An electric future for transport: why it matters

Why does the electric vehicle revolution matter? And what might it mean for the environment and the UK economy? In the first of a series of blogs, National Grid Project Director for EVs Graeme Cooper maps out the answers.

‘What’s all the fuss about electric vehicles?’ This question, or a version of it, has been put to me many times. While it’s easy to get carried away with predictions about the number of EVs that might be on our roads in 10 or 20 years’ time, it’s important to take a step back and look at why there is so much focus on the electrification of transport in the first place. In other words, is the fuss justified? 

Three reasons why EVs matter 

Decarbonisation: The UK is the first country to set legally binding carbon budgets. These budgets restrict the total amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted over a five-year period. The aim is to support decarbonisation of our economy. 

Transport has a big role to play it this. The sector now accounts for the greatest share of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, so in terms of cutting carbon, the prize is a large one.  

We’ve seen action already. The UK Government has pledged to make most new cars and vans ‘zero emission’ by 2040, although this stops short of the original plan to ban petrol and diesel sales completely by this date. Norway, France, India and China have all made pledges to end the sale of new petrol and diesel models. 

The Government recently unveiled its Road to Zero strategy as a pathway to decarbonising transport. Meanwhile, vehicle manufacturers are accelerating their development of EVs. 

Public health: The issue of air quality is on everyone’s lips. It is widely accepted that there is a moral obligation both for today and future generations to make sure that the air we breathe is clean and safe. 

In 2017, the Royal College of Physicians put the number of premature deaths in the UK linked to air pollution at 40,000 a year. As well as low emission zones, many councils are looking at enforcement to tackle vehicles left idling. There is no question that a switch to EVs can bring major benefits in cutting air pollution. 

Economic growth: The switch to EVs could boost the UK economy if we maintain our leadership in this sector. Numerous EV models are already built in the UK, but there is also the wider supply chain and linked technologies to consider. For example, there is a thriving motorsport industry in the UK that provides ‘trickle-down’ technologies to other parts of the automotive sector. In addition, those manufacturers that don’t have EV models, are building hybrids and well on their way to developing full electric vehicles. 

Battery storage is also on the rise. The announcement earlier this year of the Faraday battery challenge will see Government invest £246m to support innovation in battery technologies.  There are also plans for a UK Battery Industrialisation Centre to help speed up time to market. 

Challenges ahead 

Of course, EVs themselves are only part of the story. We need the right infrastructure in place, particularly in terms of charging, for EVs to be adopted widely. 

As the owner of the electricity transmission network in England and Wales, we have an important role to play in making this happen. Our experience and expertise mean that we’re well equipped to tackle what will be a major technical challenge. 

Mass adoption of EVs will increase electricity demand on the grid. Millions of vehicles will need to be able to charge in both rural and urban areas and at appropriate speed. Ultra-rapid charging points (up to 350kW) for charging on the go, will need to connect into the high-voltage transmission network, so the National Electricity Transmission System (NETS) will have a fundamental role to play. We also need to consider issues like smart charging to manage increases in demand at peak times 

We’ll be talking in more detail about the ‘charging challenge’ in another blog soon.