The government has stated its desire to bring forward the ban on petrol and diesel cars to 2035 or perhaps even earlier to encourage the uptake of Electric Vehicles (EVs).
This will be given extra impetus by tough new EU emissions regulations which come into force this year, meaning that carmakers will start pushing EVs as they will get a super credit for every EV they sell when it comes to calculating their overall fleet emission level.
This will be a challenging target to meet which will require a clear set of coherent policies and incentives to encourage a shift to electric vehicles and persuade manufacturers to build such cars in the UK post Brexit.
Mike Hawes, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Chief Executive, has called this a ‘date without a plan’. In The SMMT’s response to the government’s 2035 end of sale announcement published 04 February 2020 he commented:
“We still don’t have clarity on the future of the plug-in car grant – the most significant driver of EV uptake – which ends in just 60 days’ time, while the UK’s charging network is still woefully inadequate.”
Confusing signals over the plug-in grant
Mixed messages also arise from the fact that some government departments have been encouraging us to go electric, while the Treasury has been cutting subsidies for EVs – albeit that in one of his last acts as Chancellor, Sajid Javid did a U-turn and pledged to keep them in some form and it seems likely that his successor, Rishi Sunak, will also follow suit.
Other countries in the EU are increasing subsidies to both support a switch to EVs. So plug-in grants may therefore survive in some form, but the government has form here, having already cut - according to many industry commentators, prematurely - EV subsidies twice before.
The UK is also behind the curve in terms of superfast charging infrastructure investment and lessons could be learned from countries such as Norway, where electronic vehicles account for around 50% of new car sales.
The Norwegians have introduced clear and consistent policies, including tax breaks for EVs, comprehensive charging infrastructure and incentives for EV drivers such as the right to drive in bus lanes, reduced cost parking and ferry fares have helped this uptake.
Charging infrastructure issues
But although the focus for many is the cars themselves, the more pressing problems now are the charging infrastructure required and the batteries needed to power the vehicles.
Funding and building such a charging network must now become an urgent infrastructure priority, but it’s not just a question of numbers. By August 2019, there were 9,199 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations across the country (around 1,000 more than the number of standard petrol stations) however, many of those charging stations are for the exclusive use of an individual car owner with sufficient private land on which to park and charge their car.
More public charging stations required
In high-density residential areas, it is simply not possible for every property to have cables running from their electricity supply to their vehicle. National Grid points out that with 20 million EVs on the road there will be at least 8.6 million vehicles that will not have facilities for charging at home. Public charging stations will be needed to plug the gap. Some conventional service stations and supermarkets have already installed public charging points and solutions like using street lights that now have spare capacity due to the change to LED bulbs, or using other electrical street furniture are ingenious but piecemeal.
Aside from the planning and bureaucratic barriers, technical problems also have to be overcome. it can take up to eight hours to recharge an EV battery to 100% capacity using conventional charging methods. Even a marginal amount of charge can take between one and two hours. Those fortunate enough can get around this by charging their cars on their driveway overnight, but this inconveniently long time to charge makes mass adoption unlikely.
Investment in new technologies to reduce charging times
The technical solution could lie in ultra-fast charging capabilities but would require a solution to the problems of copper wiring and cooling. Conducting the high currents involved in EV charging requires thick, inflexible and unwieldy copper cabling not really suitable for public charging of multiple vehicles. High currents also produce excess heat, meaning that they are literally too hot to handle by car drivers - one of the main reasons that EV infrastructure has always operated on a low-current basis.
Immersion cooling using new dielectric fluids suitable for the thermal management of high-performance electronics and electrical systems could be an answer but using such technology in charging stations and adapting EV batteries to accept an ultra-fast charge, as well as the cabling connecting the two, will require a decision now and a great deal of forward planning.
Investment in battery production
It’s exactly such a holistic and joined up approach that’s needed here in the UK as well as an industrial strategy to help manufacturers and the supply chain and support workers to retrain. One example is a pressing need is for a battery gigafactory in the UK to make batteries at scale and cheaply, if we wish to anchor EV production in the UK. At present, the UK has only limited battery production capability.
The biggest battery plant in the country is a 2GWh plant facility in Sunderland, which can make enough battery cells for around 50,000 Nissan Leaf models a year. Much bigger plants are being built by Samsung SDI in Hungary, LG Chem in Poland and Northvolt in Sweden, and in Germany, via a joint venture with VW.
The uncertainly still surrounding Brexit also has a role to play. European countries are doing more in stating clear policy terms to attract such investment, so it’s little surprise that Tesla CEO Elon Musk cited Brexit as a factor in the firm’s decision to build its European factory in Germany rather than in the UK.
Germany has a €1 billion federal support programme for EV battery production, while in Poland and Hungary, special economic zones have been set up offering tax relief for EV production, all within the EU’s state aid rules. Britain needs to do something similar, but with Brexit uncertainty hanging over big auto assemblers in the UK, it will be difficult to attract such investment.
Quite apart from manufacturing, a decision on whether the UK intends to continue to participate in the EU’s emissions reduction programme beyond 2020 is also required to give clear incentives to car firms to even sell EVs in the UK. Without this, car firms will not have an incentive to sell EVs into this market as the vehicles won’t count towards their EU fleet emission averages.