REACTION to the clean air strategy announced by the British government in July was unanimous: the plan had sounded the death knell for the internal combustion engine.
Alongside local grants for air quality initiatives and more than £1bn investment for new non-automotive transport infrastructure in towns and cities, the document set the terms for a ban on new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles.
The move, following similar pledges in France and the Netherlands, will also impact on sales of petrol-electric hybrid vehicles, as ministers bid to combat pollution which is estimated to contribute to around 40,000 deaths and cost the UK economy £54bn – almost 4% of GDP – every year.
Road transport currently accounts for around 23% of pollution in the UK, while the country also has targets to reduce carbon emissions by 80% before 2050. It’s unlikely, however, that a ban of this scale will bring about the downfall of any of the largest carmakers, or impact the automotive market with any devastating effect.
Many manufacturers have been developing new electric car models for more than a decade and the UK’s three biggest-selling marques, Ford, Vauxhall and Volkswagen, all have electric or hybrid cars in their current fleets. Jaguar Land Rover – the UK’s biggest car producer, accounting for more than 30% of all domestic car production in 2016 – launches its electric sports car, the Jaguar I-PACE, in 2017.
And carmakers were preparing for a switch away from the combustion engine long before the government announcement. Ford, the UK’s best-selling manufacturer, has announced it will have a fleet of 13 electric cars, from commercial vehicles and family cars to sports models, with seven of the 13 scheduled to launch in the next five years. Even before the clean air strategy announcement, Volvo had pledged that all its new cars would be partially or completely battery-powered from 2019. It will also launch five new fully electric cars between 2019 and 2021.
But it isn’t just carmakers planning for a time without petrol and diesel vehicles. Realising the vision of wide-scale adoption of electric cars by 2040 will be impossible without sufficient charging points. The National Grid says using the more powerful chargers required to fuel top-of-the-range electric cars would leave homeowners unable to boil a kettle without tripping the main fuse.
That’s where entrepreneurs like Robert Byrne come in. He set up Liverpool and Manchester-based Franklin Energy in 2015 to offer domestic and commercial charging points, and rapid charging facilities for fleet operators and service stations.
In the past 12 months, the company has completed national deals with parking company, Q-Park, property developers Jones Lang LaSalle and Countryside Properties, and Salford City Council.
“The main barriers to mass adoption in the UK are the current cost of electric vehicles, due to high battery prices, and a lack of charging infrastructure, especially in northern cities,” says Byrne.
“This will change over the next three years though, as battery prices have reduced by as much as 80% in the last six years, and cities are looking to deploy new EV charging infrastructure over the next 18 months in rapidly increasing numbers.”
To help power its growth and add stable infrastructure across its network, Franklin partnered with Finland-based electrical engineering company Ensto in August 2016. Franklin will supply, install and operate Ensto hardware and software exclusively across its network in the UK.
Founded in 1958, Ensto employs 1,600 people across Europe, the USA and Asia. In 2016, it generated turnover of around 260m euros and, through national partners like Franklin, deploys electric car charging solutions in 27 countries.
The company’s UK director for EV, James O’Neill, is confident that technological improvements and growth in the number of charging points will soon allay fears that not being able to charge cars efficiently will prove barrier to wider take-up.
“You have to also remember that we go through this same experience when the fuel light comes on no matter the energy source,” he says. “The public and private sector is fast shifting this belief and as people become used to driving an EV and not a petrol vehicle this fear will be alleviated.”
In its 2017 Future Energy Scenarios report, the National Grid, which runs the UK’s transmission networks, posed another potential issue the country faces as it transitions to electric cars.
According to the report, the number of plug-in cars and vans could reach nine million by 2030, up from around 90,000 today. It means that the demand on the grid during peak time (between 5-6pm, when people return home) could be as much as 8GW higher in 2030.
This is a challenge that both carmakers and companies like Franklin and Ensto are already aware of, and innovation in both charging and battery technology is expected to meet head on.
“The technology that excites me the most is vehicle-to-grid,” says Byrne. “Electric vehicles can be used as mobile battery storage, enabling a vehicle’s battery to feed energy back into the grid at times of peak demand.
“The end user would be reimbursed by the operator or National Grid for providing this service, and this is set to defer costly electricity grid upgrades by as much as £2.2bn.”
In August, Norfolk-based Connected Energy installed its first two quick-charging stations on highways in Belgium and Germany, using part-worn batteries from Renault electric vehicles.
EV batteries must be replaced after eight-to-ten years but the E-STOR system gives them a second life, whereby they are recharged via cheap low-power connections before that freshly stored energy is released to vehicles at high-power.
“We are now talking to several parties about projects in the UK and Europe and look forward to wide-scale roll out in coming months,” says Connected Energy managing director Matthew Lumsden.
Renault’s Ben Fletcher says the partnership with Connected Energy is just one advancement in battery tech that will expand the customer base. The company’s EV product manager says new power plants for Europe’s biggest selling electric car, the compact ZOE model, and Kangoo Van Z.E. will open them up to a more mainstream audience.
The French marque registers about 2,000 electric vehicles a year in the UK but across the board EV sales remain dwarfed by combustion engines. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, of 1.5 million new cars registered in the UK in the first seven months of the year, fewer than 25,000 were pure electric models and about 41,500 were hybrids.
And Fletcher says the challenge is to demonstrate to people that EVs work for them. “The only way we can do that is for people to actually try the EVs for themselves,” he says. “Acceptance of EVs has really moved on in the last few years as more and more people have started having personal, first-hand experience.”
He’s convinced the EV appeal now extends across the board, and that the more people who actually ride in them, the more they’ll be won over by arguments around low-running costs, environmental benefits and smooth driving characteristics.