Electric Vehicles: What are the infrastructure challenges holding back growth?

This article follows on from the first in the series that explores how the industry can meet the increased demand for electricity caused by electric vehicles (EVs). Here we explore the critical infrastructure required to support mass adoption and what needs to be done to get it in place.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a critical part of the future of road transport and the UK meeting its carbon net zero targets. However, EVs only represent around 1% of cars worldwide. The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) states that there are three main barriers to EVs becoming mainstream: Cost, Range and Infrastructure. The House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee estimates that electric cars and vans will reach price equivalency with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by the mid-2020s1. Therefore, for adoption of EVs to become mainstream, we need to solve problems of range and infrastructure. In this article we explore the topic of infrastructure and improvements to charging infrastructure that can help accelerate EV adoption.

What is holding us back? 

The House of Commons BEIS Committee report (2018) on Electric Vehicles stated:

Poor provision of charging infrastructure is one of the greatest barriers to growth of the UK EV market. The existing charging network is lacking in size and geographic coverage, with substantial disparities in the provision of public charge points across the country”

"Before we are able to take action to improve the situation, we first need to understand the cause of this “greatest [of] barriers”.

Installation of charging infrastructure is a classic chicken and egg conundrum; why install more charging points when there are so few cars to use them? Why buy an electric vehicle when there are so few charging points available? With only 1% of cars being electric; governments and private companies have been reluctant to invest in more charging points, even leading some to suggest now is not the time to buy electric2.

Progress needs to be made now; the Society for Motor Manufactures and Traders estimate that the UK needs 507 chargers installed per day between now and 2035 in order to achieve government targets by 2035. 

What can be done to improve infrastructure? 

Currently EV charging points are typically limited to petrol stations, motorway service stations and occasionally multi-storey car parks. To accommodate and facilitate the growth of EVs, charging points need to be extended beyond this. We must reach a point where there is adequate supply of charging points such that, motorists do not fear running out of charge and being stranded at any point. To achieve this, we must look at a diverse range of locations and options for charging points including; town centres, gyms, recreational parks, country manors, retail parks and countless other locations. In order to achieve this range of growth there needs to be a joined-up approach across these locations and the companies that manage them. Central and local government would need to provide incentives to owners in order to drive this forward. 
Home installations also present a unique challenge. If you have off-street parking then owning an electric vehicle is fairly straight forward, with the car plugging in to the wall or via a specially adapted power outlet. However, around 34% of households do not have access to off-street parking and this proportion is much higher in urban areas3. Therefore, to encourage the purchase of EVs we need to overcome barriers to on-street charging. Current solutions that have been trialled include allowing streetlamps to be converted into charging points4 or permitting homeowners themselves to install charging stations kerbside.

In order to achieve this, collaboration between local government and electric vehicle owners is required. To date, and rather understandably, any attempts to install DIY charging infrastructure on the street have been met with resistance and even threat of prosecution from local authorities5.

Charging speed too remains a challenge. Speed of charging is inconsistent across current charging technologies and simply increasing the number of charge points available would not resolve this issue. There is a real risk that an EV owner embarking on a journey of any significant distance would have to factor in multiple stops and add hours onto their travel time due to the capability of available charging technology. Currently charging times can vary from as high as 21-hours to as low as 30 minutes, therefore, deploying rapid charging points are fundamental to unlocking the true benefits of EVs.

Whose job is it to improve infrastructure? 

To answer this question, let’s look at each stakeholder group in detail:

Consumers – Most EV owners who are able to, will install home chargers (which are subsidised considerably by the government), but others will be reliant on support from their local authority to ensure charging is available where off street parking isn’t. EV owners and local authorities should work in collaboration with one another through action groups and other local forums, to understand localised needs and where charging infrastructure is best served. This then drives requests for funding and a clear pipeline for installations in the most suitable locations.  

Car manufacturers – As car manufacturers attempt to increase the sale of EVs then it is reasonable to argue they have a responsibility to consumers to ensure adequate charging locations are available. This is largely how Tesla operates, having installed thousands of charging points and hundreds of supercharger stations across the country. The challenge with this approach is that it is de-centralised and exclusionary - only benefiting those wishing to buy a Tesla. Other manufacturers have taken a variety of approaches with some not installing any of their own chargers and others teaming up with private companies to provide charge points6. If we are to overcome the immediate infrastructure challenges greater cross-industry collaboration is imperative.

Private enterprise – In recent years a number of businesses and energy providers have emerged to focus on EV charging, including Eco-tricity, BP Chargemaster, OVO Energy and Urban Electric. These businesses make money from selling the electricity they provide to EV owners. There have also been surprise entries into the market with Virgin Media owner Liberty Global moving into EV charging, leveraging Virgin Media’s underground duct network to its advantage.

These businesses appear to provide the ideal solution, however there is a drawback. Due to the inevitable focus on profits, these companies will often prioritise areas that are likely to see high volumes of traffic such as service stations and major town centres. This will leave large gaps in the availability of charging points in less frequented, but important locations such as Northern and coastal towns which according to the International Council on Clean Transport7 are already falling behind London and Scotland in availability of Charging infrastructure.

