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02 July 2024

Charging towards productivity: stuck at a crossroad?

Dr Britt Regal, Research Affiliate at the Centre for Sustainable Business

Dr Britt Regal shares her insights into the debate on electric vehicle (EV) charging, and why the government is key to ensuring our transition to net zero.

A yellow electric vehicle is charging on a driveway whilst a father and son walk into their house.

When the UK government announced they were rolling out a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles by 2030, it was hailed as a ‘historic step towards net-zero’. This mandate seemingly solidified England’s pathway forward towards electric mobility.

While electric vehicles are an excellent example of using green technology to create a net-zero economy, there are concerns around the speed and logistics of such a monumental transition, perhaps reflected in the government’s revised timeline to 2035.

To explore these concerns, I joined three researchers, Damian Grimshaw, Marcela Miozzo, and Jonatan Pinkse from The Productivity Institute (TPI) and King’s College London to analyse the UK government’s plans to decarbonise transport. We wanted to learn how the government is trying to develop the infrastructure of public ‘on-street’ chargepoints.

Given the upcoming election, we discuss below some of the key aspects from our TPI insights reportCharging Towards Productivity: Moving Past the Bump in the Road’ that the future government should consider when developing the next steps for the transition to net-zero mobility.

The power of potential

By adopting electric vehicles, businesses and people in the UK can help to accelerate future green productivity growth. A range of new business opportunities and markets can flourish and the trajectory towards cleaner energy seems clear.

However, for such opportunities to come to fruition, a well-functioning charging infrastructure is key. Without it, the push for the UK to switch to electric vehicles could hinder growth. There is also the concern that without the ability to charge a vehicle on residential streets (i.e., ‘on-street’ charging), the transition will leave behind already disenfranchised communities.

By adopting electric vehicles, businesses and people in the UK can help to accelerate future green productivity growth.

EV charging: building a market

In recent years, the UK government has made major investments in the development of a charging infrastructure to support their ambition of banning new petrol and diesel cars by 2035.

When government funding for chargepoints started to become available, it set off a land rush amongst firms to build physical chargepoints to capture a share of the pie of new customers and establish a first-mover advantage. However, it is still unclear how many public chargers will be needed and what the best locations will be for these chargepoints.

Caution for the next government: speeding over road bumps

Central government recognised that this transition required local-level experimentation to test a range of solutions, as not all technologies or models would work as well. Funded initiatives provided spaces for local governments and the burgeoning charging industry to join forces and find and test solutions. While allowing for the fruitful development of local infrastructure, key issues stymied overall change.

Key issues:

  1. An early competitive funding approach favoured local authorities with the capacity for high levels of reputational and financial risk. It created a cumulative advantage that resulted in a widening gap in access to on-street charging. Simultaneously, local authorities that engaged early but were unable to access follow-up funding were left with stranded assets. This was due to the initial expense of a rollout that had little standardisation regarding technology or data and the thin margins for the chargepoint network operators which give them little incentive to invest in maintenance and updates.
  2. Local authorities are expected to have the knowledge and competency to oversee the rollout of public on-street charging at a level that can support market security for the charging firms. However, the highly centralised system for the rollout undermines the development of these assets at local levels, which Charlotte Hoole and colleagues refer to as a Catch-22.
  3. Local authorities have approached the rollout in varying ways. This approach had local communities falling victim to the quirks of public charging in their local areas, such as different prices or mixed experiences. While some local areas have engaged communities in the transition to electric mobility, there has been no comprehensive approach to ensure that communities are confident that a net zero future will benefit them.

Supercharging the future: three strategic measures

The next government must play a crucial role in promoting and facilitating the expansion of on-street charging infrastructure to make EVs available to all citizens alike. From our research, we recommend the following three strategic measures:

  1. Provide ongoing consistent funding allocations to all local authorities. Continued funding ensures that each authority has dedicated, long-term financial support specifically earmarked for developing chargepoint infrastructure, thereby creating an equitable opportunity for all regions to capitalise on the associated benefits.
  2. Clarify roles and streamline processes. The current fragmented implementation and regulation of public charging points lead to significant regional disparities. To address this issue, collaboration between the government, local authorities, and chargepoint companies is essential. Clear delineation of responsibilities and streamlined regulatory frameworks will ensure equal access and facilitate a smooth rollout of charging infrastructure across different regions.
  3. Promote community engagement in achieving net-zero goals. Local authorities, entrusted with implementing the government's net-zero agenda, often encounter skepticism from their communities regarding the shift to electric mobility. To mitigate this challenge, a cohesive government strategy, focused skills development, and effective communication are essential.

Final thoughts

A speedy rollout of charging infrastructure on streets is meant to promote a more democratic transition to electric mobility, allowing even those without off-street charging to adopt EVs. Yet, the future of this electric utopia is less clear. Already, our pavements are littered with discarded electric bikes and trippable scooters, blocking prams, walkers, and wheelchairs. There is concern that charging bollards and cords will (and already do) cause additional clutter.

The hope is that we will reach a positive tipping point where the green technology and communities find new rhythms. This future will depend on greater coherence from the new government with sustained funding, improved coordination, and engaged communities.

This blog was brought to you by the Centre for Sustainable Business. Find out more about their work here.

In this story

Britt Regal

Research Associate, Productivity Institute