Setting net zero targets is the easy bit. The difficult bit is all about the practical measures to get from here to there, says Sir Dieter Helm, Professor of Economic Policy at the University of Oxford. And when it comes to electric vehicle charging the lack of an overarching framework risks turning a competitive opportunity into the wild west
Setting net zero targets, especially when they are 30 years away, is the easy bit. The difficult bit is all about the practical measures to get from here to there. That is all the more challenging when it means tackling the long-neglected sources of emissions—notably transport, heating and agriculture. By setting an intermediary target to stop selling diesel and petrol cars, the government has willed the end; now it has to will the means, and especially when the target is less than ten years away.
Putting aside both the environmental problems that electric cars bring and alternatives like hydrogen, the urgent immediate step is to have a nationwide efficient car-charging system. We probably need much of this to be in place within the next five years.
You might think that with such an imperative over such a short timescale, there would be a national car charging infrastructure plan; that it would be designed around the electricity grid and the regional distribution networks; and that there would be a core utility, backed by a regulatory asset base, with a capital expenditure programme to deliver the necessary infrastructure by a specified date.
Not a bit of it. It’s being driven bottom up, by competing companies trying to grab the best bits of the market without an overarching framework. It is a wild west, driven by the conflicting commercial interests and, in the case of the oil companies, the protection and enhancements of their existing fossil-fuel charging stations. Electricity supply companies are in on the act, and, again, this reflects the same sort of commercial incentives that brought us the shambles of the smart meter rollout. Meanwhile the car companies have no interest in standardising the batteries, and are unwilling to contemplate the obvious answer—to switch batteries when charging is necessary.
Given the sheer scale of the challenges and the urgency, it would be quite hard to make this up. My hunch is that when we get to 2030, the target will be pushed back. Nor is this unique to electric vehicle charging. The same sort of shambolic bottom-up approach is being pushed in home heating, somehow imagining that banning gas boilers is going to magic up an alternative heating system. When it comes to agriculture, government is not really trying at all.
It could all be so much better. There could have a much better chance of meeting the deadlines, and because it could be much more efficient, it could be a lot cheaper. The way to start is with the end game: a universal service obligation that provides all the citizens with access to electric charging. With the end in mind, the next step is to sketch out what a national charging system, as a core utility, might look like. It does not have to fill in all the details. These will need to be flexible. But it does need to sort out the main bits: the charging backbone and how this sits with the electric networks. This needs a system operator, and it needs a utility structure and a regulatory framework to ensure that investment costs are recovered. It does not need a single company to actually do the works; that can be competitive. But it does need a plan to work to.
The most likely outcome is that the government will keep on trying to make competition deliver a natural monopoly, until it is obvious that it is failing. Even then it may not give up. But, in the end, we will have a national charging infrastructure—just too late, and too costly.
Professor Sir Dieter Helm will expand on these ideas in his contribution to this year’s Highways UK, taking place at the NEC on 3/4 November. Free to attend, book your place now
And for further insight check out Dieter’s latest book