Fuel for thought

The transition to electric vehicles offers important benefits but needs local infrastructure solutions.

The Government has announced it intends to bring forward its deadline for the end of the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2035 and possibly even sooner.

This reflects the fact that new vehicles tend to stay on the road for 10 to 15 years and if we want to have reached net zero carbon by 2050 we need to have been selling non-tailpipe emission vehicles for some time beforehand.

Setting this target shows that the Government is serious in its commitment to our national net zero goals. It is a transition we need to make if we are serious about doing our bit to constrain global temperature rises. However, simply setting a target does not make things happen.

The Government is consulting about what this target will mean in practice, how it will be enforced and what steps we need to take to make it a reality. At the LGA, we have been thinking for some time about the future of transport.

Personal motoring will almost certainly continue to be a necessity for many of our communities, no matter how much we improve active and public transport. Electrification offers important benefits: zero emissions from the exhaust pipe will help improve our air quality; it is more efficient and easier to maintain, which will help boost growth; and it could dramatically reduce carbon emissions from transport. This last point depends on the extent to which we can decarbonise electricity generation and car manufacturing, and develop other technologies such as hydrogen. 

“Councils are best placed to reflect on what will work in their area, especially as we are responsible for the local road network”

This switch will also require a change in our fuelling infrastructure. Currently, councils effectively have no role in the provision of petrol and diesel to motor vehicles – that is left to the private sector. However, electrification and hydrogen filling stations could deliver important external benefits that will improve our communities.

Do we then have a duty to help catalyse the transition and break the chicken-and-egg cycle of consumers being reluctant to invest because they aren’t sure where they will charge, and providers being reluctant to install chargers without the critical mass of motorists to use them? If we do have a duty to help get the industry started, when do we withdraw and to what extent should we share in the profits if we succeed or the risks should it fail?

Could we also ask whether we are conceptualising this in the wrong way? While internal combustion engines require fuelling at a designated location, is the future of electric charging small-and-often top-up charges at home or at the office in a similar way to how we charge our phones? Does that vision of the future really require much public infrastructure at all?

No-one has yet definitively answered these questions. It is obvious the solutions required will be different in different places. In my council area, we’ve installed electric charging points at our civic office and reviewed our parking policies to ensure we’re leading by example. We also have two hydrogen filling stations, but both are provided by private companies.

Councils are, therefore, best placed to reflect on what will work in their area, especially as we are responsible for the local road network.

Finding the right answers will require councils to have thought through the implications for their transport networks and the ambitions they have for them in the future. That is why the LGA is hosting ‘In Charge? Councils’ role in electric vehicle charging infrastructure’ on 24 March. It will be a free, day-long event where we explore councils’ role in this transition, as well as practical steps that they can take now.

For more information about our event ‘In Charge? Councils’ role in electric vehicle charging’, on 24 March.

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