UK charge point roll-out in danger of stalling

16 March 2023 6 min. read

As the world looks to downsize its carbon emissions over the coming decades, the electrification of personal transport is a key target. But Curzon Consulting expert Milo Eadie warns that the UK is stuck in first-gear, when it comes to rolling out infrastructure needed to see electric vehicles become the norm across the country.

In 2021 a much-publicised collaboration between PA Consulting and the Royal College of Art produced the electric vehicle charging point prototype. Upon unveiling the design at the COP26 climate conference government sources argued the design would one day be as commonplace as the nation’s iconic red phone boxes, or black cabs.

Like many of the promises made at that conference, however, little progress seems to have been made since. In fact, at the turn of the year, the government admitted the design is likely to remain just that, and may never be made. This is symptomatic of a wider problem facing the British drive to net zero, though.

Milo Eadie, Consultant, Curzon Consulting

Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly heralded by nations across the globe as a vital part ofthe net-zero transition to reduce emissions, and the key technology for decarbonising transportation, which accounts for 13% of emissions globally. According to Milo Eadie, however, even as EV sales have been booming in recent years, the installation of charging networks that underpin EV usage are trailing dangerously behind – to the extent that in the UK, it poses a fundamental threat not just to the continued growth of the EV market, which “by the end of 2023 is projected to be worth £16 billion,” but to plans for the UK to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Curzon Consulting expert explained, “The annual London EV show and conference, held at the end of November 2022, is a platform where stakeholders from all three market influences gather to showcase the innovations and ideas that are spearheading the UK EV transition… Attending the show provided me with a ‘peak-under-the-bonnet’ of the UK EV market and shed light on some of the key trends emerging in 2023 and beyond. Conference talks included those from industry leaders and leading research centres, amongst the latest vehicle innovations being showcased. These talks had one key common theme – that while a marketplace as dynamic as EVs offers great opportunity, commercially and in tackling climate change, capitalising effectively on these opportunities over the next few years will be fraught with challenge for the UK.”

Lacklustre infrastructure

Eadie joined Curzon as a Consultant in 2021, and specialises in helping clients with financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, manufacturing and engineering projects. Over the course of the London EV show, he noticed just how much the UK EV market has expanded inrecent years in line with global growth – notching up a 92% increase in EV registrations between January 2021 and January 2022. However, in a piece posted on Curzon’s website, he warned that the UK’s charging infrastructure is “still in its infancy relative to the vehicles it powers,” adding that it “comparatively lags behind.”

“There is a growing disparity between the growth rates of EV sales in the UK and chargepoint installations,” Eadie continued. “This divergence threatens to impede the UK from meeting climate-goals set by the government and derail the feasibility of the UK’s ban on internal combustion engines (ICEs) that looms in 2030. When you compare the absolute number of public charge point installations the UK needs to support the proposed transition, with current figures, it is clear there is still a long way to go. If the government's 2022 charging infrastructure strategy successfully meets its ambition, by 2030 there should be over 300,000 public chargers installed nationwide. In comparison, as of January, there were cumulatively just 38,000 public charge points available across the UK.”

This disparity will likely widen in the coming years. Since January 2020, he noted that the cumulative number of EVs in the UK increased by 3.8X, whereas the number of charge points increased by just 2.6X. As a result, while in in 2016, the UK had a relatively healthy ratio ofapproximately eight EVs per charge point, the country now has the ninth-worst global ratio of 21 EVs per public point. If the UK is to overcome this, it will need to look to the best practices of countries like South Korea – the global leader on EV-charger-ratios, at just 2.6.

Powering EV adoption

“The vehicle-to-charger gap poses a fundamental problem to the mass adoption of EVs inthe UK, for two main reasons,” Eadie cautioned. “Firstly, on average, 30% of UK households lack off-street parking for residential charging. This figure rises to around 40% across major UK cities, and as high as 50% in London. These households will therefore have to rely on the public charging network – either off-street slow, charging, or nearby fast/rapid charging hubs – to charge their vehicles at home.”

The UK having too few chargers is already posing a major barrier for drivers switching over from ICEs. For example, when Which? surveyed 1,500 electric car owners, nearly half reported that their nearest public chargers were over a 20-minute walk away. True mass adoption is unlikely to occur unless a larger roll-out of charge points makes a car with a battery as convenient as filling up fuel currently is. And that’s before reckoning with the current infrastructure which simply does not work.

Eadie went on, “Speak to any EV owner in the UK and they will tell you of the growing issues around public charging: long queues, a myriad of payment systems and apps to contend with for different charge-point-operators, and chargers which simply don’t work (experienced by 4 in 10 customers of public EV chargers). This is not conducive to convincing the masses to switch from ICE vehicles to the more sustainable option of electric.”

So far, the UK government is failing to deliver the roughly-100 installations per day, needed until 2030. In January 2023, just 28 charging devices were installed per day. As demand and supply continue to fall out of balance, however, the situation does present opportunities for private investment in the expansion of the charging networks – investment which could help supercharge Britain’s shift to EV use.

“The current EV charge point operator market is highly fragmented and lacks a ‘gold-standard’ of consumer vehicle charging. There is a clear market need that so far appears unfulfilled in both availability and quality. While there is a multitude of other challenges that must be addressed, such as ensuring a sufficient supply of electricity to meet charging demands, each of these challenges offers their own commercial opportunities.”

Eadie concluded, “For those considering entering or expanding within the space, now is the time to answer the key strategic questions – what is the 'Size of the Prize' available? Which of the current barriers-to-adoption offer the greatest opportunities if addressed effectively, and how can that value be harnessed?”