How prepared is the UK for the EV switch?

The UK government has brought forward its intention to end the sale of new combustion engine-powered cars and vans to 2035, fuelling concerns about the future of the automotive industry and the UK’s readiness for the advent of electric vehicles.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his decision to advance the government’s 2040 target for petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicle sales. The policy was disclosed as the government prepares to withdraw its plug-in car grant in March, which has supported electric car sales growth and provided customers with as much as £3,500 to purchase low-emission vehicles.

Accelerating the transition towards electric vehicles will require concurrent investment in charging infrastructure to support more widespread use. ‘Range anxiety’ is a key barrier to people switching to electric vehicles, based on the fear they could struggle to find a charging point when out and about. This problem is particularly prevalent for those without access to off-street parking and home charging, estimated to be the case for around 40 per cent of UK households. Also a question of convenience, slow charging speeds are more disruptive than simply filling up at a petrol station.

A report commissioned by Scottish Power suggests the UK will need 2.6m public charging points by 2050 to meet its net zero target. Slow progress is being made. According to charging point locator Zap Map, there are more than 30,000 charging connectors spread across almost 11,000 locations. Recent growth has been driven by the installation of faster charging points (see chart). But while areas such as London have the greatest density of infrastructure, there is much regional disparity with rural and less affluent areas seen as less commercially viable.

The government has said it will “not own or operate a chargepoint network now or in the future”, instead supporting private sector activity through funding initiatives. A £400m charging infrastructure investment fund was announced last year, with a £200m government contribution matched by private backers.

National Grid (NG.) has called on public funding for “ultra-rapid” charge points, capitalising on the proximity between the UK’s main transport corridors and high-voltage transmission network. It has identified 54 motorway service stations that could put 99 per cent of electric vehicle drivers within 50 miles of a charging location. To make the potential £1bn price tag more palatable to the private sector, National Grid has suggested the government underwrite construction costs and pay the early years’ annual connection charges.

A fragmented market of smaller players such as Ecotricity and InstaVolt has allowed the oil and gas majors to make big steps into this space. BP (BP.) acquired Chargemaster in 2018 and had more than 7,000 charging points in the UK at the end of last year. For Tufan Erginbilgic, outgoing chief executive of BP’s downstream business, the ultimate aim is to “closely replicate the current fuelling experience”.

Aside from having enough charging points, a critical question is whether the electricity network can cope with increased demand. National Grid’s ‘Future Energy Scenarios’ report forecasts that annual electricity demand from road transport could increase from around 1 terrawatt hour (TWh) in 2020 to up to 96 TWh by 2050. Major schemes to introduce new grid capacity typically take five years of planning and delivery, and thinktank Energy Systems Catapult believes there is a “real risk the uptake of EVs is potentially much faster than the investment cycles within which network operators operate”.

National Grid is confident additional demand can be met through ‘smart charging’ which manages energy consumption. Charging can be deferred from peak times to periods when there is spare capacity and consumers are incentivised with cheaper off-peak power. Regulator Ofgem calculates that flexible charging would enable at least 60 per cent more electric vehicles to be charged, reducing the need for expensive upgrades to network infrastructure.

If the UK is serious about ramping up its electric vehicle infrastructure, it might look to emulate the Netherlands, where Total SA (TTA) was awarded Europe’s largest electric vehicle charging contract to install and operate up to 20,000 new public charging points. The upcoming Budget and national infrastructure strategy will be a key indicator of the government’s preparedness for its desired electric vehicle revolution.