Electrifying your fleet roundtable: Turning challenges into opportunities

Sustainability and energy management experts from some of the world's biggest businesses recently gathered in Oxford for an exclusive roundtable hosted by edie and UK Power Networks Services, to explore how challenges can be turned into opportunities when it comes to fleet electrification.

The UK’s plan to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040 has set the end-goal for ultra-low emission transport, and businesses are duly investing in electric vehicles (EVs) and infrastructure more than ever before. The last four years have seen a remarkable surge in demand for EVs in the UK – new registrations of plug-in cars increased from 3,500 in 2013 to more than 150,000 in May 2018. There has been a huge increase in the number of fully-electric and plug-in hybrid models available in the UK, with many of the top manufacturers now offering a number of EVs as part of their model range.

For those willing to invest, the EV revolution offers significant economic opportunities. According to some estimates, UK businesses could make annual fuel savings of around £14bn if all of Britain’s vans and HGVs switched to electric alternatives. edie’s recently launched Mission Possible report showed that many firms are already looking to capitalise on these savings, with 41% of survey respondents claiming they are looking to make the switch before 2030. But transitioning to an all-electric fleet will not be without its challenges. Technological restraints, a lack of charging infrastructure and limited access to funding are just some of the barriers that can leave electrification of vehicles as a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a necessity for sustainable business.

How can these challenges be turned into opportunities? How can game-changing innovations such as superfast charging, long-distance batteries and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) concepts be harnessed by businesses to electrify their fleets?  At the roundtable discussion at BMW’s Plant in Oxford, edie and UK Power Networks Services welcomed sustainability and fleet managers from a spread of UK businesses to explore how those challenges can be turned into opportunities to accelerate the transition to electric fleets.

Policy levers  

The roundtable discussion began with a look at the impact of national policymaking on the current EV transition. When asked for their thoughts on the most desirable policy approach, roundtable participants were unanimous in their response: “The more certainty you get from Government, the more it helps everyone to push in the right way.” Thankfully, a flurry of pledges and investments over the past 12 months have demonstrated that ministers realise the need to provide that certainty for the business community. In the past year, the Government has helped to boost the uptake of EVs through the 2040 petrol and diesel ban and, and through the Clean Growth Strategy, £1bn will be provided to support the take-up of Ultra-Low Emission Vehicles (ULEV).

Many roundtable members were pleased with the long-term signals provided by these recent developments. “The Clean Growth Strategy is useful to show where we will be going for the next 10 years because it allows businesses to plan for this,” transport operator First Group’s director of corporate responsibility Fran Fay said.

However, most individuals agreed that efforts could be stepped up to create a more enabling policy environment, with some claiming that the 2040 petrol and diesel deadline was too far away to incentivise companies to switch to electric fleets. For DPD’s environment sustainability manager Trevor Berry, there was a concern that the creation of five Clean Air Zones across cities including Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton could cause disruption to business activities.

With the introduction of these Zones and a proposed reduction in the type of vehicles that can go into the city centre, “the challenge for us is how do we get that last-mile delivery into city centres,” Berry said. He noted that with the popularity of online shopping, and subsequent desire for same-day deliveries, showing no signs of stopping, parcel delivery brands such as DPD need to make sure that an electric fleet is able to deploy at any notice. At this point in this discussion, TfL City Planning’s principal technical specialist Mark Poulton explained that the Clean Air Zones would support healthy active travel by cycle and walking among the public. This would in turn prioritise more road space for “the essential services that need to use that road space such as businesses that don’t have any other options,” Poulton said.

Infrastructure challenges

The anticipated increase in EVs on the road in UK towns and cities begs another question around the state of the country’s infrastructure, and specifically the number of charging points in place. It is widely thought that at least double the 16,000 charging points that exist today will be required on the streets of Britain to meet the EV charging needs of 2030. Jonathan Randles, quality and environment manager at DHL, questioned whether the charging infrastructure could cope with the extra anticipated demand from EVs over the next decade. “30,000 still seems like low numbers when you think about the number of cars on the road,” Randles said. “Is the infrastructure on the road to deal with it? That’s the big question.”

Randles also pointed out that investment in infrastructure would be useless unless charging points were in the right locations. “It depends where they are,” he said. “How many are on the UK motorways and service stations and how many are in cities and towns?”. It was noted that a range of innovative charging solutions are starting to emerge in this area. National Grid, for example, is exploring the possibility of rolling out a superfast charging network across the UK’s major motorways that is directly connected to the transmission system. More than 90% of drivers would be within 50 miles of an ultra-rapid charger at any given time, it is claimed.

The technology is rapidly evolving: the latest high-power charging systems can charge at around 350kW – equating to approximately 190 miles of EV driving range off a 20-minute charge. Of course, given the relative infancy of the EV charging industry, there are still some key issues that must be ironed out in order to achieve the levels of growth required to meet demand – from reinforcing residential power grids and deploying smart energy technologies, to scaling up investments in workplace and public charging points.

Collaboration and innovations

But it was acknowledged by roundtable participants that many of these challenges can be turned into opportunities. Some participants said they would be willing to develop commercial partnerships with other businesses in areas such as charging, decentralised energy generation and storage solutions. UK Power Networks Services’ head of markets Phil Hack mooted the potential for firms that are transitioning to electric vehicles to share depot sites to reduce operational costs. “Wouldn’t it be interesting for a company to say ‘we’re closer to a better bit of network, let’s put 20 chargers in our depot and we’ll have your EVs in our car park’,” he said. “Is there some synergy between operators?”. This point was picked up on by Berry who noted that the UK could learn from collaborative efforts in other parts of the world. “In Paris you have various parcel businesses collaborating by sharing over car parks and working on a timeframe where one parcel companies goes out and the other one shifts in and starts using the space,” he said. “There are things like this starting to be seen and discussed across the world.”

The conversation concluded with a look ahead to the future, with a focus on the technologies and innovations that must be scaled up to accelerate the EV transition. The transformational growth of EVs is already paving the way towards low-carbon, flexible energy systems, with developments in battery technology and charging infrastructure now allowing smart, optimised charging and sending energy back to the grid. UK Power Networks Services is part of a consortium that has won £11m in Government funding for four EV demonstration projects, with an emphasis on vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging potential.

Hack called on businesses to explore the benefits of V2G technologies, which he stressed could be used to generate revenue and provide customers with more advanced control to offer flexibility services. He also encouraged firms to consider EVs as part of a wider energy strategy that includes onsite renewable energy generation and battery storage. “Don’t think of EVs as just having to put charging in place,” Hack said. “Think about the whole vision of what you are trying to achieve and your overall energy needs. Companies that are spending millions of pounds a year on energy should be looking now at innovations such as battery storage and onsite generation. As companies start to transition towards EVs, it will be important to step back and think of your whole energy strategy.”

George Ogleby

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