With the UK banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, an Imperial Forum event explored ways to switch to electric vehicles.
The event, jointly organized by the Forum and the Institute for Government, was the second in a series on different aspects of Net Zero and the role of science and technology in achieving ambitious climate goals. Dr Aruna Sivakumar, Director of the Urban Systems Laboratory at Imperial College London, spoke alongside Professor David Bailey, UK Principal Researcher in a Changing Europe, Philip New, Chair of the Task Force on electric vehicle energy, and Jeremy Yapp, head of flexible energy systems. at the British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers’ Association (BEAMA).
Going in the right direction?
Opening the panelist’s comments, Dr Sivakumar said the rapid growth in electric vehicle (EV) adoption during the pandemic has continued sustainably through 2022 and we are now past the phase of early adoption. One in four cars sold in the UK this year will be a plug-in hybrid and 40% of UK drivers say their next vehicle will be electric. However, Dr Sivakumar warned that barriers to adoption remain, mainly around price and consumer uncertainty about electricity prices. She stressed that equity in the transition to electric vehicles would be crucial to ensure that adoption is not forced on segments of society that cannot afford it.
We are on the right trajectory, but barriers remain in place on the demand side, particularly around costs. We need policies to move beyond early adopters. Dr Aruna Sivakumar Director, Urban Systems Lab, Imperial College London
Dr Sivakumar stressed that policy needs to focus beyond the first users and start targeting information to other layers of society. Discussing some of her research, she noted that the experience of driving and owning an electric vehicle for a short time helped alleviate consumer concerns, from driving to accessibility of charging. Philip New agreed that building accessible, usable and secure public charging infrastructure would be crucial for equity. He shared modeling by Energy Systems Catapult predicting £7billion would need to be spent on public infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Professor Bailey has predicted that by the mid to late 2020s, electric vehicles will be able to overtake petrol and diesel vehicles in price. He also explained that China has created an efficient electric vehicle manufacturing cycle and will likely become the world’s largest exporter of electric vehicles. He stressed that this presented a serious challenge for the UK automotive sector.
Several panelists echoed the view that public infrastructure and charging would be key to driving adoption, alongside existing private adoption. They felt that local authorities currently lacked the capacity to engage in the planning required for effective deployment and agreed that they needed to be empowered to drive infrastructure changes. Dr Sivakumar explained some previous work with the Royal Borough of Greenwich, which included trials of smart streetlights intended to provide a model for other local authorities.
According to industry data, there are currently over 32,000 public charging stations in the UK, but at any one time one in ten are unusable. BEAMA’s Jeremy Yapp said one of the barriers to adoption is the lack of dynamic tariffs based on time of use and the need for more flexibility in the energy system so people can charge. and get the best prices.
Philip New noted that smart charging would be key to ensuring a smooth transition to electric vehicles, continuing that smart charging was the only way to ensure vehicles were integrated into the energy system. He added that this integration would make it cheaper for the consumer and the system as a whole. Philip and Professor Bailey also spoke about the importance of interoperability between charging stations to ensure an easy and high quality customer experience.
More than cars
Dr Sivakumar stressed that electric vehicles are part of the puzzle, but thinking about broader decarbonisation of transport and mobility is a priority. Dr Sivakumar also noted that the ambition should be for public transport use to significantly exceed pre-pandemic figures, with numbers recovering significantly in recent times after falling during the pandemic. She also called for more infrastructure and encouraging active travel options to consider transport systems in a joint approach.
Looking to the future, Dr. Sivakumar spoke of existing research projects on road financing models given the decline in fuel tax revenues amid the adoption of electric vehicles. She explained an ongoing project focused on Birmingham and London exploring two different models for future road user charging, including a zonal system comparable to congestion charging and one based on the charge per mile travelled.
All panelists agreed that a more flexible energy system with attractive tariffs would be essential to drive a smooth and just transition. They also noted the importance of science and technology to achieve new advances that would level the playing field for adoption and alleviate existing concerns. All spoke optimistically about the potential of advances in battery technology to transform adoption and the planning and delivery of required infrastructure. In conclusion, they agreed that owning and charging an electric vehicle should be as easy as using any other basic utility.
The next event, “How can the government make its green skills plans live up to Net Zero?” will take place on Wednesday, June 29. Details are available on the IfG website.
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