New report suggests cities and energy network providers should have more power to direct smart energy infrastructure investment in local areas
Currently, if you rely on on-street parking in your neighbourhood and want to get an electric car, you will most likely have to petition your local council to install a charging point on your road.
Councils have access to various funding pots which will cover a large proportion of the cost of installing new electric vehicle (EV) chargers, but they will often still face associated infrastructure and maintenance costs - a struggle for many cash-strapped local authorities.
Another difficulty faced by councils is that central government enthusiasm for installing on-street charge points, essential for those without off-street parking, often clashes with local development priorities such as installing cycle lanes or managing parking pressures.
Meanwhile, energy network providers are constrained in their ability to add grid reinforcements to the power network, essential for installing higher voltage chargers, by a mandate from the energy regulator Ofgem that they invest according to demand.
Without a reinforced grid, energy network providers can be forced to veto the installation of new charge points requested by local residents, a situation the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee flagged in a report late last year.
All this means someone considering buying an electric car may be put off by the hassle and uncertainty of applying for a charge point to support its use, while proactive installation of charge points - which is seen as a vital step towards 'normalising' the use of EVs - is choked off.
To unpick the mess, a new report released today from the think tank Localis suggests the UK needs a 'devolution revolution' in the way it handles the development of smart cities.
The paper, 'Smart Cities: Fair investment for sustainable growth', argues government should allow local authorities to drive forward their own energy policies to accelerate the adoption of EVs and other smart infrastructure.
"A 'devolution revolution' in locally-regulated energy markets has the potential to accelerate the nation's switch to clean growth, turn UK cities into powerhouses for sustainable and inclusive prosperity and improve livelihoods in towns and cities across the UK," argued Jonathan Werran, chief executive at Localis.
In particular, pre-emptive investment in energy infrastructure is crucial for readying the ground for when consumers are ready to take the leap and adopt new technologies, Localis argues.
The paper - commissioned by ScottishPower - suggests that while Ofgem should remain the national network regulator, oversight of energy distribution systems should be devolved to individual cities so local authorities can develop their own smart city plans tailored to local needs.
It also suggests Ofgem should loosen restrictions on investment in grid reinforcement, to allow network providers to invest ahead of time in preparation for anticipated increased demand from EV owners and electric fleet operators.
"When people wish to generate energy themselves (and potentially sell this energy back into the grid) or increase capacity in their business or home to facilitate EV usage or electrical heat, that connection can require some reinforcement of the local electricity network," the report explains.
"Currently this cost will fall on the first customer who requires that extra capacity which makes many projects unaffordable. Lifting the restriction on investing ahead of demand would allow the cost to be shared more widely across those who will benefit in the future as well as those who require to connect now. In parallel, it removes the bottlenecks that would exist with the inevitable swift acceleration of EV/smart network take up and avoid a 'first come first serve' approach for available network capacity."
Ofgem has in the past insisted the EV transition should be governed by two core principles: that the power industry must maximise existing assets before considering reinforcement, and EV users should face charges that are reflective of the costs (or benefits) they are adding to the system.
In response to today's report, a spokesman for the regulator said networks can already make decisions on investing in new capacity ahead of when it is needed, "so long as it is economic and efficient".
"For the next price controls from 2021 we are proposing to support greater scope for more anticipatory investment where network companies can show that it benefits existing and future consumers," he added.
"Any change in our powers would require government to make legislative changes. We are working with government and industry stakeholders, for example, as part of the electric vehicle energy taskforce) to understand what changes are required to facilitate the rollout of EVs."
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was considering a response to the report's findings.
The paper acknowledges concerns about where the cost of new smart city infrastructure should fall, but stresses local authorities and charge point operators should have more freedom to direct how and where smart city infrastructure is rolled out so it meets local priorities.
As well as resulting in more tailored infrastructure development, such an approach could also deliver fairer investment patterns, it said. If part of the cost of upgrading energy grids for smart infrastructure currently falls on the first customer, it is richer areas that more likely to benefit from smart technologies, the paper notes.
To counter a trend that could lead to worsening regional inequalities, the report argues long-term strategic thinking is needed to ensure upgrades are rolled out fairly across cities and benefit the full socio-economic spectrum - particularly important given that ultimately, all consumers will contribute to the costs of the smart grid through their energy bills, just as all residents stand to benefit from cleaner air and lower carbon emissions.
By 2040 the government wants all new cars to be electric or hybrid. But meeting such a target will prove a major struggle without the infrastructure needed to support the deployment of huge numbers of EVs. Perhaps it's time to provide a power boost to local areas so they can help pave the way forward for the EV revolution.
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