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How a polluted Scottish city is driving UK switch to electric vehicles

On the eastern side of Dundee’s V&A museum on a promenade that flanks the River Tay, two women with young children in buggies roll over a row of electric vehicle chargers, barely noticing their existence and stopping only to navigate other pedestrians.

Unlike other bulkier on-street chargers, which can draw complaints for clogging up pavements, these “pop up” devices only appear when activated using an app.

“A lot of people walk past [and] they don’t realise they are there,” said Fraser Crichton, corporate fleet manager at Dundee city council, which is involved in a £3.8m project to test 26 pop-up chargers throughout Scotland’s fourth-largest city. A further 28 will be installed in Plymouth on England’s south-west coast by the end of next month.

Whether the UK will have sufficient charging facilities to meet the government’s 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel cars and vans has recently become a subject of deep concern among MPs and policymakers.

Rachel Maclean, UK transport minister, on Thursday confirmed the government would legislate this year to ensure that all new homes are built with a charging point but EV experts say the bigger hurdle will be providing sufficient facilities for the estimated 8m-plus households that do not have access to a driveway in which to install their own device.

More than 10 times the current number of public devices, estimated at more than 25,000, would be needed by the end of the decade, warned the Competition and Markets Authority in July.

MPs also said in a damning report in May that they were “not convinced” ministers had “sufficiently thought through” how to expand charging infrastructure “at the pace required”.

Dundee city council has been investigating how to tackle vehicle emissions for 10 years. In 2019, Scotland agreed a 2045 net zero emissions target, five years ahead of the wider UK deadline. 

The city of 150,000, whose topography Crichton describes as “like a bowl”, so smog “sits and can’t escape”, is home to several of Scotland’s streets with the worst levels of nitrogen dioxide, a harmful pollutant linked to cars.

Fraser Crichton and Gary McRae in Dundee © Robert Ormerod/FT

However, with projects such as the pop-up EV chargers, Dundee has become something of a laboratory to learn how cities can meet the 2030 ban.

The council said it has installed sufficient public facilities to charge 4,334 vehicles, enough for 7 per cent of all of the cars and vans on its streets to be electric. The same percentage for the rest of the UK falls to just 1.9 per cent, according to the council’s estimates, based on government data.

But Crichton said it is tricky for local authorities to understand how much costly infrastructure will be needed and in which locations, particularly as the technology is changing so rapidly. “You could quite easily have far too much,” he said. 

Investment in fast and rapid charge units is on the rise, number of public charging points by speed (’000)

Local authority budgets have also been stretched during the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK government meets 75 per cent of the costs of installing on-street chargers. In Scotland, the Holyrood administration meets the remainder but south of the border, local authorities have to find it out of their own budgets.

EV charging provision is not a statutory duty for local authorities and councils’ enthusiasm and skills for the task can vary wildly, according to Gary McRae, head of electric mobility at Urban Foresight, a consultancy involved in the pop-up chargers project. 

“Because electric vehicles are new and charging infrastructure is new, they find a different home in every local authority. [In] some local authorities, it’s the fleet section. Some places it’s the highways team, in some places it’s the sustainability team,” said McRae.

Private companies have engaged in an early battle for market share. Last week, Royal Dutch Shell offered to install 50,000 on-street chargers in the UK by 2025, a third of the total that the government’s official climate advisers have estimated will be needed by that date.

The oil major has offered to assist local authorities in England with their share of installation costs to accelerate the rollout.

The move was seen by analysts as part of a “land grab” by energy and utilities for prime charging locations, which tend to be in large cities and wealthier urban locations, leaving charging “deserts” in other areas, such as north-west England.

BP has also said it wants to double the size of its public charging network by the end of 2030, from about 8,700 today to more than 16,000. 

Even though it is “really hard to make money at the moment” from charging networks, said McRae, companies are “positioning themselves” to control prime locations.

“In 10 years’ time when the numbers [of EVs] go up that’s worth a lot of money and they are in control [of the assets]”.

Even so, private networks should not be given free rein, said Greg Archer, UK director of Transport and Environment, a campaign group.

“The local authority needs to be involved in the planning of the local network that they are creating, and developing partnerships with the companies,” he said, highlighting the complexities of expanding charging, which also involves negotiating with electricity grid owners.

“We have a very uneven distribution of charge points around the UK because we have some local authorities that have devoted staff resources to developing charging facilities in their areas and we have some that have done absolutely nothing,” Archer said.

Chargers at Princes Street in Dundee © Robert Ormerod/FT

David Bunch, UK chair of Royal Dutch Shell, said there would be an “awful lot to be gained” in helping communities meet the challenges, so “not every local council is going to have to go through that same learning curve every time”.

Transport and Environment believes charging provision should be included in council’s statutory duties, and funding for specialist “charging officers” should be part of future settlements between central government and local authorities.

Councils should “bundle” packages of charging locations to ensure that private networks do not pick off prime areas and leave rural and underprivileged communities unserved, according to the group. 

The CMA found in its July report that of 5,700 on-street charge points currently in place in the UK only 1,000 were outside of London.

Drivers’ costs and the way in which charging is paid for, often requiring different apps or cards, varies wildly between networks. Experts fear this could become a barrier to further take-up of electric vehicles.

The CMA warned that “local monopolies” of charging networks could also develop “if left unchecked”.

But Archer believes fears about the number of public chargers needed are overblown. Transport and Environment research suggests half of drivers use their car so little they typically would only need to fully charge their vehicle twice a month.

“This is not as difficult as it seems,” Archer said. “People often imagine that what we need is rows of chargers along every street in which cars are parked. The reality is EVs don’t need charging that often. We don’t need a charge point outside everybody’s home.”

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