How Far Along is the UK in its Electric Vehicle Journey?

How Far Along is the UK in its Electric Vehicle Journey?

In March 2022, for the first time ever, the top two vehicles registered on UK roads were both electric, out selling conventional petrol and diesel cars. The overall number of electric cars registered were also the highest recorded in a single month, at 39,315 (78% up on last year).The outlook of the electric vehicle (EV) market is certainly positive, but there is still work to be done to ensure the country's transition to all-electric is successful as it can be.

The Second Electric Vehicle Revolution

The UK is quickly finding itself in the midst of a second EV revolution (the first having taken place in 1800s), with electric and hybrid cars becoming increasingly popular in the eyes of consumers and the industry as a whole. New regulations, increasing environmental concerns and technological advancements, pioneered by firms such as Tesla, have heralded a shift in perception, however there are still challenges that the EV market in the UK must overcome in order to win over customers.

Challenges to the widespread adoption of EVs in the UK

The challenges that the EV market faces in the UK include issues around the price and cost of running an electric car compared to diesel or petrol, the development and support for an EV infrastructure, as well as questions around the environmental impact from production and disposal of lithium ion batteries.

The price of EVs

There are numerous articles around this topic already. The crux of it is fairly simple, alternative electric and hybrid model cars are still more expensive to buy in comparison to like-for-like petrol or diesel models. 

An article produced by consumer watchdog Which, highlighted that some EV models can be as much as £5,000-£10,000 more expensive than their diesel or petrol counterparts. The government has sought to introduce a low-emission plug-in grant to encourage purchasing lower cost EVs but many have argued this doesn't go far enough to encourage widespread adoption.

The main reason why EV models remain so pricey is due to the cost of the lithium-ion batteries used to power them. These need to be housed safely and be made to last a number of years, which make them generally one of the most expensive parts of the car.

As technological advancements see the manufacturing of these batteries becoming more and more cost effective and the general increase of electric car (and battery) production creating greater economies of scale, we can hope that the price of PHEV and Hybrids will reach (or be closer to) a level of parity with petrol and diesel models over the next few years. 

Electric Car Cost

The cost of running an Electric Vehicle

There are also running costs with electric vehicles which need to be considered, including the cost of installing a charge point which can cost an additional £800 - £1,200 for the consumer.

Electricity bills would also increase as a result of charging a vehicle from home. Energy suppliers are actively encouraging customers who are looking to install home charge points to consider tariffs which offer lower off-peak energy prices in the evenings (when such vehicles would be left on charge) to flatten the cost. These tariffs are often referred to as EV tariffs.

In the long run, the costs of charging an electric car when compared to filling up at the pump does come to substantially less. There are also savings to be made in other areas such as the cost of vehicle maintenance. Battery powered cars generally have less moving parts than diesel or petrol cars, which make them less prone to breaking down and help limit the costs of annual servicing. Due to EVs producing zero emissions, owners generally pay no tax on these types of vehicles as well.

The UK public is still greatly unaware when it comes to the costs of owning and maintaining an EV compared to petrol or diesel, making it sometimes appear a less attractive investment. Vehicle manufacturers and the UK government need to work to continue to educate the public about the running costs associated with EV ownership and how these will likely compare to fossil fuel vehicles over their lifetime.

EV Running Costs

Creating the UK's EV infrastructure 

Earlier this year, the UK government outlined plans to increase the number of public EV charge points to 300,000 by 2030. To put this into perspective, at the time of writing there a little over 30,000 public charge points installed and ready to use. These ambitious plans have been criticised by industry experts with many labelling the target as unrealistic.

One drawback is that there just isn't the workforce at the moment to keep pace with charge point installation requirements. Those within the electrotechnical industry are beginning to see the benefits of up-skilling their workforces to EV charge point installation, through dedicated EV charging courses, but demand still outpaces supply.

There are also growing concerns that such charge points may not be proportionally distributed across the country, therefore creating potential EV charging blackspots in certain areas. Previous research has suggested that some local authorities lack the knowledge or the financial means to build an adequate local EV charging network.

To help resolve this issue, the government has looked at ways to help support local authorities including the release of the Local EV Infrastructure (LEVI) and the new Geospatial Commission project, launched by the government last month, which seeks to provide location data that local authorities can utilise to support the planning and delivery of electric vehicle charge points. Many areas across the country will still likely require hand holding when it comes to upgrading their local EV charging capabilities. 

The government's approach to building out this new infrastructure remains fairly piecemeal at this stage, however it's likely that support and guidance will be refined as the UK continues to accelerate it's charge point installation plans.

EV Infrastrucutre

Environmental Concerns with EV

While not solely a UK problem, countries looking to invest in EVs need to be aware of the current environmental impacts. Electric cars have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional diesel or petrol models, however concerns still remain around the manufacturing and recycling of the batteries they use.

Berylls Strategy Advisors released a paper in 2021 which highlighted how the manufacturing of an electric car battery weighing 500kg emitted 74% more carbon dioxide than producing a conventional car in Germany. As most electric vehicles are still made in countries which predominantly rely on fossil fuels, there is still an environmental trade-off to their manufacture. 

The batteries themselves are also made using rare earth elements (REE) like lithium, nickel, cobalt or graphite which are mined beneath the Earth's surface which also creates added pollutants. 

Effort is being made to reduce the initial carbon footprint that EVs produce. A recent project by the University of Queensland in Australia managed to increase the lifespan of a lithium-ion (li-ion) battery from several hundred charge/ discharge cycles, to more than 1,000, making them more efficient. The process used also meant that less precious metals would need to be used within the manufacturing process, thus helping to reduce the carbon footprint created.

Electric Car Battery

There is already a market for the reuse and recycling of EV batteries which many consumers are still unaware of. Once a li-ion battery reaches 70% capacity (after around 7-10 years) it becomes unsuitable for use in an electric car, however the raw materials and the battery cells themselves can be recycled and re-used in a variety of different applications, essentially creating a secondary market.

The issue for the UK is being able to keep up with the recycling of these spent batteries as the number of electric vehicles continue to rise and electric cars currently on the roads reach the end of there lives. Currently the global capacity for recovery of raw materials from batteries does not match the growth in the EV sector. Europe and the UK are beginning to expand their battery manufacturing and recycling capabilities. Veolia for instance, have already made plans to open an electric vehicle battery recycling facility in the UK, which will process roughly 20% of the UK’s end-of-life supply by 2024.

So what next?

The UK's electric vehicle market is growing year-on-year with plans to improve the country's charging infrastructure well underway. There will likely be more questions raised as the country accelerates towards its ambitious 2030 targets. With the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel engine vehicles also expected by 2030, at this point, there seems to be no turning off back now when it comes to embracing the EV revolution. 


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