Government – Local and national government have attempted to support the mass installation and roll out of charging points, through various schemes and funds (starting with the ‘Plugged in Places’ infrastructure grant scheme in 2013). However the benefits accrued, in line with the EV market growth, is less than hoped for overall.  This has generally by a combination of poor uptake (in 2018 the EV charge fund had only been used by five8 local councils over two years), or through the government reducing some funding streams e.g. the cutting9 of the EV car fund and reducing the ‘Home Charging Fund’ for installation of charging points at residential properties.

The government continues to take proactive steps for EV infrastructure however. In the March 2020 budget, they introduced the Rapid Charging Fund10, aimed at ensuring access to rapid charging stations across the country. This includes having at least 6 rapid charging points at every motorway service station by 2023 and 6000 rapid charging points on major roads by 2035. They stated an aim to ensure no driver is more than 30 miles from a charge point. However, to achieve this there is a considerable way to go. 

To truly succeed in providing the critical infrastructure that is needed to support the adoption of EVs, we must take a hybrid approach, combining the legislative power of government with the financial power and incentives of private companies. This could be accelerated through de-regulating laws around placement of EV charging points, and implementing legislation that mandating charging infrastructure in certain contexts. The government could mandate all new properties be built with access to EV charging points as standard, as well as significant reonvations requiring planning permission. Government taking the lead by example regarding it’s own vehicle fleets would also help. Access through appropriate supplier frameworks is needed to support this (e.g. they have recently added EDF11 energy to the list of suppliers that can provide charging infrastructure to the public sector). 

The power of the government to mandate change can also be used to remove one of the major hurdles - the difference and incompatibility in charging cables between car brands. Currently there can be any combination of 7 different charging connector types across 3 different charging speeds (slow, fast & rapid). Through legislation, the government could change this to ensure all charging stations can be used by all EVs. The ability to make these changes has been demonstrated by the EU recently in mandating the use of USB C in consumer devices, removing all variations of charging cables across manufacturers. If similar legislation was brought in it would open up thousands of existing charging points to consumers. 

Once installing charging points is made easier, the natural process of supply and demand will fill in much of the outstanding gaps, with the government responsible for ensuring access to charging points is available in all remaining areas of the country. 

What next for EV infrastructure? 

New technology is likely to be key in overcoming the challenges to EV adoption and charging infrastructure access. Current trials in motion around the world include:

  • The town of Lund in Sweden are to begin trialling in-road charging12 that allows drivers of modified EVs to charge as they drive. This has the potential to make batteries smaller and cheaper - reducing the cost of the vehicle itself. 
  • Nottingham City Council13 have installed induction charging at a taxi rank allowing modified electric and hybrid taxis to charge while they wait for passengers, meaning that taxi drivers wouldn’t have to ever go out of their way or stop in shift to charge. 
  • Renault14 are trialling dynamic charging in France, where electric vehicles can charge as they drive, thereby potentially reducing the need to ever charge your vehicle. 
  • Chinese EV manufacturer Nio recently completed their 500,000th15 battery swap. Swapping an EV battery with a fully charged battery in as little as 3 minutes. Allowing the ‘refuelling’ of an EV to take a comparable amount of time to refuelling a conventional car. Nio have also launched a ‘Battery as a service’ proposition allowing you to rent batteries suited to your needs. 

The development and speed of roll-out of technological advances will be key to overall EV uptake.  Some manufacturers are placing demands on this emerging technology before they are prepared to produce EVs e.g. Rolls-Royce placing a depency on wireless charging before progressing. 

With autonomous vehicles (AVs) also on the horizon, there will be new challenges that the UK’s infrastructure must adapt to. It is therefore imperative to ensure improvements in infrastructure are ‘futureproof’ to enable the growth and uptake of EVs and AVs long term. 


Up next up in this series, Lewis Hall looks at how to improve adoption and normalisation of electric vehicles by tackling current perceptions among consumers.

1. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmbeis/383/383.pdf
2. https://www.ft.com/content/a60919e6-3caf-11ea-b232-000f4477fbca
3. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6748/2173483.pdf
4. https://www.wandsworth.gov.uk/news/february-2019/work-begins-installing-another-250-electric-vehicle-chargers-in-lamp-posts/
5. https://www.merton.gov.uk/streets-parking-transport/electric-vehicle-charging-points
6. http://nissaninsider.co.uk/nissan-joins-the-electric-highway/ 
7. https://theicct.org/publications/charging-gap-UK-2020 
8. https://www.autocar.co.uk/car-news/industry/councils-have-failed-use-uk-government-ev-charge-grant-say-ministers 
9. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jul/04/subsidy-cuts-blamed-for-fall-in-uk-sales-of-electrified-vehicles
11. https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/car-industry-news/2020/09/04/edf-added-to-crown-commercial-services-ev-charging-framework 
13. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/electric-taxis-to-go-wireless-thanks-to-new-charging-tech-trial
14. https://group.renault.com/en/news-on-air/news/electric-vehicles-towards-dynamic-wireless-charging/ https://electrek.co/2020/06/02/nio-battery-swap-electric-cars-completes-500000-swaps/
15. https://electrek.co/2020/06/02/nio-battery-swap-electric-cars-completes-500000-swaps/

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Nick Robinson Consultant