Giles Crosse looks at how slow roll-out of charging points could put the brakes on Britain's plan to decarbonize transport by 2040
New registrations of electric vehicles hit a record in 2016, with more than 750,000 sold worldwide, according to the latest statistics from the International Energy Agency. Precipitous growth of 50% a year since 2010 has been driven by falling costs of production and incentives to consumers from policy makers.
This is most notable in the world’s biggest and fastest-growing EV market, China, which is determined to tackle rising air pollution as its burgeoning middle class trade two wheels for four.
Climate change concerns are also a big driver for policy makers, who see electric vehicles as key to tackling transport emissions, which in the UK account for some 28% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Committee on Climate Change.
London’s 33 boroughs are grappling separately with charging issues leading to a piecemeal approach
National Grid’s latest Future Energy Scenarios concludes that a third of transport-related emissions could be cut if 36 million EVs were on the streets by 2040, adding 8GW to UK peak electricity demand.
But charging infrastructure in the UK isn't anything like ready for the leap, with only 16,500 charging points to service 150,000 registered EVs, and only one rapid charging connection for every 43 cars.
In May Emu Analytics forecast an 83% shortfall in the 83,500 charging points that will be required to meet anticipated growth in EV market to 2020.
Experts say it's down to policymakers and stakeholders alike to get infrastructure moving, and time is short.
Last month the UK published its roadmap to roll out mass EVs infrastructure. The Road to Zero Strategy includes ambitious measures to require charge points in newly built homes and a £40m programme to develop on-street charging technology in street furniture such as lamp posts.
Further, a £400 million Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund will accelerate roll-out, with funding for the private sector to produce and install charge points. EV owners will get £500 to retrofit a charge point in their home.
Government should work closely with industry and Ofgem to set common standards on charge points
Nick Molho, executive director at the Aldersgate Group, welcomes the strategy but says there are “critical gaps”. One problem is the uncertain costs of connecting new charge points to the electricity network, with an inconsistency of payment systems, tech specs and connectors. “In London all 33 boroughs are grappling separately with the issues surrounding charging infrastructure, which is leading to a piecemeal approach to installation and operations,” Molho says.
He explains that UK-wide electricity balancing will become increasingly complex due to smart charging, vehicle-to-grid charging technologies and the use of car batteries as energy storage.
Not only is there a lack of coherent standards and specs on actual infrastructure, but wider policy and regulatory changes to better manage data sharing and a flexible, evolved grid are also behind schedule.
So even if all the infrastructure joins up and gets there on time, without the right grid balancing, the juice to power EVs won't flow to it.
“Government should work closely with industry and Ofgem to set common standards on charge points at the earliest possible opportunity, including technical specifications and requiring all charge points to be smart and interoperable.”
Christophe Arnaud is managing director of Source London, a private firm that has committed £100m to improve London’s EV charging infrastructure.
Consumers can only truly be motivated and changed if something is effortless and slots conveniently into their daily lives
Arnaud recently carried out a major public consultation to determine where demand is and make sure charge points are efficient, safe, user-friendly and accessible.
He is concerned about a pivotal element of the government's strategy: lamp post-mounted chargers, which “have a number of drawbacks when compared to street charge points and should not therefore be considered a full substitute”.
Arnaud explains that lamp post charge points are less powerful; 2 kilowatts per hour (kW/h) versus at least 7kW/h for most on-street charge points, with big implications on charge time.
There is more: “They do not come with dedicated parking bays and cannot be pre-booked. It means users would have cables running around to the nearest possible parking space, creating potential hazards on the pavement.
“The government’s strategy is a welcome step in the right direction, but falls short of what London truly needs: a dense, user-friendly, sustainable and homogeneous charging infrastructure.”
Ben Hayman, managing partner of brand purpose consultancy Given London, whose clients include EON and SmartestEnergy, says collaboration will be key to success. “We need to see organizations, public and private, aligning so that they have a shared goal,” he says.
If companies can establish the investment case for first mover advantage this will help to accelerate the change
“Consumers can only truly be motivated and changed if something is effortless and slots conveniently into their daily lives, and so we need the foundation of infrastructure in order to facilitate that change.”
Hayman says the UK should follow Norway’s lead (See, How Oslo became the world’s electric vehicle capital), and align vested stakeholders within a standardized, joined up technical approach to infrastructure installation.
“Government should play a role, but everything speeds up and gets more interesting when private sector investment comes into play. If companies can establish the investment case for first mover advantage this will help to accelerate the change,” says Hayman.
Adrian Del Maestro, director of research at PwC, agrees that a joined-up strategy between government and industry is essential.
“In the long run we believe a competitive market is likely to drive the best outcome, although we recognize near-term challenges on returns, and acknowledge that government support is likely to be needed perpetually to ensure the network is truly country-wide.”
He adds that demand for EVs, which has been growing at a 60% compound annual rate since 2007, will be critical for success. “If demand is to grow further a number of elements need to be addressed; greater choice of EVs and further education for drivers on the economic benefits.”
We are convinced that in the next 15 to 20 years the number of EVs users will surge
EDF Energy says drivers should have wide access to charging options and locations, and be encouraged to charge their cars in a smart way wherever possible.
It also says the government should support early trials of vehicle-to-grid technology, which it sees as “a potentially valuable opportunity to further enhance the electricity system benefits of EVs through provision of large volumes of cheap storage and flexibility”.
Arnaud of Source London is optimistic the barriers can be overcome, though in infrastructure development terms the government’s 2040 deadline is short. “We are convinced that in the next 15 to 20 years the number of EV users will surge,” he says. “Most families already know the benefits of choosing them”.
Giles Crosse writes about sustainability, environment, development, and ethical business. He has contributed to the BBC, Economist, Edie, The Guardian and the United Nations Environment Programme.
This article is part of the in-depth Urban Transport briefing. See also: