The UK’s charging network is in need of expansion and reform

Sales of electric vehicles have been increasing rapidly over the last five years, from around 3,500 units sold in 2012 to 70,000 this year. No longer a futuristic novelty, there are now roughly 500,000 electric and hybrid cars on Europe’s roads.

The UK Government is keen to support the development of the private electric vehicle (EV) sector. In most circumstances, buyers of new electric cars can take advantage of a government grant of up to £4,500 put towards the cost of their vehicle, as well as funds for a charging unit at home, and an exemption from road tax and the congestion charge. The 2016 Autumn Statement also outlined the creation of a £390 million investment fund to support the development and operation of both low emission and autonomous vehicles.

While consumer uptake has been reasonably strong, the UK’s network of charging points has been lagging behind. There are around 11,000 charging points in the UK, with proportionally more in London and a good distribution of charging facilities dotted across the motorway network.

The usual criticisms leveled at charging points are fourfold: there aren’t enough of them, they don’t always work, they’re complicated to operate and they’re too expensive.

Charging stations are often owned and operated by different firms, and each require different memberships, with different apps and login details, as well as having an array of attachments for the various vehicles. Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee also found that certain charging stations were costing as much as £7.50 for a 30-minute rapid charge, putting the cost of some trips into the same bracket as a modern diesel.

Depending on your energy supplier, charging an electric vehicle can cost as little as £3 from your domestic power supply, which is where 90% of charges are currently taking place. As most all-electric cars remain more expensive than comparable vehicles in their respective categories, the prospect of ultra-low running costs is a major draw for consumers.

Quentin Wilson, the motoring journalist and a campaigner for FairFuelUK, told the Times last week: ‘‘No one should be paying over the odds to charge an electric vehicle, otherwise the push towards green cars will fall at the first hurdle.’

The Times also reported that the Department for Transport is planning to crackdown on the cost of rapid charges, potentially setting common pricing structures and making power points easier to access. A spokesperson for the DfT said that while the upfront costs of using these facilities remained a “commercial matter” - “we do not want prohibitive pricing to be a barrier to uptake and will continue to monitor developments.”

The scarcity of rapid charging points is leading to a new behavioural issue in car parks across the country. “We do get charge rage if someone ICEs your bay”, Dale Vince, founder of Ecocentricity told The Telegraph a few weeks ago. “And people don’t like it if someone parks a Tesla to charge for two hours. When your car has finished charging, our message is: move it.” ‘ICE’ in this context refers to parking a car with an Internal Combustion Engine into a charging bay, which happens more often than you might think.

The need to expand the availability of these units was recognised back in November, when Philip Hammond announced that £80 million of the Government’s £390 million fund for the EV sector would be used to support the installation of charging points. According to Erik Fairbairn, chief executive of Pod Point, each charging unit costs between £2,000 and £20,000 to install.

But while charge rage is becoming more prevalent, “range anxiety” is now less of a problem, as car makers continue to improve the battery capacity of their cars. The new £25,000 Renault Zoe R90 Z.E.40 Signature offers a maximum range of up to 250 miles in optimal driving conditions, or around 185 miles in real-world conditions as experienced by WhatCar. At the top end of the spectrum, the £92,000 Tesla Model S P100D has a range of 380 miles.

Although the charging system today has a reputation for being a bit fiddly, the convenience of being able to plug in by the road-side, in your house, or via a lamppost as some have proposed, means they could be far more widely available than petrol stations.

Back in September, the Environmental Audit Committee warned that unless charging facilities are improved, the Government would fall far short of its aim to see 9% of cars and vans classified as ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2020.

It may now require action from the Government and local authorities to bring about the changes needed for electric cars to be considered a mainstream alternative to their fossil-fuelled cousins.

Ashley Coates is a member of Bright Blue and freelance journalist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Message to energy ministers - let industry lead the way on energy efficiency

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of Greg Clark, Nick Hurd or Baroness Neville-Rolfe. It’s not an easy brief, in fact it’s tough, really tough. An area filled with failed policy, over-reliance on subsidy, barriers and a broad number of policy interventions which are being flung at ministers each and every week. And we still have increasing numbers of people in the UK slipping from low incomes into fuel poverty with the coldest, “leakiest” homes in western Europe.  

