In Practice: will government meet its 2040 EV ambition?

Sabina Astarita, General Manager of SPIE UK, discusses whether the UK Government is on the right road with its electric vehicle strategy.

In July this year, the Government revealed its Road to Zero Strategy in a bid to help lead the world in zero-emission vehicle technology. In addition, as set out in the government’s Air quality plan, the UK will end the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, and the Road to Zero Strategy has promised to build on this commitment. As part of this, the country’s electric vehicle infrastructure has been thrown into the spotlight as the government intends to take steps to enable massive roll-out of infrastructure to support the electric vehicle revolution.

A major part of this will be the launch of a £400m Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund to “help accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure by providing funding to new and existing companies that produce and install charge points”. Furthermore, the government has proposed the creation of an Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce, with the intention of bringing together stakeholders from both the automotive and energy industries so that expected increases in energy demand can be mitigated against the creation of an appropriate infrastructure.

Electric and hybrid vehicle registrations have recently witnessed a huge acceleration, going from 3,500 in 2013 to over 150,000 in May 2018, are the Government’s initiatives to improve EV infrastructure enough to meet their ambitious targets and to cope with the dramatic increase in demand for electric vehicles in the UK?

Firstly, the intention to create an Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce is brilliant. Bringing together a diverse group of actors is the only way a sufficient and fit for purpose EV infrastructure strategy can be created, ensuring future planning is done in a coordinated manner. However, this is just the first step. In order to meet legislative, consumer and business demands, charging points must be situated in parking areas which are both publicly and privately owned. For example, people will want to plug in their cars while they are at work, or on a day trip, as well as when they are at home.

This has resulted in a degree of ambiguity around who should be responsible for putting these charging points in place, and the appropriate pricing structure. We need to see councils, businesses and other stakeholders working together, investing to develop comprehensive infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country.

Another role of the Taskforce is to mitigate against increased energy demand. Up until now, energy aggregators have benefitted from demand peaks and troughs, offering a solution, however, EVs as a by-product may present another. EV charging should not be considered a one-way street, two-way electric charging technologies that treat the grid as an energy transport network allow for the most efficient use of energy. Therefore, the government need to embrace vehicle to grid technology (V2G), or Vehicle to Home (V2H), which allows users to charge their vehicles but also return energy to the grid and/ or home and effectively smooth demand; hence reducing frequency anomalies as required.

Of course, another key factor is money – will the £400m Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund be enough to cover activity over such a long time-span? Given that we are over 20 years away from the deadline, it is difficult to say but unlikely. Either way, it will help lead the charge. At this early stage it is very difficult to know if private investment has been accelerating, but it certainly seems to be the case with high profile investments from BP, Shell and many other corporates in this arena. This extra funding will help bolster any projects undertaken by the government.

Are there any alternatives to EVs that might overtake this type of vehicle, eventually making any new charging infrastructure redundant? The truth is, there are many, the most prominent being hydrogen-powered fuel cells, and there will be many more which could prove popular in the future.

It would be wrong to underestimate human ingenuity, if we look back to the early 1900’s when electric vehicles were very popular, advances in gasoline-powered vehicles led electric cars to be displaced. There is nothing to say history cannot repeat itself, although today that does seem most unlikely; Hyundai do not think so. Hyundai have recently announced that they will pursue Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology, launching NEXO a Hydrogen fuel cell SUV.

Another significant element of the Road to Zero Strategy is the implementation of a new £40m programme to develop and trial innovative, low cost wireless and on-street charging technology. There is a high probability that wireless charging will supersede plug in, which goes to highlight the likely obsolesce that we will experience.

At present however, wireless charging technology is inefficient and results in large energy losses. Whilst there are vehicles such as buses operating in the UK, which take advantage of wireless charging, the majority of electric vehicles in circulation to date would not be compatible with wireless charging. We are a long way off from standardised wireless vehicle charging.

One of the most important and forward-thinking aspects of the latest legislation that must be praised is that the technology being utilised in the Road to Zero is neutral. This is the correct approach as technology in this space will quickly become antiquated and it would be foolish not to plan for change.

On the international playing field, the UK is helping to lead the way. Last year, there were 2,833 new charging points installed, putting it on a par with Switzerland in third place on the Electric Car Index. However, we should also take time to learn from our peers, specifically France who has provided one-third more plugs than any other country in the world. However, they aren’t necessarily doing anything ‘better’ in their infrastructure roll-out, merely starting earlier and publicising their efforts more.

Overall, ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 is extremely ambitious, as are the Government’s EV charging infrastructure goals. Advancements made in vehicle charging over the past ten years have been relatively slow, and to reach this target in the next 20 years we must see exponential change. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see that our leaders are taking this challenge seriously, and over time it will be fascinating to see whether the electric vehicle revolution will take hold across the nation.

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