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New UK plug-in vehicle document: nothing radical, but highly welcomed

30 June 2011
New UK plug-in vehicle document: nothing radical, but highly welcomed

By Robin Haycock, Head of Transport, The Climate Group. 

A UK Government strategy document published today on plug-in vehicle infrastructure highlights the development of an electric vehicle fleet consortium led by The Climate Group, as an example of how we can build momentum in the Electrification of Transport. And I agree of course! 

Seriously though, we welcome the publication by the UK Government and are pleased that it has taken a pragmatic approach, as it is still early days for electric vehicles - with little evidence that it is sensible to provide a framework rather than be prescriptive.

There is nothing particularly radical in the strategy, but it is helpful for businesses to see the Government state its position. All stakeholders can now clearly see the momentum within the Government on this important issue.

The Strategy focuses on both the climate change issues and the business opportunities that exist in this area, which fits with our Clean Revolution message. I believe that the right policies on climate change can catalyse economic development and help industries reduce both costs and CO2 concurrently.

But we should also consider resilience (to climate induced effects, natural disasters, other extreme events and actions such as strikes etc) in this debate as I believe this is going to become increasingly high profile - and also an area where our businesses and fleets look toward solutions.

It shows great foresight that OLEV (the Office for Low Emission Vehicles) has decided to work with all the key players in an open a way as possible throughout its existence. This is challenging for governments but gets great results, and momentum is carried seamlessly from policy, as outlined in this document, through to action from the players.

I like the idea that the Strategy suggests targeting EVs to the areas where they are best suited now. This is exactly what is needed to get a positive view of this new emerging market.  A vehicle that has been bought on a marketing budget to show how green a company is will remain at the back of the parking area unused - providing bad press and publicity, not to mention a waste of money.

Vehicles that work within the current duty cycle on a total cost of ownership model, or where a revised duty cycle provides a better time and cost outcome, are obvious wins for a company. Utilising electric vehicles where they work best is the way forward. It also allows for the targeting of infrastructure with lower infrastructure costs in the early years – an important consideration in the current economic climate.

Our analysis work at The Climate Group is already highlighting the benefits to fleets when they start to use EVs in specific areas of their operations and this Strategy reinforces this view. We see a focus clearly showing home, then workplace, then public charging. Getting costs down by installing a string of charging infrastructure in car parks, supermarkets or retail parks is a sensible approach.

I also welcome a whole list of small but important changes to workplace charging infrastructure, as a lot of what we see when talking to our members  is that any barrier in the way means that an overworked fleet manager will just put EVs to the bottom of the pile of their to do list - unless they are personally committed to making it happen and on a real crusade!  It definitely needs a drive from the leaders of businesses, but if the fleet manager isn’t on board,  I can almost guarantee it won’t happen.

There are a few areas that are only skimmed over in this Strategy, and do need more time and energy devoted to them to come up with the right solutions. I think planning needs to be considered in more depth; building regulations are a potential barrier to plug-in infrastructure but it is possible that this will be looked at in later revisions and as evidence develops.

Charging standards are another area of the policy that need to be ironed out, although this work should fall to organisations such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology, who are already doing great work in this arena.

Up-take for the plug-in car grant has not been as high as was anticipated and we suggest that OLEV looks into expanding the grant, focusing on business fleets where a total cost of ownership balance can be tipped effectively and marketed specifically to the areas it will benefit.  I hope OLEVs on-going review will highlight this great opportunity.

I believe that if we can get fleets to drive the up-take of electric vehicles, and install infrastructure to support their fleets, then getting this infrastructure to take over from the Government initiatives within the Plugged-In Places (PIPs) could be an economic way forward for the public purse, and also offer an additional and potentially profitable revenue stream for fleet managers.

We therefore strongly recommend that Ofgem is nudged towards allowing operators to sell electricity through charge points. This will make a big impact on the potential for new emerging business models around fleet operations and, as the Strategy acknowledges, it is a far better solution than using a Regulated Asset Base (RAB) – good decision OLEV.

Can we modify individual behaviour to ‘do the right thing’ or do we need to modify policy to provide what the end user wants whilst still balancing our grids?

The early history of OLEV and PIP has been mostly around publicly accessible slow chargers and charging over a long period of time. I recognise that this is potentially better for grid management, but only if we consider that intermittency has to be blended with demand. If we start to consider ‘decoupling’ supply and demand through energy storage or other smart grid options, then we can consider the business case for the ’10 minute’ slot of time.

It would make significant business sense to create fast and rapid chargers in towns, cities and on highways that are decoupled from the intermittency and are owned by fleets and businesses. They could then even resell electricity to end customers as an optional extra.

The Strategy talks about reinforcing the grid, but it is possible that this could be achieved through storage and a whole new line of thinking could be established, and crucially, we may not need to focus so much on off-peak charging or very expensive smart grid solutions linked to taxation and tariffs.

It is clear that the UK is doing a great deal in this area, but I would question whether the world outside the UK believes that we are active. If the UK wants to be a player, then it will need to engage significantly in the international activities going on for the electrification or transport, or its work will become irrelevant, and the ‘Betamax’ solution - when everyone else has chosen VHS.

We recommend that this pioneering work is used to engage internationally on initiatives and that active, rather than passive, participation becomes the norm.

So overall it’s a great Strategy and shows the continuous leadership in this space from the OLEV team.

There is clearly much work to be done, and there are some areas of weakness, but it is early days. To their credit they have scheduled an update likely at the start of 2013 when we will have a lot more evidence. It’s a tricky balance publishing on early data, but it is possible to make the market come alive with this kind of leadership, so I welcome this.

To have a Government willing to publish this work at this stage of the market deployment is refreshing and needed, so well done OLEV - don’t give up and roll over; let’s see the next leadership piece soon!

Read the full document here.

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