The signal from Treasury officials is that there’s no money in the pot, it is the end of subsidy as we know it. Best not forget to mention the fragmented voices, myriads of stakeholders all eager to push their solution as the solution to climate change, energy reduction, energy security, decarbonisation and de-risking the energy supply in this uncertain world.

Confidence in the sector is low – internally and externally. You can experience the lethargy every day from all stakeholders whether they be industry or government. This is a 'just about managing' (JAM) industry, an industry which desperately needs to be able to restore its strength, confidence and stability and to be matched by a bold and brave government and policy framework.

To ministers it cannot be clearer that this area needs government support and even intervention, a big no-no with this new Government. This industry has been decimated by bad or failed policy – policy that was not well thought-through or was just too short-term. The Green Deal burnt many fingers. We urgently need Greg Clark, Nick Hurd and Baroness Neville-Rolfe to reframe, reset and reassure this market to bring certainty in what is an uncertain time.

What would I want to see were I Energy Minister? There are a raft of solutions out there. As a minister I would feel bombarded by them, almost drowning in the sea of ideas. “But how does a solution fit together and deliver?”, I might say, wishing to see industry bringing an achievable long-term vision package to my ministerial desk that clearly outlined and addressed fuel poverty, decarbonisation, energy security, demand reduction and the health and wellbeing of consumers – and more widely addressing how we improve our housing stock, housing stock that is the coldest in western Europe. An energy minister needs to have the right information, the framework to convince Treasury.  As Baroness Neville-Rolfe knows from her background in retail, industry itself is best placed to do this.

Furthermore, for too long we, as the industry, have been in denial on the reality of politics. For many years we had an easier ride with other political parties in government. This Government has policy objectives that are tightly honed on value for money and leveraging private finance and it has repeatedly communicated its desire to reduce subsidy particularly in the longer term. Conservatives have a ‘less is more’ approach to regulation with a ‘one in and three out’ policy but are also in dire need of some positive policy and an economic hit as they negotiate Brexit.

For industry, this context needs to be central to any thinking. Let’s put ourselves in the Government’s shoes. Let’s ensure we understand the political agenda and the political language: i.e. what the Government needs to do, what it wants to do and the restrictions they face in addressing the enormity of this brief.

Industry is now coming together with the forming of the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group (EEIG) and putting together the pieces of the jigsaw for government – a successful, high value for money infrastructure programme for energy efficiency.  The reframing of this issue as an energy efficiency infrastructure programme would enable government to move away from short-term interventions, to set out an ultimate vision to get all homes up to a high standard of energy efficiency and to have an infrastructure delivery model for getting us there.

The concept is simple to understand - energy efficiency is infrastructure and it delivers economic returns comparable to other major infrastructure programmes. This approach will deliver for government, consumers and industry. With economic and social benefits which will boost the economy and bring jobs and savings for consumers, we can strengthen the UK’s energy security and stamp out fuel poverty, and finally realise decarbonisation to help the UK meet its challenging climate targets.

With cross-party support, Scotland is leading the way and has already committed to making energy efficiency an infrastructure priority supported by capital funding. My message to the minister is to take up this opportunity and do better, be bold, go further. Let’s not look at this as a social subsidy but instead as a savvy public capital investment and great value for money. Let’s, at the very least, get UK homes to Band C by 2030 to meet carbon budgets.

The EEIG will start 2017 by reframing the issue: we have commissioned a shared “20-year vision for a building energy efficiency infrastructure programme” with Frontier Economics to support energy ministers to create a long-term energy efficiency infrastructure programme for Britain.  The vision will be shared across Government, with Parliamentarians and central and local government policymakers.

As an energy minister I would want to make each and every UK citizen the king (or queen) of his own, “warm” and “efficient” castle again. We must not forget the consumer is king. Let us also help the ministers deliver. As the International Energy Agency’s most recent energy efficiency market report stressed: “The greatest efficiency gains have been led by policy, and the greatest untapped potentials lie where policy is absent or inadequate.” It continues:Harnessing the potential of energy efficiency is key to transitioning to a sustainable and secure energy system that generates prosperity for our world.” Let’s get harnessing and working with ministers to deliver the future of energy efficiency.

