As plans are revealed to offer special perks and green number plates to electric vehicle drivers, Utility Week’s Jane Gray argues why the government must move beyond headline-grabbing gimmicks and start laying the foundations for the coming revolution in transport.

Titters of amusement and harrumphs of contempt were heard up and down the land last week as government shared its latest tactic for encouraging uptake of electric vehicles (EVs) via the introduction of special green number plates that will entitle vehicle owners to perks like low-cost parking and access to bus lanes.

But while the announcement made an easy light news item for breakfast TV, it cast a thin veil over some big and complex decisions ahead of government regarding the electrification of Britain’s transport network.

With the net zero emissions target for 2050 now firmly enshrined in law, the need to drive carbon emissions out of the transport sector has ramped up urgency and utilities are among the many different players scrambling for the opportunity to play their part in enabling this worthy cause, while also winning customer loyalty and new revenue opportunities.

This month challenger brand Good Energy announced the launch of One Point, it’s latest EV offer targeted at helping businesses. The launch follows close on the heels of Good Energy’s investment in Zap-Map, a digital charging platform, and is just one of many new EV products from UK energy retailers to hit the market this year. Other keen players include Ovo Energy, Ecotricty and Octopus Energy whose Agile tariff marked a big leap forward for differential pricing.

But the urgency provided by net zero and the opportunistic enthusiasm of market players to encourage consumer uptake of EVs mean there is less time than ever for government and regulators to dally about establishing key foundational frameworks for EV markets.

Without these, there is a high risk that market fragmentation and a lack of interoperability between key technologies and data systems will proliferate, locking in retrograde market solutions that are tied to legacy industry structures.

This would not only lead to suboptimal consumer outcomes but would also stifle the full economic potential of the EV marketplace.

The EV Taskforce, chaired by Philip New, the ex-BP chief executive of the Energy Systems Catapult, was set up in 2018 to help the UK avoid this fate and has been busily exploring the changes that should be made to the energy system in order to support the creation of foundational frameworks.

The cross-sector group has focussed on a “true north” of optimum end-user outcomes in order to rise above discreet commercial interests.

“We’ve focussed on trying to imagine a scenario in which the cake is so big that no one is worried about the size of the slice they’ve got now,” one senior taskforce member tells Utility Week.

With this aim in mind, the group has considered the scope for “variations of monopolies” to arise from the current direction of travel in EV solutions – from charging technology monopolies to locational monopolies – and extrapolated the negative impact these could have on consumer experience and trust, as well as the subsequent delays they would put on decarbonisation due to dampened consumer enthusiasm for EVs.

A report communicating the conclusions of the taskforce on these considerations is waiting in the wings and is likely to include some challenging asks of government in term of national and local planning for EVs.

But publication of the taskforce paper – as with so many key documents over these past few years of political turbulence – is now set to be pushed back thanks to the looming prospect of a general election.

And in the meantime, well intentioned moves from government departments to boost EV infrastructure and incentivise EV uptake – for example by mandating EV charge points on new builds – risk inducing exactly the kind of consumer lock-in and limitation that should be avoided by prompting installation of technology before common standards for interoperability and treatment of data have been devised.

By comparison, green number plates are a low-regret gimmick that may indeed have some real benefits in terms of raising awareness of EVs on roads on gamifying consumer appetite. But substantial environmental, consumer and economic benefits from EVs will only truly be recognised when government can get itself in a position to move beyond short term tactics and act on the advice of those it has appointed to assist with long term strategy.


Accelerate19

On 26 November Utility Week will host Accelerate19 – a unique event for a broad church of stakeholders in the uptake of electric vehicles in the UK.

The event, held in association with Mini, Cognizant, Centrica Business Service and UKPN Services, will include insights from Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce chair Philip New and round table debate sessions for commercial fleet managers, commercial energy and sustainability managers, energy retailers and more.

Accelerate19 will take place at the MINI manufacturing plant in Oxford and is an invitation-only event. If you would like to find out more. Please contact Lizizard@fav-house.com .