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Insight | UK infrastructure 'not ready' for electric vehicles

Bmw electric car charging

The UK’s current infrastructure and planning will be unable to handle the coming surge of electric vehicles, a planning expert claims.  

The market share of plug-in electric vehicles has increased every year since 2013, with the latest figures showing that just under 2% of all new car sales are plug-in type electric vehicles.  

 

However, Fieldfisher planning and environment planner Yohanna Weber has warned that the UK’s infrastructure is nowhere near ready.

Weber told New Civil Engineer that the lack of national-level organisation and planning for electric vehicles is slowing progress towards government targets to make most new cars and vans electric by 2030. 

“We are putting lots of preparatory infrastructure in place without any sort of overarching strategy as to how it will all work together to enable the bigger picture of electrifying Britain’s vehicle fleet,” she said.  

“Local authorities have a big role to play in making sure that new developments and existing urban infrastructure can accommodate what will inevitably be a larger demand for this type of service. So far, nobody – public or private – has been able to put forward a credible plan for how to roll it out on a large scale.” 

The lack of progress, Weber says, may mean the UK’s existing infrastructure struggles to cope with an increased number of electric vehicles all being charged simultaneously.  

This is not just an issue in terms of a lack of electric charging points across the UK, but the increased demands on the national grid as everyone charges their cars, Weber claims. 

“This is not an issue of retro-fitting existing petrol stations with electric charging points, the current consultation is that people will charge from home and use price plans to charge off-peak. This doesn’t address issues such as what happens if large numbers of people charge off-peak and overwhelm the distribution level grid?” 

Ofgem’s latest insight report reinforces Weber’s claims. The report, published in July, says that without the guarantee of flexible charging, or load-spreading’ (meaning people charging their cars at night when the grid is generating in excess) the National Grid will require extensive and expensive reinforcement upgrades.  

WSP energy team technical director Katherine Jackson said problems are most “likely to arise at a street and town level where large clusters of electric vehicles are charged simultaneously”. 

Jackson did say that the capacity for grid distribution at this level could be potentially doubled with cabling upgrades and substation reinforcement, but this can be expensive, and requires knowledge of what areas need upgrades. The other option to this, Jackson told New Civil Engineer, is smart metering to reduce demand on the grid at peak times. 

But Weber believes that relying on an off-peak model to protect the distribution grid leaves a lot to chance, such as people constantly charging their cars as they worry about running out of power mid-journey, commonly called ‘‘range anxiety’’. 

“Simply relying on everyone using off peak charging relies on a lot of factors such as individual behaviours and patterns, range anxiety etc – this is something smart metering cannot handle. It’s hard to dictate to individuals how and when they can use their electricity after they have paid to access it.”  

She added: “A cross departmental body including Ofgem, National Grid, the DfT, and local authorities could act as a forum to explore new ways that this could be rolled out coordinating all the efforts of individual bodies.”  

“Is this an electricity issue, is it an environmental issue, or is this a transport issue? I think it’s all of them all together but up until now they have been considered separately and that’s way this is such a novel problem with several bodies all with equal responsibilities to bring this about”. 

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