Grid locked: the UK’s e-mobility conundrum

The transition to electric vehicles is proving complex in the UK, as the public and private sectors struggle to reconcile the demand for greener motoring with infrastructural constraints

Governments worldwide are making ambitious policies to enforce the replacement of conventionally powered vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs). Many have enacted legislation imposing tight deadlines for this. In the UK, for instance, sales of new petrol- and diesel-powered cars and vans must end by 2030. But will that leave enough time to develop sufficient infrastructure to ensure a smooth transition – and who should pay for it? 

A chicken-and-egg challenge is emerging. The country’s EV infrastructure is far from ready to support a mass roll-out. Businesses and private investors are reluctant to fund infrastructure while demand is low, but consumers, businesses and public-sector purchasers will remain wary of buying EVs as long as the infrastructure remains in its infancy.

The government’s investments include £1.3bn in EV charging points over the next four years, £500m in battery development and £525m in nuclear power, partly to help meet the extra demand that the electrification of transport will impose on the grid. But the private sector and consumers themselves will be expected to play their part in preparing the country for the EV revolution.

The creation of home charging infrastructure is already a shared responsibility. The government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme, which offers grants up to £500 to help motorists install charge points in their homes, is continuing alongside private residential developments offering such facilities. There are about 300,000 domestic charge points in the UK, whereas there are only 42,000 public ones, according to Zap-Map, an app that pinpoints the latter for EV drivers. More public charge points are needed, given that about 40% of British households have no off-street parking. 

EVs have the potential to turn today’s models of supply and demand on their head

The provision of workplace-based EV charging facilities varies nationwide and doesn’t necessarily match regional EV uptake. For instance, research by Knight Frank has found that, while there are about 78,000 ultra-low-emission vehicles registered in South-East England – the highest regional total in the UK – 44% of business parks located inside the M25 have no charge points. 

Professor Nick Reed is the founder and director of Reed Mobility, a consultancy specialising in environmentally sustainable transport. He says that the EV market requires “vehicles that meet the expectations and desires of consumers” and “decent infrastructure to support remote charging”. 

Reed believes that, if most motorists have access to home chargers and buy vehicles with a long enough range for most trips, they will be “mostly satisfied with the experience”. But he acknowledges the infrastructure problem in urban areas where off-street charging access can be limited. New models of charging may be needed, including concierge services, whereby EV owners pay for their cars to be picked up in the evening, charged overnight and returned in the morning.

Doron Myersdorf is the co-founder and CEO of StoreDot, an Israeli company that produces lithium-ion batteries. He wants both British car makers and the government to ensure that there are enough batteries for the inevitable growth in the number of EVs on the UK’s roads.

“The UK is no different from any other country with a robust automotive manufacturing sector,” he says. “The future is electric and that means you need captive capacity for battery manufacturing – you need to make batteries where you make cars. It’s a question of national security.”

Myersdorf would like to see “a joined-up effort – a union of industry, academia and government support”. The UK is fortunate in having plenty of engineering talent, as well as organisations such as the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre, a publicly funded facility that helps companies to take batteries from the R&D stage to mass production, he says. But more needs to be done – and quickly. 

“The UK needs more battery manufacturing facilities – more gigafactories in the pipeline – and its supply chain must be vastly enhanced for crucial ingredients, such as lithium,” Myersdorf says. “These are not easy tasks and the clock is ticking, so it will require a huge government-led initiative to make things happen in time.”

As EVs increase their market share globally, the car industry will go where batteries are being produced. China is leading the way in this respect. In 2020, it accounted for 77% of global battery manufacturing capacity, with the US coming in a distant second at 9%, followed by the rest of Asia (8%) and Europe (also 8%), according to research by S&P Global Marketing Intelligence. This highlights the urgent need for the UK to boost battery manufacturing capacity in tandem with increasing EV output, establish robust supply chains and attract appropriately skilled people.

As more and more households invest in EVs, more and more of them will effectively have a large electricity storage device, capable of powering the average home for several days, in their garage

Energy storage technology will be essential in meeting the power demands created by the EV revolution. Households are likely to play a role in this.

David Hall is vice-president of power systems in the UK and Ireland at Schneider Electric, a French company specialising in smart energy management tech. He says: “The good news is that, as more and more households invest in EVs, more and more of them will effectively have a large electricity storage device, capable of powering the average home for several days, in their garage.”

Hall notes that second-generation smart meters can measure both consumption and generation. The provision of pricing visibility will enable motorists to store and resell unused energy back to the grid, using their EVs’ batteries as mobile storage systems.

“EVs have the potential to turn today’s models of supply and demand on their head,” he says. “They offer a way for consumers to charge for the energy they supply to the grid in much the same way that they currently pay for what they use.”

Bernard Magee, director of EV charging at Siemens, agrees. “The battery will take from the grid when it’s charging – and at times when energy is cheapest – but potentially feed energy back into the grid when demand is there,” he says. “These storage systems can also draw power off the grid for later use. If the grid becomes inaccessible, off-grid green energy supplies can be used.” 

As the 2030 deadline approaches, calls for more state spending on EV infrastructure and a coherent transition plan will become louder. In May this year, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said there was a “mountain to climb” to meet the transition target, stating that it was unconvinced that the UK government had “sufficiently thought through” its EV roll-out plans. 

Moreover, public transport’s role in the transition needs to be addressed from a consumer’s viewpoint. If train fares in particular are uncompetitive and consumer confidence is lacking in EVs for longer journeys, this will add to the government’s policy and funding headaches.

Alternative revenue streams, such as road-user charging, especially with reduced revenues from fuel duty, may be expanded. Reed says that such a move would need to be “designed equitably” so that it wouldn’t harm groups such as low-income families. But a system that charges users based on a combination of factors, such as the vehicle’s size, the times it’s being driven and the roads it’s using, “could be powerful in reducing the carbon emissions of the transport system”. 

Utility companies will have a role to play in the EV roll-out, as the e-mobility market’s growth increases the pressure on the nation’s power generation and delivery infrastructure.

“These companies need to invest in upgrading their networks without creating upward pressure on the cost of electricity for consumers and businesses,” Hall says.

As EV usage increases over the coming years, a mix of industry innovation, government and utility company investment, as well as positive consumer engagement will all be essential to develop the infrastructure needed to make the UK’s net-zero ambitions a reality.