The decarbonisation of transport has been on the agenda of councils up and down the UK for many years. However, there are still significant questions remaining – and progress to be made. The recent by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip has shown there is a degree of apprehension for consumers about the transition away from fossil-fuel vehicles and that this is still an extremely sensitive issue politically.
As part of a collaborative effort to better understand these challenges, a group of local authorities brought together by Utility Week, Scottish & Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) and gas network SGN, got together to explore some of the key issues in decarbonising transport.
Topics covered included: the competing needs of rural, urban and coastal areas; uncertainty over exactly where electricity charging or hydrogen refuelling infrastructure will be required and the need for better spatial planning alongside technology solutions.
Funding is also a critical issue for cash-strapped councils who are now finding their ambitious net-zero plans hitting a harsh fiscal reality.
One city council official put it bleakly: “We’ve made a series of promises and I’m at the stage now where I just don’t think we can deliver on them because we can’t afford it.”
They added: “It always comes back to the funding. If you gave us a blank cheque we could get on and do it but there is a massive issue around funding and resources.”
Representatives told us that other challenges included the differing needs cases within each local authority areas when it comes to rolling out electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure.
This is particularly true at county council level, where funding shortfalls have already led to challenges in providing public transport links to rural communities, with volunteers often filling the gap. This may have to be the case with EV charging hubs as well, it was suggested.
One EV charging lead at a county council talked about hubs that had been put into council-owned car parks in rural communities, with the aim of parish councils and other local groups operating them as community-owned assets.
However, as one cabinet member for a county council put it: “You do find with local green groups that their enthusiasm waxes and wanes over time. So you do have to keep refreshing these things and not think ‘that’s all solved now’.”
They added: “It has to be clear it’s their responsibility. There is the point about limited resources – this isn’t something where the county council’s going to leap in and intervene but we can assist.
“One of our big problems is that people get involved because they think this means they might get an EV point put in at public expense outside their house and obviously that’s not the way it’s going to work.”
An infrastructure expert at a unitary authority talked about the strains of decarbonising heat in tourism hotspots.
They said: “Parts of our area see huge demands placed on them in the summer months for EV charging. We are grappling with how you deal with that demand in a small place where the population just explodes for several months of the year.”
This attendee went on to cite another demand that “often gets forgotten” – that of how the freight sector can be decarbonised.
SGN’s industrial clusters & business development lead Fergus Tickell addressed this last point by urging local authorities to look at particular sectors that were more suited to a low-carbon solution as the first step of a wider process.
He cited examples in Scotland of both the forestry and distilling sectors, where freight tends to run in predictable patterns, meaning the range needed from the vehicles was relatively steady.
Whole systems approach
Tickell stressed that a whole systems approach to transport is going to be essential, pointing out that hydrogen could play a key role in powering larger vehicles.
He cited the work Aberdeen City Council has done to build a hydrogen economy over the past decade. The city currently has 85 hydrogen vehicles – a mixture of fuel cell and dual fuel – including double-decker buses, bin lorries and road sweepers. The council also acquired a fleet of hydrogen-powered Toyota Mirais which are also available as part of the local car club. The city also has two publicly available refuelling stations providing 350 bar and 700 bar fuelling. The council now has a joint venture with BP to produce green hydrogen from solar farms to power further expansion of the hydrogen fleets.
While several local authorities represented at the roundtable had looked into the feasibility of using hydrogen vehicles, they said this was at an early stage.
One member of a county council in the south of England said: “I can see how it makes sense in Scotland but I’m not sure it makes sense in the south. We have councillors who are incredibly interested in hydrogen because they see it as a way of carrying on as normal.
“I think most pf us recognise that hydrogen is the solution for HGVs rather than the smaller things most of us are dealing with.”
Tickell accepted that Scotland, which is already at the stage of having an over-abundance of renewable power, is at a different stage to England in terms of the viability of hydrogen use on a large scale.
However, he pointed out the need for hydrogen in industrial clusters across the country, making it easier for neighbouring areas to capitalize on the production of hydrogen.
“Scotland is going to almost certainly have a massive oversupply of green hydrogen and there is an aspiration to export that to jurisdictions where there’s not the same indigenous availability of hydrogen now or likely in the future”, he added.
He admitted that “we’re still not there yet with hydrogen” and that projects were at an early stage but stressed to the councils present: “It’s really important for your councillors, for your elected members and officials to keep the options open for as long as you can. It’s clear from our discussion that there are challenges around HGVs, the marine sector and industry and there is a clear role for hydrogen there. It’s really important that the awareness is there.”
The roundtable also discussed how the more established electrification route for decarbonisng transport was likely to evolve over the coming years.
SSEN has been involved with Energy Superhub Oxford project, which saw a private wire fitted to power 42 EV chargers at the Redbridge Park & Ride last year. These include 20 7-22kW bays and a further 22 ultra-rapid chargers. The hub has proved popular, with more than 2 million miles of driving powered in the first six months. However, the ultra-rapid bays have so far accounted for just 4% of the charges.
The general consensus of the group was that while rapid chargers currently play only a limited role in the wider EV charging landscape, their role is likely to become significantly more important.
As one attendee put it: “It feels very much like the direction of travel. People are going to get to a particular point, grab a coffee and charge up the car. It’s a familiar process and I think it’ll be hard for people to shake it.”
Regardless of which technologies, or mixture of them, fuel the decarbonisation of transport, there was unanimous agreement that a more joined-up approach is needed to reduce the need to travel more generally.
One county council official said: “We’re not going to get to the root cause of the transport issues by transport solutions alone. It has to be through spatial planning, it has to be through digital connectivity and a wide range of other policies. The new round of Local Transport Plans will play a critical role in setting that policy framework. But we also need to re-engage the public so we have a shared vision for the kind of places we want to create.”
Rory Brown, stakeholder manager at SSEN, agreed and added that there was a responsibility on all actors with the net-zero journey to ensure a just transition.
He said: “Having just made the transition to solar at my house and moved to an EV in the last six months or so, I now have five or six different apps on my phone that I have to use to manage those networks, which means that I need to have a digital skill level to be able to use those devices.
“That’s something we have to really focus on – there’s a level of general education and literacy levels and capacity building that needs to happen.”
As we found with the first of our local authority roundtables – on the decarbonisation of heat – one of main conclusions of the discussion was the obvious need for energy networks and councils to work more closely together to ensure local needs fit into a national roll out of low-carbon technologies.
There was a consensus within the group that as local area energy plans develop there is a need for an associated ongoing dialogue between networks and local decision makers.
As one roundtable attendee put it: “The real challenge of local area energy plans is that it isn’t just one thing.
“We tend to put these things in silos, whether that’s transport or homes or industry but there’s an obvious need we to integrate all these things together.
“We understand where the pressures are going to be but at the moment we are flying slightly blind on how it’s all going to come together and where the infrastructure needs top be strengthened first.
“We also know we’re in a rapidly changing environment. So understanding what might be possible is very important.”