As the UK braces for a shift to electric vehicles, policymakers are in for a bumpy ride. David Blackman reports.

The wave of mass job lay offs , recently announced at a number of the UK’s biggest car plants, are an indication of the seismic shifts about to engulf the motor industry.

While sales of diesel vehicles plummet on the back of concerns about government action to tighten air quality rules, the actual numbers of electric vehicles on the road remain miniscule.

However, the motor industry’s mind has been concentrated by the government’s proposal, outlined in its draft air quality strategy last summer, to ban the sale of internal combustion vehicles by 2040.

The shift to an increasingly electrified transport system is already threatening to outrun the ability of policy makers to respond, says Dan Brown, EVs lead at the Renewable Energy Association (REA). “The pace of change in EVs is moving extremely quickly.”

A lot will depend on how far reaching this mooted ban is when the final version of its strategy is published, which was due to take place after UW went to press.

The ‘loosest’ definition would encompass non-plug in hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, which rely on internal combustion engines to power their batteries.

However the government could insist that in order to comply with its 2040 target, vehicles must be ‘plug in’.

Biggest challenge

The tightness of this definition will have implications for the strain that the shift to EVs will impose on the electricity network. This one of the biggest challenge that the EV revolution poses for policy makers.

The National Grid caused a stir last summer when it published figures showing that an extra 3.5GW of capacity could be required by 2030 in order to meet peak demand from the increased numbers of EVs.

The grid has been careful to make plain that this prediction is at one end of a scale of scenarios.

Oliver Rix, a partner in consultancy Baringa’s energy advisory practice forecasts that the overall network should cope with what will be a ‘modest rate’ of growth in the EV market. He says:“Over time, it doesn’t look dramatic.”

However even with a relatively low take-up of EVs nationwide, a concentration of sales in a particular neighbourhood could overload the capacity of individual local sub-stations.

Rix says: “There may be clustering of people buying at earlier stages that lead to local issues.”

Robert Evans, chair of the UK Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment Association agrees: “There will be lots of locations, particularly servicing businesses, where you know you will have to upgrade. But they (DNOs) won’t always know where the pinch points are going to be.”

Demand load balancing will help DNOs to manage the system, says Rix: “Smart charging may help with the relatively small number of occasions when there isn’t capacity.”

Greater flexibility

However while ‘helpful’, this greater flexibility in the system can only ‘postpone’ the need for more wide-ranging work to reinforce local networks, says Evans.

At a hearing of the BEIS (business, energy and industrial strategy) select committee’s inquiry into EVs, he argued that DNOs are currently not incentivised to provide charging infrastructure ahead of increases in demand.

He says. “If you set aspirations for electricity in 2040 but you don’t change the way the DNOs are regulated to operate you have a problem.”

Given that Ofgem has recently announced that it will not be conducting a mid-term review of the price control framework, the existing incentive structure for DNOs looks set in stone until 2023.

DNOs will still have to upgrade though, says Evans: “Systems and sub stations need to be updated in any case. They are going to have to work on their networks if there is more renewable and distributed generation.”

But what makes it even harder to plan the system is the uncertainties surrounding how the EV transition will pan out, says Matt Finch, business and economic analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

“It’s not just putting a charger in place but thinking what will be needed in 20 years time. The key infrastructure challenge is making sure you have this all ready at an appropriate time when you don’t know what that will be.”

Already, he says, Tesla has claimed that its new Roadster will have a range of 620 miles, which is enough for a round trip from London to Edinburgh back.

Stranded assets

This kind of technological advance could make range anxiety, widely cited by consumers as the chief factor putting them off from buying an EV, history.

“As battery sizes go up and ranges go up. you might be able to go way overnight and get back without having to charge.”

Companies installing charging points in locations like filling stations could find that there is no longer demand because drivers can rely on the cheapest source of electricity drivers, their homes, Finch says: “You might be encouraging people to build something that might be a stranded asset.”

To adjust to this rapidly changing situation, companies will need to be able to respond quickly.

The REA’s Brown argues that EV infrastructure should be no longer require full blown planning permission, like mobile phone masts.

This would mean changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, which falls under the remit of the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government, illustrates how the challenges posed by EVs extend beyond BEIS across Whitehall.

For policy makers, the transition to an EV future looks set to be a bumpy ride.

What to read next