Justin Meyer, general manager of SWARCO eMobility, looks at the opportunities ahead to build a rapid charging network fit for the UK’s full electrification plans, and asks what more can be done to persuade drivers and fleet operators to jump on board.
The UK government is accelerating its ambition for full electrification of the UK’s transport sector by 2035. Its announcement in February to shave five years off the previous target date of 2040 and to exclude hybrids was met with some scepticism. But the route is set, and we are heading in the right direction.
Automotive manufacturers are fully invested in a zero emissions future; the energy sector is on board; and the importance of a robust, fast-charging network has the eye of policy makers with industry consultation on big budget decisions indicating that it is taking its commitment to electrification seriously. What is perhaps missing, is the imagination of drivers and their readiness to trust that the infrastructure is there for them.
It is fair to say, however, that Covid-19 and the UK lockdown has put a spotlight on what it could be like without so many internal combustion engines on our roads causing air pollution. The lockdown has meant fewer car journeys but, of course, this will only be temporary. Before long the 39 million cars in the UK will emerge and higher levels of emissions will resume.
But could the clearer air that we’ve all experienced be enough to persuade more people that they can play a part in the long-term improvement to air quality and stop putting off the purchase of an EV?
We know that car sales ground to a halt during lockdown, with new sales dropping by 97% in April and 89% in May 2020 compared to last year’s figures, but electric cars were a bright spot. Sales for battery electric vehicles (BEV) accounted for 12% of total UK car sales in May 2020 – this equates to 2,424 units sold, and a rise of 43% on the previous month.
Not only that but the split between Battery EVs and Plug-in Hybrids Electric Vehicles (PHEV) is tipping further towards BEV dominance (60% BEV to 40% PHEV in 2020 so far) and this dominance is expected to continue.
There are a number of factors over the coming years that influence the growth of EVs. The removal of the government’s plug-in-car grant, which ends in the 2022-23 financial year, will likely see a rush to take advantage of the scheme while it still exists. By that time, it is expected that there will be a significantly wider choice of EVs, and the cost of buying an EV is expected to be on a par with an internal combustion engine (ICE).
Race for rapids
The government has ploughed £1.5 billion of support, through various different schemes, to help boost the uptake of electric vehicles and make cleaner vehicles more accessible to everyone. The budget announcement in March 2020 confirmed its ongoing commitment with £500 million worth of investment earmarked to help grow the rapid charging network.
We know that rapid charging is key to EV adoption as it will allow drivers to use their car and recharge in the same fashion as refuelling their ICE. This ultimately is what is going to make EV ownership more imaginable for people who aren’t even considering it yet, and more accessible for people across the UK.
The £500 million investment is most welcome. It is a really positive move for the industry, and it is encouraging to see the central government committing to support the expansion of the public charging network. The first £70 million of the government’s money will go to installing 3,000 new EV rapid charging points across the country. This will mean that the total number of rapid charging points will more than double – to 5,000 – by the time work is complete by 2024. With this funding we can build a substantial network for drivers.
The government has already been reviewing the provision of charging infrastructure across England’s major roads through a £2.8 million project with Highways England. We have been working with them on the southern half of the programme, which is aimed at ensuring that rapid charge points are installed every 20 miles (where possible) on 95% of the Strategic Road Network by the end of this year.
It is projects like this -– and the ones that will come out of the new £500 million funding pot – which will make a real difference. And the end result, expressed by the DfT, is that drivers will be able to ‘top up’ their cars ‘whilst stopping for a coffee at a service station’. And it is this that will encourage people and businesses to swap their petrol and diesel cars in favour of electric.
More to do
Of course, there are still other areas that still need more attention – and funding – to help get us closer to achieving full electrification. In particular, we would still like to see more provision for the charging infrastructure serving EV taxis.
The Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) has its Ultra Low Emission Taxi Infrastructure Scheme which is aimed at supporting the installation of charge points that are accessible for taxis and private hire vehicles. Although we are working with some councils who have been granted funding, it would be good to see further investment here so that more charging points can be installed quicker to give owners/operators more confidence that they can convert their fleets.
Just as we expect EV journeys to increase, especially for commuting as people stay away from public transport (as we still face the threat of a second wave of Covid-19), we can also expect taxi and private hire journeys to increase. We expect taxis to be used more frequently for the last mile of people’s commute in preference to a crowded bus or, if in London, the tube. It would make a significant difference to air quality if these urban journeys were non-polluting. The big switch to EVs can’t come soon enough, especially with a backdrop of boomeranging emissions as we come out of lockdown.
I’ll leave you to consider the longer lasting environmental benefits that also come with the reduction of emissions in busy cities. Along with healthier living from cleaner air, we should find that as more journeys are made in EVs, the increased demand for electricity will promote the continued development of green energy, and so the move away from using energy from fossil fuels will happen more quickly and make the road to net zero in 2050 easier.