The Sunday Times recently reported in its view the infrastructure for the electric cars revolution is currently not up to the job. It was absolutely right about that. It was also right that National Grid is unlikely to be the sole answer to the problem. However, it wasn’t right in identifying who will be the agent of change.
The newspaper sought to identify which company is best positioned, but in my view the answer is a lot more complicated. The likely truth is the future will be delivered by lots of companies and organizations, solving lots of problems in a mutually beneficial (if not actively collaborative) way. There is no one single universal solution.
2017 will go down as the year the British electric vehicle (EV) revolution began in earnest. Both the UK and Scottish Governments made bold policy announcements to ensure when today’s toddlers have fully matured from being tomorrow’s teenagers, they will need a plug socket rather than a petrol pump to fuel their cars.
But Britain does not stand ready for all the infrastructure challenges it will need to overcome in order to phase out the combustion engine and ensure a decent electric vehicle charging network. Indeed, latest figures suggest we are currently behind many other of our competitor nations on this.
In 2017 Britain installed 2,833 public electric vehicle charging points, way behind France, which installed 11,987 points, and Germany, which put in 7,937 connectors. With global car sales of EVs exceeding two million in 2016, we need to provide enough charging points to match demand.
So how can companies, including the energy company I work for, SSE, keen to build more EV charging infrastructure, help plug the gap? How do we ensure potential buyers of electric vehicles have no more ‘range anxiety’ issues because they have absolute faith in the UK charging network?
Well, first up you need a joined up approach between government and local legislators. In London, for example, SSE has installed over 500 charge points for private cars in partnership with Bluepoint London, but we have to negotiate curbside access with 33 different boroughs to build those charging points. So the national ambition for EV take up has to be universally supported at a local level.
Likewise, we have to be smart about EV power requirements – especially in urban areas where we will face huge pressure on the ‘grid’ to ensure demand can be met. There are solutions to this, as we have demonstrated at our bus charging facility at Waterloo Station, which allows Go-Ahead to charge its fleet overnight, without disrupting bus services and when power demand is low.
And finally what about funding? Well at the moment it’s understandably a mixed-bag. The UK currently has several infrastructure deployment models being used, from self-funded commercial deployment to grant enabled public charging networks. In order to get infrastructure projects off the ground you need a coalition of partners to invest in, design, deploy and manage a project.
Government and local authorities need to try harder in providing a clear policy framework within which markets can strive to operate in. They also have a significant role to play in providing grant funding for certain market segments, to ensure no one group is left behind in terms of access to infrastructure for electric mobility. The specifics can vary; in some cases it may be to offset risk to encourage more commercial investment and in others it may be to encourage local businesses to grow.
This market is still evolving at a fast rate and no-one can predict with any great accuracy what the future will look like, what challenges we come across, and how we will eventually achieve our aims. But if we can rally around decarbonisation of our transport infrastructure, then effectively everyone will be winner including the planet we live on. It will not be an easy journey, and the road will be very bumpy, but it will be the collaboration of the many, not the leadership of the few, that will most likely get the desired result.