Consistency and communication key to realising London’s electric vehicle vision

The pledges made by the Mayor of London to transform the city into a zero-emissions capital need to be backed by policy guidance that brings car manufacturers, network operators and innovators together to ensure that the capital isn't littered with "white elephants" and "stranded assets".

That was the key take away from Monday’s (9 October) Aldersgate Group event, which sought to identify how fast London can facilitate the growth of electric vehicles (EVs). Delegates from organisations heavily involved in London’s EV rollout agreed that the any transition away from diesel vehicles needed a holistic approach that captured benefits for commercial fleets, network operators and financial institutions attempting to back low-carbon initiatives.

The event opened with a keynote speech from the deputy Mayor of London for energy and environment Shirley Rodrigues, who claimed that an increase in EVs on the road should be matched with a variety of charging infrastructure to provide convenience for users and reduce pressure on the grid.

“In London the Mayor wants to set policies that provide, opportunity, leadership, investment and dialogue and we know there is a huge appetite from all sectors to get stuck into this issue,” Rodrigues said.

“We can only transition by setting a clear ambition and vision and do it well ahead of time. In terms of the grid, our modelling suggests that by 2030 EVs in London will consume between 1-5% of the capital’s electricity demand. This rapid growth should be matched with the widespread deployment of smart EV charging infrastructure, maximising the additional benefit EVs can play in balancing peak electricity demand.”

Rodrigues noted that EVs would act as a key pillar of a wider initiative to reduce air pollution levels in the capital, where certain streets breached annual limits five days into 2017. Integration of EVs will be matched by an ambition to ensure that 80% of all London-based journeys are made on foot, by cycle or on public transport by 2041.

So far, 64% of journeys meet this criteria, and the Mayor and Transport for London have also set timeframes to phase-out diesel buses, introduce zero-emission zones and install new charging capacity. In fact, £4.5m has been allocated to 25 London boroughs to roll-out 1,500 new charging points for EVs across the capital.

Caring for sharing

While Rodrigues stressed the importance of avoiding “unintended consequences”, the rollout of new charging points coupled with an ambition to reduce road journeys in the capital raised concerns amongst the panel that infrastructure investments could become useless assets, or “white elephants”.

Zipcar has spent years growing its brand in London, and partnered with Volkswagen (VW) and Westminster City Council in 2016 to integrate EVs into its ride-sharing membership model. Through the partnership, a pool of 40 Volkswagen EV Golf GTE vehicles will be used in the area, and Zipcar has launched similar initiatives at Tower Bridge and Old Oak.

The company’s general manager Jonathan Hampson claimed that London’s solution to cleaner cars should be to use less cars, noting that policies must be bold and strategic to support the deployment of EVs but to funnel investment as a “holistic approach”.

“The challenges are chronic, numerous and often interwoven,” Hampson said. “Car ownership in the city is an inefficient, broken model, and one we believe absolutely has to be reset. We now have an opportunity to capitalise on a broader acceptance to sharing goods and services and EVs can be a real sweet spot.

“Currently, 7kw chargers are being deployed all around London. I’m not sure that feels like the right way to go. I worry that we’ll end up with these white elephants all across London on residential streets. But unless someone comes up with a vision, this will continue to happen. People are paralysed with fear about putting in these white elephants, and the worst thing we can do is nothing at all.”

Hampson acknowledged that charging points would work better as a collective unit across petrol station forecourts so that commercial fleets could gain better access to charging infrastructure.

Peak is the enemy

Research from the Green Alliance warns that the UK could suffer from an overloaded grid at peak times unless rapid action is taken to design a smarter power system that accounts for EV charging and this point was echoed by UK Power Networks head of innovation Ian Cameron.

UK Power Networks delivers electricity to 18 million people in London, the East and South East and recently announced its intention to become a Distribution System Operator (DSO) as part of its vision to help deliver a smart, flexible energy system.

The operator claims it has connected 8.5GW of distributed generation to its networks, installed chargers for 25,000 EVs and received 16GW of connections for battery storage. Cameron claimed that between 40-50% of the expected EV uptake can be handled by current grid optimisation, but that “reinforcement and infrastructure” were crucial for further deployment.

“I don’t think there’s a challenge in generation,” Cameron said, alluding to the fact that almost 52% of electricity generation over the summer came from low carbon and renewable sources. “That power needs to be available at peak. Peak is almost the enemy here.”

Cameron noted that if peak demand were to be reduced to around 60% of current levels, EV charging would be much easier to manage. However, Cameron agreed with Hampson’s sentiment that if charging infrastructure is backed with investment, policy must pull drivers towards EVs rather than a sharing model.

“Do we go and build this big infrastructure now and then ultimately people move to a connected, automated vehicle system where transport is service and people don’t want to own an asset?” Cameron asked. “If we build this EV infrastructure because everyone wants to own a car, in the future, will we have stranded assets if they move to transport as a service.”

Commercial fleets

During the event, Rodrigues noted that transitioning heavy-duty vehicles away from diesel was a “tall order”, but that alternate fuels, such as ones being used by Waitrose or the Greater London Authority (GLA), should be used as a “bridge fuel” until the range of options improves.

The London Electric Vehicle Company’s (LEVC) – recently rebranded from the London Taxi Company – commercial director Richard Gordon noted that the firm would roll out an electric van later this month to help commercial fleets deal with last mile deliveries around the capital.

LEVC’s new electric taxi can operate for around 70 miles at zero-emissions, with a petrol engine extending the total range to more than 400 miles. Gordon suggested that range anxiety had subsided and been replaced by “charge anxiety”, but that the range of vehicles on offer for commercial fleets remained a barrier.

“Range of suitable vehicles does remain an issue,” Gordon added. “There are 22,000 taxis in London, they are commercial and encouragement through support has to be the right approach, and grants to transition as quickly as possible is critical.

“Our city electric van is aimed at last mile. It will offer savings, primarily if operated in London because of the congestion charge. But companies and policy makers need to examine the whole life costs of new vehicle ranges. Ultimately more drivers are willing to accept the higher upfront costs of EV but only if they can realise fuel savings through easy access to charging.”

Strangely, current legislation classifies electric taxis as a luxury vehicle meaning they are subjected to extra tax. This is just one aspect that Rodrigues and the GLA hope to lobby against as part of the November Budget, so that Government can “create the right conditions with greater incentives for the uptake of zero-emission vehicles”.

Matt Mace

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