Navigating the EV revolution – Full Q&A
An interview with Tanya Sinclair, UK & Ireland Policy Director at ChargePoint
The electrification of transport is one of the cornerstones of the UK’s strategy to meet climate change targets and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. With up to 36 million electric vehicles (EVs) forecast to be on our roads by 2040, and new recommendations to bring forward a ban on the sale diesel and petrol cars to 2030, how will the growth in EV charging impact the UK’s delicately balanced energy system?
We asked Tanya Sinclair, UK & Ireland policy director at ChargePoint, operators of the world’s largest and most open EV charging network. ChargePoint design, build and support the technology that powers this network, from charging station hardware to energy management software and mobile apps.
The UK Government has committed to phasing out diesel and petrol cars and electrifying transport by 2050, but the estimated timescales for this transformation vary. When does ChargePoint expect the rollout of EVs to begin in earnest?
TS: “It all hangs on businesses and industry and how quickly they adapt, from getting the cars to market to rolling out the charging infrastructure, but we’re beginning to see this activity ramp up. I expect we’ll look back and see 2019 – 2021 as the real turning point when things began moving much more quickly, from innovation in industry to public opinion shifting.
“Business and technology hold the key to the revolution. Many people think that we need more funding and government incentives to drive change, but if the market has the freedom to innovate then it can create the right solutions and bring products to market quickly. The market is also starting to mature: EV charging incentives are reducing, but the business case for them is close to propping itself up without funding, and innovative businesses are able to create sustainable commercial models.”
If momentum is gathering, what will be the tipping point that drives the change?
TS: “Policy is vital to creating change. London is leading the way in that sense: by introducing the most ambitious low emission / zero emission policies it will affect everyone and drive behaviour, not just from cars but also taxis, HGVs and business use. In California or Amsterdam, for example, there are some big EV hotspots, but the vast majority of electric vehicles are cars. They haven’t tackled freight or moving goods around cities, and commercial vehicles will undoubtedly be the catalyst for change: these are the vehicles that are on the road every day, so the incentive to invest is greater (particularly if the city those vehicles drive through every day create the zero emission zones that necessitate a conversion to electric).
“We also need to focus on behavioural change: for example, electrifying fleet vehicles and HGVs requires a shift in mindset and we’ve seen a lot of investment in working with fleets to overcome their reticence and help them to understand that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. A like-for-like replacement to change each van to an electric vehicle might be cost-prohibitive, but actually if businesses analyse their duty cycle and when or where these vehicles operate they can determine the best portfolio of vehicles to meet their current and future business needs: for example, they could replace some vans with cargo bikes or cars to create a more cost-effective and sustainable solution.
“Importantly, to deliver the transformation, businesses and private drivers need to have confidence in the infrastructure. An organisation needs to be confident that they can run their business without any negative impacts, from a small business to a taxi to a private owner driving for leisure.
Ultimately, it’s about creating the right policy environment to incentivise the innovation and investment in infrastructure that will drive behavioural change.”
If infrastructure is crucial, how many charging points do we need to build before businesses have the confidence to convert?
TS: “We need a solid infrastructure, but it’s not just about the number of charging points: it’s about quality, speed and where they are. Quality is essential – it’s about creating the right mixture of chargers that meet each location’s needs and that all provide a consistent driver experience. We need a strategic roll-out to achieve that.
“In the UK, the current EV infrastructure is a patchwork of organically grown networks across the country, operated by different organisations, including the public sector. That means a varying degree of quality, differing charging speeds and, most importantly, a variety of driver experiences.
“Put simply, a driver will arrive at a charge point, unlock it, wait for it to identify the type of vehicle before taking payment and then begin charging – that should happen as smoothly and swiftly as possible and it should be consistent across stations, but that isn’t guaranteed from the UK’s current infrastructure. That’s a concern because it not only puts people off using EVs, but there’s a safety aspect too: you don’t want to be stuck at a faulty charger in the middle of the night. We believe the priority has got to be bringing up the level of charging experience across the UK, and it’s that quality of infrastructure that will give people confidence to switch to electric.
“There are some excellent examples of where cities and councils are doing this well: in London, their ‘town centre’ approach in individual boroughs will provide a charging hub, combining rapid and slower charging stations to accommodate both drivers passing through the area along with ones that local residents can plug in to for a slower charge.”
The Committee on Climate Change predicts that electricity demand will double by 2050 thanks to the electrification of heat and transport. What impact do you think EV charging will have on supply and demand over the coming years?
TS: “EVs are just one part of our changing urban landscape. They’re no more onerous on energy demand than any other urban operation and we have to understand them in the context of the overall evolution of our energy consumption, from smart buildings to electric vehicles, so our energy system is changing to accommodate them.
“The market will need to react to respond to changing demand patterns”
We’re already seeing smart energy solutions to accommodate them such as ‘managed’ charging, where it’s possible to remotely control the time and rate of charge, but fundamentally, the market will need to react to respond to changing demand patterns, from flexible generation to innovation on the supply side to incentivise behaviour through products or tariffs.
“We need to change the perception of EVs: the first generation of electric cars might have only had a 100-mile range, but now even a mid-range vehicle can go for 250 miles so it doesn’t need to be charged every day, let alone every journey. Not every charge needs to be instant, either: from a car on a driveway to bus and freight depots, a lot of the charging can be slow and scheduled to run overnight or during low demand periods.
“It’s a case-by-case situation: there will also be instances where flexible plants or battery storage located close to charging hubs is the best solution – for example, there are trial storage projects underway by those organisations operating fleets of electric taxis that need a solution to overcome capacity constraints.
“Innovation on the supply-side applies to business use too: for example, ChargePoint has a smart workplace charging solution to reduce the number of charge points required: a driver can plug in, charge, and then a little later on receive a text message directly from the charger once complete, allowing them to move their vehicle, notifying the next driver to plug in.”
How can we achieve the electrification of transport and its impact on the Grid in the most cost-effective way?
“The technology is already here to schedule and manage charging from the individual household to the street or substation level and that will be crucial.
“There are lots of companies working on pilot projects to understand how best to use that to keep energy supply balanced but we aren’t yet at the point where we have a standard to work from: there’s nothing to mandate that the charging station has to be smart and can deliver specific functions.
“We also have a legacy generation of non-communications enabled charging stations that can’t be communicated with and that can’t be controlled or managed.
“Once electric vehicles hit a market penetration level of around 10% or more, we’ll see this start to be shaped and structured: it won’t be until the market takes hold that we’ll be able to see what’s possible in reality, but we’re excited about the opportunities.”
For more information on ChargePoint’s EV network and solutions, visit https://www.chargepoint.com/en-gb/