Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

London — Britain is beginning to look at its growing fleet of electric cars as both a way to create jobs and balance the power grid, moving transport to the centre of the fight against greenhouse gas emissions.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday called for phasing out of cars fuelled entirely by petrol and diesel by 2030, years ahead of the previous schedule. With National Grid expecting as many as 30-million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2040, the energy and transport industry are stepping up their preparations for the shift.

“The increasing EV demand is a positive signal for the whole EV value chain from charge point operators to energy suppliers, as well as lending support to the UK’s decarbonisation ambitions,” said Jacob Briggs, senior consulting analyst at Cornwall Insight.

While EVs first gained credibility as a way to remove pollution from city centres, policymakers are starting to embrace other consequences of putting so many of them on the road. In addition to creating employment for those who build and service charging networks, the cars could help moderate swings in power supply and demand if their owners plug into the grid when not driving.

Those effects on the UK economy are emboldening policymakers to move faster on encouraging electric cars. Johnson’s plan involves £12bn of support for green industries including EVs. It would put the UK ahead of France and Spain, which have 2040 target dates for phasing out traditional engines, and in line with Ireland and the Netherlands. The only country with a more ambitious target for such a ban is Norway, with a date of 2025.

“The UK wants to mirror the EU’s Green Deal,” said Emma Champion, an analyst at BloombergNEF. “We know the UK will present more net-zero plans in the coming months on heat, hydrogen, transport, and offshore wind — all very much echoing the Commission’s recent efforts.”

Getting the network ready for millions of electric vehicles by 2030 “is achievable” said Alistair Phillips-Davies, CEO of SSE. “There is huge capability across the network to go and deliver assets of the nature, it’ll create more jobs.”

It’s unclear whether the jobs created by charging and other infrastructure investment will offset those lost at vehicle and parts plants as traditional engines are phased out. Ford is closing an engine plant in Bridgend, South Wales, that employs about 1,700 people, while Honda is shutting its Civic factory that has 3,500 workers in Swindon, west of London, in 2021. Other automakers including Nissan Motor Co. and Vauxhall owner PSA Group have warned Brexit threatens the future of their operations in the country.

Sales of electric cars are already rising quickly. More than 75,000 battery-electric vehicles had been registered so far this year, exceeding the total for 2018 and 2019 combined, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. The environmental group WWF has said the electric car industry could create 24,000 jobs by 2040.

A further boost for employment will come from government support for battery “gigafactories” that make the power packs that drive EVs. Johnson’s administration committed £1bn pounds for supply chains that help EVs spread, saying a single gigafactory could employ 2,000 highly skilled people.

Grid operators and regulators are focusing on the technical changes needed to deliver more EVs. They’re concerned that without adequate planning and investment, plugging in millions of electric cars could cause problems for network operators.

The government will invest £1.3bn in speeding up the rollout of charging points for electric vehicles in residential streets, homes and highways in England, with £582m in grants to encourage consumers to buy zero or ultra-low emission vehicles.

One issue is how to keep the system balanced as the rising use of renewables makes the flows into the grid more variable. Regulator Ofgem is set to approve as much as £35bn worth of projects planned for the five years to 2026. The network companies say this isn’t enough and they’ll need more to achieve what’s being asked of them by government.

“Rather than placing a strain on the grid, EVs can play a key role in decarbonising both transport and electricity supply, with smart charging and vehicle-to-grid technology helping us use renewable energy more efficiently, charging when the sun shines or the wind blows and discharging back to the grid at times of peak demand,” said Fintan Slye, director of National Grid’s Electricity System Operator.

The SSE CEO said building a nationwide network of charging stations for EVs would soothe anxieties among drivers that their batteries risk going flat in the middle of a journey. That would require paying engineers to install and maintain more charging points, creating jobs in the process.

“If every petrol station in the country had a few rapid chargers in them it would be a lot easier but we’ll just need to do work on how we strengthen the grids and operate in a smarter way so that we keep costs to a minimum,” Phillips-Davies said. “I think it can be done. We just need to start now.”



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