Sarah Kostense-Winterton is executive director of MIMA and provides the secretariat to the Energy Efficiency Infrastructure Group

The views in this article are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Bright Blue

A turbo-charge statement for electric vehicles

This week’s Autumn Statement brought some good news for proponents of electric vehicles. With lower than expected tax receipts and a worsening economic outlook due to Brexit, the Chancellor did not have much cash to give out. The new spending that he did announce was focused on infrastructure, a long-term approach that he hoped would be rewarded by increased tax revenues in the future.

This is intended to tackle one of the fundamental weaknesses of the UK economy that the Chancellor rightly identified in his speech: Poor productivity growth. ‘Productivity’ measures how much economic value is created from a fixed period of labour. Strong productivity growth signals long-term wage rises and economic growth. Concerningly, under this crucial metric, the UK lags well behind Germany and the US by some 30 percentage points. Infrastructure investment helps to improve productivity. For instance, investment in transport can reduce workers’ journey times, freeing up space in the day for more economically productive activity.

The Autumn Statement measures

This is where electric vehicles come in. As part of the £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, £390 million of funding over the next four years will be spent on developing future transport technologies. This includes £80 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and £150 million of support for low emission buses and taxis.

In addition to this new spending, there were several tax changes to incentivise uptake of electric vehicles. Companies will be given 100% first-year capital allowances for investments in new charging infrastructure until 2019, allowing businesses to deduct the cost of new charge points from their corporate tax bill. And although the Chancellor heavily pruned back salary sacrifice schemes in his statement, the perk was retained for schemes supporting electric vehicles. There were also changes to company car tax, creating lower bands for electric vehicles.

What should come next?

Bright Blue has two further policy recommendations that would drive uptake of electric vehicles, at little additional cost to the Treasury. First, the current plans for five Clean Air Zones in Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, and Southampton should be expanded. Earlier this week, the Government was told by the High Court it had until April 2017 to draw up a new draft air quality plan, as the previous one took too long to bring the UK into compliance with the legal limits.

We recommend devolving more funding and powers to city councils to enable all of them to set up Clean Air Zones where pollution is a problem. As well as charging the most polluting vehicles, Clean Air Zones will give preferential access to city centres to electric vehicles, such as priority at traffic lights and designated parking spaces. Academics have found that, in Germany, where there is a national network of over 70 low emission zones, owners of older, polluting vehicles have traded them in for cleaner ones. So a network of Clean Air Zones could stimulate the electric vehicle market in the UK too.

Second, this week’s Autumn Statement extended the lifetime of the UK Guarantees Scheme until at least 2026. Under this policy, the Treasury guarantees loans to private sector investors, giving them access to capital to fund new infrastructure. Since it was launched under the Coalition Government, it has given out £1.8 billion of guarantees, supporting over £4 billion of investment. We believe these loan guarantees could also be offered to drive investment in a network of charging points for electric vehicles.

Why is this important?

Accelerating the electric vehicle revolution offers many potential benefits, in addition to improving air quality. The Government is currently drafting its Emission Reduction Plan, which will set out how the legally-binding carbon budgets will be met. Transport now has the highest carbon emissions of any sector in the economy. What’s more, these emissions have actually risen for the past two years. Electrifying the car fleet would help the government make progress in decarbonising this stubbornly high-emitting sector.

Boosting electric vehicle uptake is also likely to be a key plank of the Government’s forthcoming industrial strategy. The UK is already the largest market for electric vehicles in Europe. Nissan, for instance, has invested over £420 million in the UK to build its electric vehicle, the Leaf. In 2015, the number of electric cars on the roads globally surpassed a million, more than doubling the total in 2014. This was also the year when electric vehicles’ market share of new purchases in the UK rose above 1%. Electric vehicles are a major economic opportunity for the UK to seize.

Electric cars are still near the start of their journey. But, as a result of the Chancellor’s measures this week, they have moved a few miles further towards the destination.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue