'Charging up': Could the offshore wind revolution provide the routemap for EV charging networks?

As the UK prepares to ramp up efforts to switch to EVs ahead of the 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles, two studies this week examine what the government needs to do to encourage uptake and ensure all regions of the country have fair access to charge points

The UK needs to install Electric Vehicle (EV) chargepoints five times faster during the 2020s compared to the current rate or risk leaving “blackspots” in small towns and rural areas where motorists will struggle to access the charging network, a report published today by Policy Exchange has warned.

Titled Charging Up, the report argues government should move swiftly to ensure provision for underserved areas by procuring charge points through competitive tenders – an approach modelled on the government’s successful auctions for offshore wind farm projects. The report also calls for the government to fund dedicated ‘chargepoint teams’ in local authorities to coordinate the rollout in residential areas.

Without such intervention, Policy Exchange warns the rollout of EV chargepoints will remain uneven. Rural areas, particularly outside the south east of England, are currently on course to be badly underserved by network operators, potentially exacerbating existing regional inequalities. Certain areas could encounter bottlenecks in the development of EV charging networks that could slow progress further, such as a lack of resources for local authorities and required upgrades to the electricity grid for rapid and high-powered chargepoints, the report cautions.

In light of the 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars, Policy Exchange calculates 35,000 chargepoints will have to be installed per year through the coming decade – five times the current rate of 7,000.

“The race is on to make sure that the UK has enough chargepoints to deliver the ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030,” said report lead author Ed Birkett. “The government should focus on areas where the government isn’t delivering enough public charge points, including the North West of England, Yorkshire, and Northern Ireland.”

To meet these challenges, the report outlines a series of policy recommendations to ensure a smoother transition to EVs. As part of new government-run competitive tenders for charge points, it recommends long-term contracts of at least 10 years are offered to developers who can then develop, own, and operate charge points and enjoy a minimum annual revenue guarantee. The process could prove critical to delivering charge points at key locations such as motorway service stations, as well as in more rural and isolated communities.

It also calls on local authorities to establish Chargepoint Teams to facilitate the rollout of chargepoints in their area by coordinating between operators, electricity network companies (DNOs), and other relevant actors, such as highway operators.

Policy Exchange also flags that the government will have to act to ensure driving an EV is affordable and suggests regulating the maximum price charged by charge points that receive government support, to avoid risks of a local monopoly allowing an operator to set excessively high prices.

“In return for government support, chargepoint operators should be required to provide reliable chargepoints, that are easy to use and offer fair prices to drivers,” Birkett, a senior research fellow at Policy Exchange, added.

Pressure is mounting on the government to expand and improve the charging network, after the Prime Minister’s “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution” was unveiled late last year and confirmed a commitment to phase out the sale of new petrol- and diesel-only cars and vans by 2030, and all hybrids by 2035. Industry and campaigners have broadly supported the goal, while demand for EVs has soared as ranges have improved and new models have come to market. But experts have repeatedly warned that if EVs are to become the norm then upfront prices need to fall and the UK’s network of public charge points – which are critical for those who can’t charge at home or who make longer trips – needs to expand rapidly, including for fast charge points that can recharge vehicles in around 20 minutes.

The government has provided a multi-billion pound funding package to support the take up of EVs and the deployment of EVs, while Ministers have also called on charging network operators to make the charging process smoother through the introduction of roaming agreements and debit card payment options as standard. However, challenges remain and access to charge points in poorer and more rural communities has been a long-standing concern across the industry.

As well as preparing the infrastructure for EVs, the UK government is also considering how best to boost awareness and encourage uptake in advance of the 2030 ban. Through the middle of last year, the Department of Transport ran a “behavioural trial” to test the efficacy of a series of messages aimed at promoting EVs, by making users click through to the Go Ultra Low (GUL) website which encourages electric vehicle purchases.

Targeting people who had just renewed their car tax online, it tested a total of eight messages: seven test subjects, and a control message, which read “Information is available on electric vehicles. Make your next car electric.”

Of the seven messages, three performed better than the control – generating more click-throughs – whereas three performed worse, generating less traction with the audience.

The most successful message read, “The Government are consulting on ending the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars and vans by 2035 or earlier. Are you ready? Make your next car electric,” which generated just under 420,000 clicks. The second most successful was “Join the 6,000 new drivers every month who make the switch to an electric vehicle. Make your next car electric,” which generated 408,000, compared to the control message’s total of 350,000.

The least successful message concerned electric vehicle chargepoints, reading: “Rapid charge points for electric vehicles are available at almost all motorway service stations in the UK. Make your next car electric.”

Two messages specifically targeted carbon emissions and air pollution, one reading “Road traffic is the biggest single contributor to carbon emissions in the UK. What you drive makes a difference. Make your next car electric”, and the second: “Between 28,000 and 36,000 people die every year as a result of air pollution. What you drive makes a difference. Make your next car electric.” The first performed similarly to the control, and the second a little better.

Both the Policy Exchange and Department of Transport studies show how much work remains to be done in order to build up both the necessary infrastructure and the wider awareness required for a successful transition away from the internal combustion engine. The underlying trends are there: EV sales bucked the downward trend through 2020, growing at 4.3 per cent, while overall car sales plummeted as coronavirus restrictions shuttered car showrooms across the country. But as this week’s latest research reflects, and previous studies have shown, price, convenience, reach, and infrastructure all remain roadblocks for many drivers. Concerted government action is likely to be necessary to clear the way for the EV revolution to gain speed. And perhaps the massive success of the offshore wind industry provides the roadmap that is needed.

Read more: businessgreen.com