An electric vehicle. Picture: REUTERS
An electric vehicle. Picture: REUTERS

Here’s a cautionary note for those who believe electric vehicles (EVs) are the unstoppable future of motoring. The UK, which plans to ban sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles from 2030, isn’t sure its national power grid has the capacity to charge their electric replacements.

A report by the Westminster parliament’s transport committee warns of power blackouts unless motorists can be persuaded to charge EVs at offpeak times. It adds that if the government doesn’t invest more in rural electricity infrastructure, it risks creating “not-spots” where batteries will die and residents will be unable to join the “electric revolution”.

The report, published on July 28, is a timeous warning to a government that has tied its colours wholeheartedly to that revolution’s mast. Legislation is being prepared that, from 2030, will allow UK consumers to buy only new EVs or hybrid vehicles, which use dual petrol and electric motors.  From 2035, even hybrids will be outlawed.

The UK, anxious to be seen as a leader in the fight against climate change, has insisted all along that its electricity grid can cope comfortably with millions of cars being recharged every day. The transport committee pokes holes in that assumption. The UK may not be cursed with Eskom, but the report stresses that limitless power cannot be taken for granted.

It says: “Unless charging habits change, or the national grid is strengthened, concerns exist that the charging needs from millions of new electric vehicles will cause blackouts to parts of the country.”

UK grid demands are considerably greater than in SA. At the end of March, there were just over 30-million licensed cars and commercial vehicles on UK roads. In SA, the number (including unlicensed) is estimated at 12-million. Eventually, all those in the UK will have to be zero-emission. The department of transport reports that, in the first quarter of this year, 59,000 new ultra-low-emission vehicles (including EVs) were registered in the UK – 10% of all new registrations. In SA, in the whole of 2020, 92 EVs were sold.

The problem for the UK is that most EV owners recharge their vehicles when they get home, usually between 5pm and 7pm. This is already a peak time for electricity consumption, and the transport committee report says that unless future users can be incentivised to charge offpeak – preferably overnight – the arrival of millions more EVs could break the grid in parts of the country.

Committee chair Huw Merriman says: “Unless the national grid gains more capacity, consumer behaviour will have to alter so that charging takes place when supply can meet the additional demand. The alternative will be blackouts.”

He says the government must avoid repeating past problems with broadband and cellphone infrastructure which has left millions of rural people unable to access signals (UK “rural” bears little relation to the truly remote SA kind). As things stand, many parts of the UK lack EV charging facilities. The committee says national grid “weak spots” must be identified and upgraded urgently.

The UK experience may hold lessons for SA. Here, we are at the very start of EV development. The government recently published a green paper seeking proposals on how to encourage the local sale and manufacture of EVs. The UK offers generous tax and cash incentives to persuade consumers to switch – something SA is now considering. Given Eskom’s failure to guarantee even routine electricity supply, it may be a hard sell.

The UK is not the only major country facing practical obstacles to its EV ambitions. Many others face similar challenges. For SA, where most government policy appears to be thrown together on deadline and borrowed from the playbook of lastminute.com, the UK experience shows that planning for an EV future must start last week, not next year.

It’s a lesson the UK itself may only now be heeding. Merriman says: “One report after another flags concerns to government about the provision of EV charging infrastructure. Let ours be the last. It’s time that ministers set out the route map to delivering a network of services for everyone across the UK.”

SA, take note.

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