Are we ready for the EV revolution?

12 Sep

As government considers how the UK can become a zero-emissions leader, Street Works UK’s Chief Executive Clive Bairsto writes about how to deliver the necessary infrastructure to support electric vehicles. 

The UK is proudly at the forefront of the international drive towards reducing carbon emissions, and this week Birmingham will host the world’s first zero emission vehicles summit. While we welcome the ambitious plans to make all new cars and vans emission-free by 2040, and great intentions on all sides pervade, we must take care so that the UK is properly ready for the electric vehicle (EV) evolution of this next decade.

With rising demand for EVs, we need to ensure that all aspects of the necessary infrastructure are now or are planned to be in place: otherwise the basic practicalities of simple stuff like not having a charging point nearby will prevent many consumers from investing in an EV. Utility companies and their contractors are developing these plans right now and will be delivering these works in the next period – and if we are to really lead the global EV drive, we will need to consider how we can best support the delivery of vital street works to enable this. It’s true, there are competing technologies here: battery charging rates, battery capacity, real-time understanding of energy consumption volumes, EV to network reversal charging, and battery re-use and refurbishment techniques. These are at various stages of evolution and understanding them will drive consumer behaviour and energy demand. The fog on the implications of these different variables will lift over the next few years, but in the interim we must not provide scant justification for inaction in the areas I outline below.

Firstly, we need to ensure that local authority decision-making does not inhibit the delivery of infrastructure, as has recently been reported by energy firm, SSE, in the London region. Since 2013, the company has only fitted 762 EV charging points, when it had initially hoped to install nearly 6,000. While slow-decision making at Authority level may have been one factor, SSE have had to negotiate with each of the 33 individual London boroughs, each of whom have different approaches to guidance, applications and approvals.  At Street Works UK, we know well from the roll-out of permit schemes how vital it is to minimise variation in schemes and allow slick consistent process to reign. This not only provides the mentioned consistency for companies’ workforces to deal within simplified administration and training, but it also ensures that vital works are able to be carried out on time.

Secondly, regardless of which direction the technologies lead us, we really do need greater government recognition and consideration of the role of street works in delivering EV charging points at scale. Market forces are great in hastening delivery, but where inter-governmental trade-offs in policy (e.g. between planning, environment and congestion) have to be resolved, then government must step up and provide the leadership and intent. Utilities alone cannot act and invest in a vacuum. While it is pleasing to see that street works are becoming increasingly recognised by policymakers, demands on the industry to deliver new infrastructure projects are growing in all directions. To achieve this, government must create a new policy environment that actively supports the delivery of EVs. For example, there are concerns that the newly published criteria and guidance for Lane Rental schemes only require local authorities to take consideration of nationally important infrastructure projects. While HS2 is exempt from such schemes, we would like to see similar exemptions being marked out for other vital works in this field, the most obvious being EV charging points.

Finally, lessons from the past show us that infrastructure projects can succeed when outcomes driven processes are put in place. For EVs to be rolled out effectively, government has a key role to play in bringing industry and local authorities together to understand the needs and requirements that will help to deliver a policy initiative. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport have led the way in this regard by proactively establishing the Barrier Busting Taskforce across government to tackle every and any barrier to broadband rollout. Street Works UK have been delighted to contribute to this process and we have worked closely with the Barrier Busting Team to develop a toolkit for local authorities, operators and contractors, designed to showcase good practice on how best to deliver broadband. By setting aside competing priorities, local authorities, businesses and government can often find a suitable way forward, centred on working together. To meet the infrastructure challenges of the EV revolution, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Department for Transport could very usefully grasp the nettle and establish a similar taskforce.

As an island nation of limited natural resource but an established penchant for global leadership, we have rightly set ourselves an ambitious target to become a world leader in EVs. It is achievable, but if we are to get there, local authorities, businesses and government need to work closely together under a clearly focussed policy intent. These are the lessons of infrastructure projects of the past, and we should note this well to ensure the infrastructure projects of the future are delivered to meet our national need.