Charged up to deliver EVs

By Robin Heap | 10 May 2023

Local authorities have led the early rollouts of public electric vehicle (EV) charging, despite growing pressure on finances and competing demands for resources.

This migration is a key element in the UK’s path to net zero. In addition to reducing carbon emissions, it will improve air quality and reduce noise pollution in our towns and cities.

It will be 2030 when the sale of petrol and diesel cars end. There are currently 735,000 battery EVs on the UK’s roads, sales are up 40% year-on-year, and in March, 16% of car sales were electric. These numbers show strong growth, but also an unrepresentative early adopter market. A 2022 survey showed that 84% of EV drivers have a home charger.

What about almost 40% of households that cannot install a home charger? That is where public EV charging must step in.

More than 40,000 public charge points have been installed. This number is growing at 35% a year, but is still a long way short of the Government’s target of 300,000 by 2030.

To prevent a damaging two-tier migration, the provision of public EV charging needs to accelerate. The public needs confidence in the availability of convenient, affordable and reliable infrastructure before deciding to switch to EVs.

Local authorities have naturally been in the vanguard of providing EV infrastructure, often as a part of a wider transport decarbonisation strategy. They are responsible for roads and car parks and own tracts of land, all of which are natural sites for EV charging. The obstacles to acceleration for already stretched authorities are typically the high upfront costs of the infrastructure, the complexity of installation projects and the operational systems to provide a reliable service.

The Government provides a series of grant schemes to help alleviate the cost obstacles – from the On-street Residential Charging Scheme (ORCS) to Local EV Infrastructure (LEVI) funding. Such schemes have been essential in enabling local authorities to get started, but they are typically limited in scale and require some match-funding. Many local authorities also find the resources and skills required to operate a reliable EV charging service are both scarce and costly.

The Government is additionally proposing to make contactless payments mandatory for most public EV chargers. This is a welcome step, as rapid public adoption is highly dependent on a simple and consistent user experience.

There are signs of a change in approach, as local authorities move away from the early market DIY approach to a more mature managed service model, in line with how many other services are delivered.

Managed service operators typically design, do the civils works, supply, install, operate, inspect and maintain the infrastructure over a fixed term, usually for at least 15 years.

Some of these managed service operators work to a concession model, providing both the infrastructure project and long-term management of the service. As local authorities become more confident about the future demand for EVs, these funded managed services are enabling a wave of new large-scale projects around the UK. Hackney LBC, for example, has just committed to 2,500 EV charge points across the borough’s seven square miles – the most concentrated deployment so far in the UK.

Most of these are on-street or on estates, making EV a possibility for citizens without the potential to charge at home. The programme also supports the electrification of car clubs, so citizens can use an EV when they need to, without owning a car.

Hackney’s EV programme is big enough to play a major part in its wider transport decarbonisation strategy, which emphasises public transport, active travel, and a substantial reduction in car use. It is a sign of things to come, where policies to reduce car use work hand-in hand with the electrification of essential car journeys.

These pioneering large-scale projects will quickly become the norm and the novelty of EV wears off, the pressure to provide increases and the managed service model becomes established. Once again the Government has been active to catalyse the acceleration of open access charging infrastructure.

The Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund (CIIF) is a £420m public-private fund backed by HM Treasury through the UK Infrastructure Bank and by sustainable private investors. Working through Zest and a handful of other portfolio companies, the CIIF’s goal is to accelerate the deployment of public EV charging infrastructure. It was designed to scale-up public EV charging networks, increasing its accessibility and convenience, which in turn helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from transportation.

It is time to act and scale up those EV infrastructure plans. Local authorities should review their EV infrastructure strategy and consider if they would move faster and build bigger if the financial and operational barriers were removed.

Public access charge points help tackle climate change, boost local economic growth, and help make EV a realistic option for everyone.

Robin Heap is chief executive of Zest


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