We ask Anthony about the current state of charging in the UK, and what the government's recent EV charging plans mean for the country's public charging infrastructure.
The UK government recently unveiled plans to boost the number of public electric vehicle charging points to 300,000 by 2030 – together with a newly confirmed £1.6 billion funding package to support this target.
As part of the government’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy, £500 million of the funding has been designated for ‘high quality’ public charging infrastructure across the country. It follows pleas from local councils to be provided with more support to deliver their EV charging infrastructure commitments.
Of the new investment, £450 million will be used to create a Local EV Infrastructure Fund (LEVI) – through which local authorities will be able to bid for funding to install charging hubs and on-street charge points.
The remaining £50 million will be used to both employ – and upskill – staff to work on charger planning and implementation.
A pilot scheme for the LEVI fund will see local authorities bid for a share of the first £10 million – with the chosen areas expected to work with industry to boost public charging opportunities.
The new funding is aimed at expanding the UK’s charging network – so that it is ‘robust, fair and covers the entire country’ – following the example of the groundbreaking SOSCI project where Mer worked with Durham council and other partners to install chargers to under-served areas.
We asked Mer’s Managing Director, Anthony Hinde, to give his opinion on the current UK public charging infrastructure – and what the new announcements mean for the industry.
1. Why has most of the provision of EV charging infrastructure in the UK been market-led so far?
It would be fair to say that Scotland has seen more drive from the public sector, whereas England and Wales have been more commercially led in their approach. To help with the uptake of electric vehicles, the Scottish Government invested in, and developed, its own public EV charging infrastructure – the ‘ChargePlace Scotland’ network.
The current position in England and Wales is different – for a number of reasons:
Firstly, we have a government that is wary of “big policy” mandates, or to be seen as pushing for the development of EV charging infrastructure beyond what the market would naturally bear.
In our discussions with the ‘Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’ (BEIS) and the ‘Office for Zero Emission Vehicles’ (OZEV) they have both been clear that they would like to see the growth of EV charging infrastructure to be market-led, but with government assistance, influence and steering where required.
Secondly, in the short-to-medium term, there isn’t a lot of money to be made from EV charger installations.
What tends to happen is that commercial organisations are footing the bill for infrastructure – in return for operating that asset for a period of time (typically several years) in the hope of the venture becoming profitable. Where there is little appetite for commercial organisations to install infrastructure, it falls to the government to fund, and therefore, level-up the charging infrastructure in what would be these unprofitable areas. The new government funding will go some way towards helping local councils ensure provision in these under-served areas.
Over time – and after significant EV uptake – these areas will, we hope, become self-sustainable, with the commercial market also willing to invest.
Thirdly, up until now, EVs have been a premium product, with early adopters generally not needing government support. Although the government has been supportive with home grants for EV charging, most people who have bought EVs can afford to install home chargers anyway. Very few early adopters have needed to charge on the street, as they could do so on their driveway at a discounted price.
Finally, installations are being market-led because commercial enterprises that have high levels of traffic – like hotels and retail parks – are investing in EV infrastructure because their customers have requested it. Or, additionally, because they are situated in areas where there is large-enough EV ownership, and the demand is there.
Companies, such as Mer, need to operate within commercial realms – and to know that our charger installations will, someday, make commercial sense. Or we rely on a mix of funding from local government, combined with our own capital, to fund an install which would otherwise not make commercial sense.
2. Is a lack of public sector leadership to blame for the uneven geographical distribution of charging devices within the UK?
No, I wouldn’t put the blame on the public sector. It’s complex. If EV charging installations were only left to the market, you would only get charge points in busy or affluent areas. Conversely, if it was left entirely to the government, there would be a more even distribution across the UK – but often in places where there was little commercial need.
Also, when you talk about leadership at public sector level, there are some major hurdles to overcome. For example, in the UK, local government often operates in very small areas. To put this into perspective, tenders in the Netherlands, for example, are frequently for 5,000 or more chargers across large areas of the country. When tendering for council installations in the UK, we might be asked to do a proposal for as few as six chargers. The UK suffers from relatively small council projects that have numerous challenges – particularly in terms of responsibility, knowledge and financing. The additional LEVI funding of £50 million to help in upskilling council staff in the process of charger planning and implementation – especially if councils work with highly experienced partners like Mer – will go a long way towards fixing these challenges.
