Electric car chargers at UK motorway service station will soon cost £5 for 20 minutes' use, ending drivers' ability to refill electric cars for free.

Ecotricity, the company who owns and runs all charging points at motorway service stations, will soon roll out an update to its 3,000 chargers, meaning that they will only work once a driver has paid £5 through a smartphone application. The roll out begins on 11 July and is expected to be completed by 5 August.

The allotted 20 minutes of charging is enough to fill most electric cars by around 50%, but the range this gives varies massively depending on the vehicle being charged. While a Nissan Leaf with 24kWh battery pack should get around 75 miles of range, hybrid vehicles will get much less – and in some cases fewer miles of range per pound than if they had refuelled with petrol.

For example, a report by Motoring Research claims a 20 minute charge of a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV – a sports utility vehicle with a petrol engine and an electric motor – will top the battery up by 50%, but that is only enough for 15 minutes of driving before the petrol engine kicks in. "Without charging the same distance will cost around £2 in petrol," the website claims, undermining any cost savings the hybrid had when recharging was free.

BMW i3 electric car charging
All Ecotricity car chargers will soon impose a £5 fee for 20-minutes' use IBTimes UK

Ecotricity was founded in July 2011 and planned to rid the UK of the electric car's chicken-and-egg problem, whereby no one would buy a car until there was a charging network, and a charging network would not be built until people bought electric cars. But while the electricity comes from wind and solar power, making it effectively free, Ecotricity admits it must start charging to cover the cost of new charge stations being built.

"So the time has come," the company told customers in an email, "to charge - for charging. We've taken a lot of feedback from EV drivers in order to arrive at the right pricing model. We've decided that a simple flat free of a fiver for a 20-minute fast-charge strikes the right balance."

The fee will not apply to Tesla owners who use the company's own Supercharger network, however the electric-car poster child has also suggested it will start charging drivers to charge in the future. Company CEO Elon Musk said recently that buyers of the upcoming Model 3 will have to pay for a "package" to get Supercharger access.