CBI chief claims EVs could catalyse 21st century economy, but warns more guidance is still needed from government to realise the technology's transformational potential
The government is facing increasing pressure from businesses and industry groups to clarify its strategy for developing the infrastructure for electric vehicle (EV) charging, as studies persistently show consumers are being put off buying battery electric cars due to fears over chargepoint access.
In a speech in London last week, CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn warned zero emission vehicles have the potential to be a "liberating force" for the 21st century economy, but only if more is done to make the process of building out the necessary infrastructure simpler.
"Today, if you want to install an electric vehicle charge point, you must deal with multiple regulators and agencies - Ofgem, the local planning authority, the National Grid - each of which has different standards, different levels of responsiveness, operating under different legislation," she said. "It's a complex picture and it's already having consequences. We have 22,000 charge points across the country, but the spread is inconsistent as one area pulls ahead of another."
Fairbairn suggested one single body overseeing the rollout of charge points and grid upgrades across the country could deliver a more co-ordinated development of the network, in turn convincing more drivers to switch to electric drivetrains.
"It might mean taking powers from one place and putting them somewhere else," she said. "But if it would help, and if this challenge is as great as we believe it to be, there's surely a compelling case for change."
Meanwhile, an industry group statement signed by BP, National Grid, Centrica, and Siemens, among others, last week called on the government to clarify its strategy for a network of rapid chargers, which the firms claim is vital in order to convince households to ditch fossil fuel vehicles in large numbers.
The statement argues a comprehensive network of fast chargers along the UK's roads, city forecourts, and fleet hubs, and capable of charging vehicles in little more than 10 minutes, will be essential in ensuring projections for EV rollout can be met.
Complemented by slower home, workplace and 'destination' charging at leisure and shopping centres, a fast charge network would ensure EVs are a viable choice for businesses and consumers, even those without reliable access to off-street parking, the firms said.
"We ask that government works with us to set out a vision to significantly improve ultra-fast charging technology and ultra-rapid charging infrastructure," the statement read. "This should enable consumer acceptance, equality of access to consumers across the UK and efficient delivery of the enabling utility infrastructure. The UK will only achieve large scale uptake of electric vehicles if there is a widespread network of vehicle charging points, which are easily accessible, and can charge a vehicle at a speed appropriate to the time spent at a given location."
The government has promised that by 2040 no new petrol or diesel vehicles will be sold in the UK, with the country's road vehicle fleet completely decarbonised by 2050. It has also earmarked £400m to invest in charging infrastructure.
But while sales of EVs are growing rapidly - up 63 per cent in April compared to a year earlier - zero emission vehicles only account for a fraction of the overall market.
Demand is expected to keep growing as costs fall, vehicle ranges increase, and corporate fleets switch to zero emission models. However, industry insiders fear demand is being dampened by concerns over the charging network. Chargepoints still tend to be clustered in city centres and many drivers cite 'range anxiety' as a major barrier to switching. At the same time there are fears that the roll out of chargepoints could struggle to keep pace with growiung numbers of EVs, leaving drivers unable to find an unoccupied charging bay when they need one.
Research released last week by Accenture suggested that by 2040 there could be 11 million EVs on UK roads, but an accompanying survey of 500 UK consumers found that access to charging was still a major barrier in convincing people to switch, putting off 39 per cent of conventional car owners.
Moreover, the current complex system of charging, which is managed by multiple competing companies all using different payment methods, is also slowing down the rollout. Tom Lusher, analyst at Cornwall Insight, told UK trade publication Fleet News earlier this month that a standardised EV charging payment method would convince more fleets to go emission-free.
"The issue of standard payment methods for EV charging was recognised in the Electric Vehicle (Standardised Recharging) Bill and without a universal payment method for EVs, this will quickly become an administrative headache for fleet managers," Lusher.
"This is especially true for those with a broad geographical range, who will end up having to manage multiple different memberships and fees to operate as they do today."
Businesses are increasingly recognising the need to provide a more coherent recharging and payment system - and are acting.
Late last month Google updated its maps software across the US and UK to enable drivers to identify which EV chargers in their area are available for use. The tech giant's map app now displays real-time charge point information from providers such as Chargemaster, EVgo, SemaConnect, with Chargepoint being added shortly. Users can see how many charging ports are currently available in their chosen location, the port types on offer and charging speeds.
Meanwhile, energy giant BP - which last year acquired EV charging network Chargemaster - revealed plans to launch a new Fuel & Charge fuel card this summer. The Fuel & Charge card will be available for fleet drivers to pay for petrol, diesel or electricity, in a move BP said would make it easier for companies transitioning to EVs.
"The shift to EV is happening and at BP we are committed to serving our fleet customers with safe and convenient fuelling options regardless of the engine type they choose," commented Jo McDonnell, UK fuel cards manager.
The launch is likely to make good business sense for BP. Accenture's study points out that companies working to make it easier for individual consumers, or fleets, to go electric, are poised for growth in coming years, with utilities poised to play a "unique role". Those standing to gain the most will be utilities providing eMobility services such as remote charging apps, integrated home-EV energy management, payment processing, and financing for EV purchases, it predicts. By combining these services on a single platform, utilities can optimise system performance and help improve the overall EV customer experience, Accenture's research suggests.
EVs may well prove themselves a "liberating force" for the UK economy, especially when you consider the combination of reduced fuel costs, airquality benefits, and the critical role the technology can play in providing grid balancing services to a smarter, cleaner energy system. But it seems businesses and government still have a way to go to convince consumers and fleet operators that the switch to electric motoring will be as seamless as EV advocates claim.
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