The shift towards electric vehicles is gaining traction in the UK, yet, in reality, an underdeveloped charging network is holding us back. We look into a new government-backed competition that is set to reverse this, by challenging industry to find creative designs and technologies to spearhead a new generation of low-cost, scalable charging solutions.
Last summer, the UK government set out an ambitious plan to radically update and electrify the nation’s road vehicle fleet. The goal of the so-called ‘Road to Zero Strategy’ is for at least 50% of new car sales and 40% of new vans to be powered by ultra-low emission engines by 2030.
The strategy builds on an existing commitment to invest £1.5bn in ultra-low emission vehicles by 2020 in what it describes as setting the stage “for the biggest technology advancement to hit UK roads since the invention of the combustion engine.” This transition to electric vehicles will, it says, “put the UK at the forefront of a global revolution in motoring.”
As we saw in September, when Theresa May announced a £106m fund for research and development into green vehicles and battery technology, it’s usually the cars that steal the headlines. However, for the strategy to succeed, investment in the charging network is crucial.
This is why we also saw the government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) step forward with the launch of a £400m Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund to accelerate the roll-out of charging infrastructure. Along with other measures to increase availability of charging points, the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme also gives electric vehicle owners £500 towards the cost of installing home charge points.
The inability of some electric vehicle (EV) owners and users, particularly in cities, to charge their vehicles at home or on the road is a major reason that EVs still only make up around 2% of UK sales. Better planning, accessibility and integration of the plug-in network is needed to boost the nation’s ability to charge their vehicles if we are to accelerate the transition.
Hence the strategy’s inclusion of a new £40m programme to help develop and trial innovative, low cost wireless and on-street charging technology with two competitions launched by Innovate UK and OLEV. These, the government hopes, will kick-start the sustainable development of a much needed recharging network.
“The key driver of the two competitions is to increase the uptake of electric vehicles,” explains Marco Landi, who leads Innovate UK’s Electric Vehicles Charging Infrastructure programme. “But the goal is to create new business opportunities. We are looking for solutions that work and that are economically sustainable so that the learning from this programme can be deployed on a wider scale.”
The two competitions, each with £20m of research funding on offer, have different goals. The first is focused on the consumer market and seeks commercially sustainable ideas to increase the number of EV recharging points in public spaces. By making these charging points available, the expectation is that private car owners without off-street parking will be more able to switch from petrol or diesel to an EV.
“More than 75% of private EVs are charged at home, yet only a small percentage of drivers in cities has access to off-street parking and home charging – just 40% in London,” says Landi. “If we can find ways to install charge points that are more integrated with the city landscape, more dependable or usable, then we should be able to drive up the use of EVs.”
But EV charging points shouldn’t only be installed in public areas, says Charles Hardcastle, head of Energy at Carter Jonas. “Businesses should be actively seeking to future-proof their property to secure the patronage of EV owning customers, whether they provide workspace, retail, leisure or visitor attractions”.
The second competition is aimed at the commercial electric vehicle market and, again, is looking to accelerate the switch to electric power for vehicles such as taxis and small delivery vans with wireless charging systems that can be used on the go.
“If you are a business user that relies on the current fixed charging infrastructure then recharging is a problem that can cause business disruption,” says Landi – a taxi or delivery driver having to stop for 40 minutes in an eight hour shift has a major impact on productivity.
“Development of wireless charging will make it much easier to charge throughout the working day,” he adds, explaining that the competition is seeking innovative technology-based ideas that will, for example, enable taxis to recharge while queuing at ranks or delivery vans to recharge while loading.
Both competitions are split into two phases, starting in January with initial three-month feasibility studies for which successful teams are offered grants worth between £75,000 and £120,000. Sixteen consortia have been shortlisted in this first phase for the public spaces EV charging competition and another nine for the wireless EV charging competition.
Based on the outcome of these feasibility studies, the teams will then be invited to apply to take part in the 18 month demonstrator phase, starting in September 2019, for which the bulk of the £20m grant is divvied up.
By the end of February 2021, all of the phase 2 demonstrator projects should be complete and should have identified and developed new business cases and approaches to accelerate investment in EV charging and so kick-start more widespread production and adoption of EVs.
“It’s a chicken and egg problem. Car manufacturers see poor charging infrastructure as the bottleneck preventing them deploying massmarket EVs,” says Landi, pointing out that waiting lists for new EVs are often six months to a year. “On the other hand, the firms capable of rolling out charging infrastructure are waiting for more users before investing at scale.”
Over the last year, there has been an increase in the number of developers actively looking to lease sites to host new public charging points; these tend to be either in retail and leisure locations to provide a ‘top-up’ charge while the driver is visiting a shop or café, or on larger scale on a major road network. “For these larger charging stations,” adds Hardcastle, “land requirements can be up to an acre, and are likely to include provision for onsite amenities such as toilets and a café or shop.”
“We’ve already acted on behalf of both our landowner clients and energy developers to identify and develop sites for large scale charging stations, and this demand can only grow,” continues Hardcastle.
Landi adds that there are, in fact, a high number of charge points available across the UK compared to the number of EVs on the road. The problem is that many are in places that people don’t want to go, while others are overbooked.
Bids for the phase 1 feasibility studies are currently being assessed by panels of cross discipline experts and, following ministerial approval, winning teams will be announced in October.
“What I would like to see is for solutions to emerge that people are able to use,” says Landi, strictly guarding the identity of the phase 1 winners. “Ultimately I expect the winning projects to provide EV users with more choice and lower operating costs.”