3. Why are local councils still dragging their heels on installing adequate EV charging infrastructure – when funding is available (from the DfT) – and when also, ironically, they are at the forefront of leading public awareness of the growing urgency of the climate emergency?
I don’t blame local government for struggling to know what the solution is. There are many elements that come into play, from a local council’s viewpoint. From a responsibility angle, who should handle the installation project? Does it come under ‘Facilities Management?’ ‘Parking?’ ‘Sustainability?’ Should there be the formation of a new EV team?
A lot of decisions need to be made – and there is a lot of conflicting information. Should the council opt for fast charging? Rapid charging? Lamppost charging? Rely on residents installing home charging? Or, a combination of all these?
And if so, what should the split be? It’s a situation where – if you ask ten people – you will get ten different answers.
While grants are available, many councils operate on very tight budgets – so when tenders are submitted there can be a tendency to opt for the cheapest supplier. Unfortunately, there are a lot of small companies that don’t have the capability to provide what they promised, and councils end up with EV charging installations that are a disappointment and unreliable – with some of these eventually becoming stranded assets.
4. Can the UK realistically be expected to meet 2030 targets without local authorities doing more to expand EV charging infrastructure provision?
No, local authorities must play their part. And the government’s new funding package comes amid realisation of the urgency to do it quickly. There is money available from the government and councils should be claiming it right now – but also making sure that the tender process is rigorous, and that the installations are done right the first time.
I see no reason why we can’t achieve this target. We have eight years to go. If you look at the growth in EV charging over the last two years, I don’t think this is an insurmountable challenge.
5. Given the current situation, should the UK government impose a statutory duty on local authorities to plan and deliver sufficient EV infrastructure?
This scenario is currently being considered by policymakers as part of a regulatory review of the UK’s zero-emission vehicles landscape, by the ‘Office for Zero Emission Vehicles’ (OZEV). This review could introduce a raft of new legislation, and more regulatory power to support EV uptake.
There isn’t a right or wrong answer here – rather that there are potentially good and bad outcomes from mandating policy. Imposing a statutory duty would no doubt ensure uptake of EVs, but – conversely – inefficient, poorly-sited, poorly-operated installations might be the result. Making delivery of EV infrastructure mandatory may put pressure on less experienced individuals given responsibility for evaluating tenders. It may panic them into action, exposing the council to inferior proposals and suppliers.
6. If a statutory duty were imposed, what would such a duty look like and how would it work, realistically? And would this ‘stick’ approach be more effective than the current ‘carrot’ of providing EV funding?
At Mer, we are firm believers that the correct EV infrastructure approach should be encouraged by using the carrot rather than the stick – as the stick rarely gives the right solution. The funding carrots are there, but councils need education and clear instruction on which EV installation strategy makes sense, and at what scale and period of time. Rather than thinking: there’s a fund, let’s apply for the money and do what we think is best. There are some councils who do have people who become experts in the field, but this approach is currently too hit and miss. The government’s new funding for planning and implementation training should help to steer councils towards better long-term partnerships and solutions.
7. What other options are available beyond this approach? For example, should a duty be placed on charge point operators themselves, or on energy companies, instead of councils?
EV infrastructure strategy shouldn’t necessarily be steered by commercial EV charger companies. What councils need is advice from a more central, neutral authority.
Councils need to be meticulous in their tendering process – and seek to collaborate with other councils, so they can benefit from scale, rather than working discreetly, in small areas. Councils also need to work with reliable suppliers who are in this business for the long run. There aren’t any licensing or accreditation rules for EV charging installers and operators, so local authorities need to make sure they are dealing with serious companies. The government’s new funding is specifically earmarked for ‘high quality’ charging infrastructure, so this will hopefully help councils choose installers and operators that are both reliable and have longevity.
To find out more about installing EV charging, visit our Local Authorities page:
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