The UK government has (along with others around the world) set ambitious targets for the replacement of Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles with Electric Vehicles (EVs). It seems increasingly likely that, as a result of wider awareness of the environmental impact of emissions and the impact of air quality on human health, these targets could become even more ambitious.
EVs are already more efficient than ICE vehicles, cost significantly less to fuel and will soon be the same as or cheaper to buy - with 350 models available on the market by 2025. However, despite these positive factors, Forbes recently highlighted that consumers are still not switching in large enough numbers to meet the Paris Accord emissions, or national govt ICE/EV adoption targets.
In trying to explain this, attention has been focused on Range Anxiety and Cost, but both are now diminishing in importance as battery capacity increases and economies of scale grow in EV production. Instead, the most critical issue (when speaking to those looking to buy vehicles and particularly those who can’t charge their car offstreet at home) is now the lack of adequate charging infrastructure; infrastructure which (in order to enable the ICE/EV transition) has to be able to give users a charging experience that is better, or at least no worse than that which they currently have when fuelling their existing, ICE cars.
Responsibility for developing this charging infrastructure (beyond that developed by Tesla, exclusively for its customers) has largely fallen to government. The challenge it faces is complex, with no clear best practice to follow and many interested parties seeking to influence decisions - often with vested interests to select certain products or charging methods. There is no clear or perfect answer here, the same as there is no single version of an EV user.
What is clear though is that more can be done to deliver the network we need, as efficiently as possible and in a way which is both more profitable and less damaging to the environment. As set out in my recent post, we have researched this topic in detail and have identified 5 macro themes that those seeking to invest in charging infrastructure, whether public or private should consider; 1. Convenience & Network Confidence, 2. Enabling Smart Cities, 3. Environmental Impact, 4. Speed of Technological Development, 5. Sustainable Investment.
Tackling the first of those themes (I’ll cover the other 4 in future posts), the task facing government (and others responsible for EV infra) is to provide conveniently located EV infrastructure that gives EV users the confidence that charging points will be available/accessible when and where they need it. So lets explore that:
Network Convenience - To date investment into charging points has been largely through destination based, fast charging and home charging units installed by owners who have off street parking facilities. Whilst undeniably a key part of the charging infrastructure we need, investment into fast charging facilities cannot hope to cater for EV charging requirements as EV numbers increase into the millions. Already, lines have appeared at fast charging points and, if you have to wait to charge your car, fast charging simply isn’t fast or convenient.
To develop a future infrastructure network so heavily reliant on fast/rapid chargers as ours is now would be prohibitively expensive (this is a huge understatement), require massive upgrades to the existing grid network infrastructure and still not provide the optimal solution to EV users, the vast majority of whom travel less than 30 miles each day and so do not need to charge midway through their journey.
Research shows that today over 80% of EV charging takes place at home (mostly on peoples driveways) using slow/trickle chargers. Why is this? Well, the average vehicle is unused for more than 90% of the time and so whether it takes 20 minutes or 8hrs is irrelevant as you, the user, are doing something else more valuable with your time than waiting for your car to charge. This point is critical, vehicle dwell time should lead the deployment of our charging infrastructure; fast and rapid charging is important, but it’s use case should be for charging on long journeys where people can charge partway through a journey whilst they take a break; conversely slow residential or long stay car park charging should be used for day to day charging when vehicles are unused at home (whilst we're sleeping, watching Netflix etc. etc.), at work or some other location.
Greater investment into more residential and long stay charging facilities will reduce the risk of overloading of the fast charging network/the scale of investment required into expensive fast/rapid charging, open cheaper charging options to users and also afford greater control to the grid in managing power consumption (incl. vehicle to grid opportunities).
Network Confidence - The current network is unreliable with a high proportion of charging points unavailable at any one time. This acts to exacerbate range anxiety as users have little certainty of being able to charge their vehicles when they reach their destination - increasing the reliance on fast/rapid charging facilities and discouraging people from switching from ICE to EV. This issue is partly driven by poor reliability of existing charging points (which are regularly out of service), but also by insufficient chargers being deployed or available. Government must put pressure on EVCP operators to increase the uptime of their assets, but also invest to support the deployment of far greater numbers of EVCPs so that users have confidence that chargers will be both operational and available when they arrive at their destination.
The Implications - If we don’t get this right, there’s a risk the transition to EV will increase Social Divides. To date, EVs have largely been adopted by the wealthy. This is a trend that has historically been driven by the high cost of EVs available on the market, but continues now because of a lack of on street residential charging facilities.
As already mentioned, most EV charging takes place at home, where it’s most convenient and cost effective. However, more than 40% of the UK population doesn’t have off street parking (or the ability to install a home charger) and for these people the attractiveness and convenience of EV ownership is significantly reduced relative to their wealthier neighbours. In urban areas, where the proportion increases to 49% and where poor air quality means there is the greatest need for EVs to replace ECE vehicles, there is a direct correlation between elevated wealth and the 51% who have access to off street parking.
This is worrying as despite these clear correlations, investment into on street residential and long stay charging has, to date been largely overlooked, in favour of destination, fast charging. To that end, it also calls into question the fairness of many of the proposed Ultra Low Emissions Zones in the UK as whilst clearly action is needed to tackle air quality, without providing sufficient infrastructure for all users, this risks unfairly penalising those who can least afford it.