How to accelerate the electric car revolution

4 min read

The UK government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will usher in the biggest single revolution on UK roads since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Driven by this commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will come into effect in 2030. Here, Sean Gray, Mace’s Director of Transportation asks: are we ready?

The rationale behind the ban and the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) is clear: transport is the UK’s largest emitting sector, with road vehicles accounting for around 19% of national carbon emissions. Buyers are already embracing the shift away from fossil-fuelled cars with data showing that 12% of new registrations in 2020 were EVs or plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Later this year, Glasgow will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) with its central goal to ‘secure net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach’. To deliver on these targets, the conference will emphasise the need for countries to speed up the transition to EVs.

If the UN’s ambition to accelerate the EV revolution is to be realised, several potential barriers must be dealt with.

Firstly, cost is currently a significant barrier to EV adoption for many people. Electric cars are, in general, more expensive to purchase than petrol or diesel cars. However, purchase price is just one factor when considering the switch to EVs. Lower running costs actually mean that an EV is often cheaper per year to own and run than petrol or diesel counterparts over its lifecycle.

And what of the batteries? Staggeringly, the batteries alone represent around half of the cost of EVs. Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts, however, that battery costs will fall by 77% between 2016 and 2030. The good news is that the upfront price of a new EV is expected to be less than a petrol or diesel car by 2025. 

Secondly, power grids will come under increasing demand through mass adoption of EVs, begging the question: will they have the capacity to deal with the surge in demand as the switch to EVs accelerates?

National Grid says the network will be able to cope with the increasing energy needs. With offshore wind power forecast to generate 40GW by 2030 (an additional 30GW compared with today), as well as promising Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technology on the horizon, smart consumption and improvements in efficiency, any concerns over the demand placed on the grid by EV charging networks should be manageable.

Thirdly, critical to the EV revolution is the strength of the network of charging points in the country. Drivers of petrol and diesel cars are accustomed to the convenience of being able to refuel at one of the more than 8,000 petrol stations around the UK. Increasing the convenience of charging electric cars must be a priority in accelerating their mass adoption. Research from the think tank Policy Exchange has shown that the UK will need to increase the number of charging points installed annually from the current 7,000 to 35,000 to prepare for the 2030 ban on petrol and diesel cars.

Meeting this target will require coordination between the government, EV manufacturers and energy companies. Legislation mandating the installation of charging points at all new homes and in large commercial developments would be a positive step towards ensuring adequate charging facilities are in place by 2030. Additionally, more inventive moves, such as converting streetlamps into EV charging points, have already been implemented in efforts to roll out ubiquitous charging infrastructure - these efforts need to continue and do so at pace.

Positively, Highways England has set out 52 ambitious schemes and a massive £27.4 billion programme of investment in the UK’s roads in its most recent five-year delivery plan. This investment and range of schemes presents an incredible opportunity for change. Every one of these schemes should be looked at through the lens of the EV revolution to come: how to prepare for it, how to enable it and how to accelerate it.

Finally, while the need to improve the infrastructure of the charging network is clear, we also need to ensure that charging facilities are as open and readily accessible as possible. Today, charging stations are owned and operated by several different companies – usually energy firms – with limited to no interoperability between systems, forcing customers to register with multiple providers and systems. This causes an additional hurdle and inconvenience that can mean the difference between choosing an EV car or not. Government should intervene to promote an ‘open source’ system where any car can easily use any system.

So, as the government tackles the challenges of EVs and their roll out, it will have to battle key obstacles and vested interests, just as earlier governments did when cars first took our streets in the early 1900s. Similar as to when the internal combustion engine revolution dramatically changed the face of roads, wider infrastructure and other aspects of society, so too will the coming EV revolution.