAF pool cars, recharged using energy from solar panels, which cover around 6,000 miles per year with no fuel costs.
Extensive growth is planned. Following a trial of the Nissan e-NV200 electric van last year, British Gas has plans to convert 10% of its 14,000 vehicle fleet to electric vehicles by 2015. The roll-out is due to start before the end of the year, with as many as 500 deployed by the end of 2014. Atkins says conversations between fleet general manager Colin Marriott and the trade union have been encouraging.
‘It’s really positive when you get support from that side as well as from the business side,’ he says. ‘The enthusiasm for it is nice to see, and it means the progression and the roll out will hopefully have fewer stumbling blocks.
‘The engineers who have tried it love it as well. It’s just about finding the right locations, because with the range and infrastructure it works but not everywhere at the moment. We’re going through that process of exploring where we can, and starting to make that introduction in those areas.’
Once deployed, Atkins hopes data from its own fleet will allow British Gas to provide real-world case studies to other companies considering making a similar move. But there are challenges to overcome. He sees electric vans being best suited to urban fleets with short journey cycles and a return to base at the end of every working day. A large number of British Gas engineers meet two of those criteria, but all work from home rather than a central depot.
It means electric van drivers will either need a data-enabled charging point at home, a separate meter just for charging the van, or unit which is completely independent of the household supply. In all three cases, the aim will be to subtract any business-use electricity from the driver’s bill.
‘The aim is a trial at the end of the year, so we might try all three,’ explains Atkins. ‘It’s a problem that we will overcome, and it’ll be a great case study then to roll out not only to the rest of our fleets but for other organisations too.’
Infrastructure has also formed a backbone of British Gas’s aspirations in the UK. Based on feedback from fleets, the company partnered with Hitachi Capital to offer the first leasing package to cover a vehicle and charging point, solving what Atkins says is a demand for cost-saving turnkey solutions rather than dealing with numerous separate suppliers.
British Gas is also working closely with carmakers, including Nissan, Renault and Vauxhall, to provide home installations for plug-in vehicle customers, and has recently installed the first charging points at Porsche dealerships ahead of the plug-in hybrid Panamera’s UK launch.
With over 1,500 domestic and workplace installations under its belt, the aim for the near future is to get as much infrastructure in the ground as possible, in a move designed to boost confidence in electric vehicles by removing range anxiety.
Since the start of July, the company has been providing completely free domestic installations, and for the first time these aren’t specifically for those who own or drive a plug-in car. Atkins says the scheme enables people who regularly visit relatives to have a charging point at both ends of the journey, which will be an important part of making electromobility viable for more drivers.
‘We’ve seen from our partners more hybrid vehicles being sold still versus pure electric vehicles,’ he says. ‘But everything has to start somewhere, and there weren’t petrol stations around the UK at some point. People would have had to fill canisters of petrol and keep spares in the boot.
'There will come a time where there are charging points all over the place, and people will have confidence in that.’