South Africa’s electric charging network ready for sales surge

Despite the accelerated uptake of EVs in South Africa, electric vehicle (EV) adopters should not be concerned that they will have to wait in long queues to use public chargers in the near future.

That is according to feedback from the country’s two biggest public EV charging station operators — GridCars and Rubicon.

MyBroadband recently experienced what some EV drivers in other countries loathe: waiting for a charger to become available while on a road trip.

While travelling back home and charging a Volvo EX30 on a charger at the Engen Vaal West fuel station on the N3, an Audi E-tron arrived with just 40km range remaining.

With just one charging port working, the E-tron driver had to wait about 25 minutes until we had sufficient charge in our EX30 to reach our next destination, and he could plug in.

Fortunately, this was better than the roughly two hours he previously waited at the same station for a BMW iX to charge up.

We have also heard various other EV drivers complaining about having to wait for chargers to become available in the past few months.

One of the possible reasons for this is the big jump in EV sales in recent years, as summarised in the table below.

Fully-electric car sales in South Africa
2018 to Q1 2024
Period Sales
2018 58
2019 194
2020 92
2021 218
2022 502
2023 929
Q1 2024 330
Total sales (excluding 2013 to 2017, mostly BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf sales) 2,323

However, neither GridCars nor Rubicon had observed a material increase in customer complaints, which showed that this was not becoming a regular issue.

GridCars said that although some sites had occasional queueing, its data showed this occurred less than 1% of the time an EV needed to be charged.

“We encourage the EV drivers to let us know when this happens so we can record it and ensure we are responding to this with increased chargers as the needs develop,” the company said.

GridCars estimated there were just under 3,000 fully electric cars on South African roads by the end of April 2024.

With around 500 public charging stations in the country, there are six cars per charger, much better than the global standard of 20 cars per charger.

However, GridCars and Rubicon acknowledged the ratio was not necessarily the best measure of success as public chargers could be concentrated in certain areas — like metros — and widely dispersed elsewhere.

Cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria have hundreds of stations, while entire provinces like the North West, Free State, and Northern Cape might only have a handful.

The focus on city rollouts was primarily due to the increased likelihood that they would provide revenue with the low rate of EV adoption.

Early models like the BMW i3 and Nissan Leaf also have very limited range, making long-distance travelling more difficult.

Charging EX30 at GridCars station at Engen Vaal West on the N3

Eskom’s grid a challenge for long-distance travelling

GridCars said that increased EV sales would make it easier to secure funding for further charger rollouts, and Rubicon expects the attention to shift more towards rollouts at intercity locations in the future.

However, that comes with another problem — limited electricity distribution capacity where multiple or ultra-fast chargers are required.

“We have already encountered problems trying to find available capacity for chargers at fuel stops, and it will not get better unless we use products like the Volkswagen Flexpole with integrated battery storage as a quick fix,” said Rubicon head of e-mobility Greg Blandford.

Aside from these operators, another company focused on intercity chargers is Zero Carbon Charge.

It is taking another approach to electricity capacity constraints: building fully off-grid charging stations supplied by solar, batteries, and generators.

Render of an off-grid Zero Carbon Charge station with farm stall

GridCars and Rubicon have several mitigations to avoid EV drivers getting frustrated with queuing.

All chargers are connected to the Internet, enabling users to see their live status — including whether a port is being used or is offline due to maintenance or load-shedding — via the ChargePocket app, browser-based GridCars map, or Google Maps.

GridCars has also developed a built-in scheduling system that it could implement if network demand levels create bottlenecks.

Rubicon offers at least two DC guns instead of one at each station. Some also have a third slower-charging AC port that can be used while waiting for the faster chargers to open up.

Rubicon’s e-mobility project manager and Tesla business development specialist, Hilton Musk, said the company often debated whether it would be better to distribute the available power between more chargers rather than having just two ultra-fast ports.

Currently, if a site has 100kW available, the company installs one 100kW charger with two charging guns. One car could charge at up to 100kW while two will charge at 50kW each.

However, if it used two charging stations with 50kW capacity each, two cars could charge at 50kW each per station, or four cars could charge at 25kW simultaneously.

Musk said there would likely be a shift towards more charge points with lower capacity as the demand increased.

Rubicon also said South Africa’s public charging rollout did not need to be as extreme as in Europe. Instead, it should be more similar to the US, where people can generally charge at home and only need public chargers for longer road trips.

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South Africa’s electric charging network ready for sales surge