Is Scotland ready for electric vehicles?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 16 May 2018 in Inside Politics

The Scottish Government plans to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, but is Scotland ready to go electric?

Photos from the jouney to Siberia - image credit: Chris and Julie Ramsey

It was around the time Chris and Julie Ramsey hit Kazakhstan that they began to find it harder to charge their car.

As participants in the Mongol Rally, the pair had made it from London to France, across Belgium, into Germany and then down into Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey in their electric car, a Nissan Leaf, without too much difficulty. In fact, they found that part of the journey pretty easy, thanks to an extensive network of chargers running from the north to the south of Europe.

But after that charging started to get trickier. Neither of them had ever driven further than France before, but, with Mongolia and Siberia marked as their end point, in a journey covering over 10,000 miles, they still had a long way to go.

Chris Ramsey, who runs Plug In Adventures, told Holyrood that by the time they got to Siberia, they had to rely more on the help of strangers. “We were driving through our second to last charging point when the Russian state electricity company got in contact and offered us a charging location. We drove down this tiny dirt track in the middle of the Siberian forest, up to this little wooden hut. So we thought, ‘OK, we’ll plug in there and sleep in the car’. But no, there were two guys there, who started taking the padlocks off the electricity pylon, and then wired our charging cable directly into the pylon.”

For 250km of the journey through Kazakhstan they were driving on dirt roads, which were in the process of being replaced. Some entrants turned back, but having raised their suspension, and with their electric car containing fewer working parts compared to a petrol one, there was less to go wrong. In the course of the trip, the only mechanical failures were a buckled wheel and a puncture, though Chris admits he did drive off the side of the road by accident at one point.

“The story stopped being about being able to charge the car, but about the people and the cultures we came across, because from Turkey onwards, we were relying on the kindness of strangers to allow us to plug in. We charged in petrol stations, fire stations, out of third floor windows at hostels, in cafés and restaurants – anywhere and everywhere.

“When we planned the trip, we knew that driving through Georgia and Azerbaijan would be difficult, but the land mass, in comparison to Kazakhstan and Russia, is small, so in Kazakhstan, the government got involved, because they liked what we were doing. So the state petrol company went and installed plugs in every petrol station along our route. It was pretty helpful – we were still charging for 12 hours, but we just slept wherever we charged. We usually slept in petrol stations and woke up with the charge.  The car became our hotel.

“People were so inquisitive about the car. They all wanted to know about the battery, to look in the bonnet, and then word would spread across the petrol station. So you’d be lying there, at three o’clock in the morning, and you’d just get this feeling that there was something not right. You’d wake up, with your head against the window, and just see this guy on the other side, with his head pressed up – it scared the life out of you.”

The rally, billed as the greatest on earth, comprises a 10,000 mile trip across motorways and dirt tracks from London to Ulan-Ude in Siberia. There are only three criteria for entering – the car must have a one litre engine, it must be deemed ‘unsuitable’ for the journey, and the team must raise at least £1,000 for charity. Contestants choose their own route and no support is provided by the organisers. Around 70 per cent of those who enter are expected to complete the rally, but the Ramseys’ trip held a special significance – when they arrived at the finishing line 56 days after starting off, they were the first people to have ever completed the journey in an electric car.

Chris says they chose the trip because they wanted to show people that electric vehicles are a viable option.

“One thing that people use as an argument against electric vehicles is that there aren’t enough chargers around. But the vast majority of the time you can charge at home – you don’t actually need electric vehicle chargers everywhere, you only really need it when you drive longer journeys. So entering the rally was my attempt to demonstrate just how reliable and robust electric vehicles are, but also, that you don’t need electric vehicle charging infrastructure to support your day-to-day drive.”

That feeling seems to be spreading. Electric vehicle sales are rising steeply in the UK, with new registrations of plug-in cars going from 3,500 in 2013 to more than 145,000 by April 2018.

Meanwhile, following governmental policy developments at both a UK and Scottish level, incentives to go electric are likely to increase.

First, the UK Government followed France in announcing plans to ban all new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2040, then the Scottish Government went even further, with Nicola Sturgeon using her 2017-18 Programme for Government to announce her intention to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032.

Although powers over vehicle standards and tax are not devolved, the FM pledged to “massively expand the number of electric charging points in rural, urban and domestic settings”, while also extending the Green Bus Fund and accelerating procurement of electric or ultra-low-emission vehicles in both the public and private sectors.

Ministers announced plans for pilot demonstrator projects that encourage uptake of electric vehicles among private motorists and for a new innovation fund to encourage business and academia to develop solutions to obstacles standing in the way of people choosing to go electric, such as ways to charge vehicles in areas with a high proportion of tenements. Finally, Sturgeon also promised to turn the A9 into “Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled highway”.

These ambitions were then followed by a series of incentives to encourage car buyers to make the switch, with grants of up to £4,500 available, alongside interest-free loans, grant funding for workplaces to get electric vehicles and, as promised in the PfG, a new programme of charge point installations.

As Sturgeon put it in the Scottish Parliament in September 2017: “That is an exciting challenge, which I hope that all members and the whole country will get behind. It sends a message to the world: we look to the future with excitement, we welcome innovation and we want to lead that innovation. That ambition will help stimulate economic activity, but it is also part of our plans to improve our environment and the quality of the air that we breathe.”

Clearly momentum is growing behind the need to go electric. In part, concern stems from frighteningly high levels of air pollution in areas of Scotland, with the problem thought to contribute to somewhere between 2,500-3,000 early deaths each year north of the border, and to around 40,000 annually across the UK.

Meanwhile, although Scotland has made huge progress in reducing emissions over the last decade, transport emissions remain stubbornly high. While greenhouse gas emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years – Scotland achieved its 2020 target for a 42 per cent reduction six years early – some sectors have achieved more than others.

In fact, the latest statistics show total emissions in 2015 were 1.8 per cent higher than 2014, with transport and agriculture appearing as the worst offenders.

Jim Densham, from Stop Climate Chaos Scotland, said: “To hit future climate change targets we now need to build on the early successes to supercharge action on key areas.

“These include homes, farming and particularly transport, which is, for the first time, the largest source of emissions.

“Transport pollution has been stubbornly high for decades and we need significant action to catch up with other nations such as India and Norway which are planning to end the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2030.”

And so, in that context, going electric would seem to make sense. WWF Scotland’s senior climate and energy policy officer, Sarah Beattie-Smith told Holyrood: “With transport the single biggest contributor to climate change in Scotland, the Scottish Government’s decision to phase out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032 is a very welcome step for the planet. Decarbonising our transport sector over the next 14 years will create new jobs and economic opportunities, cut emissions and clean up our polluted air.

“The Government’s ambitious target can and should be met through a package of measures, building on existing programmes to help people to switch to electric vehicles.

“These should include strong low emissions zones, greater support for safe active travel and low carbon public transport, together with innovative ideas like workplace parking levies.”

In a recent analysis, WWF ranks Scotland as among the top five global leaders on ‘clean vehicle ambition’, with only Ireland, India, Austria and Norway, which all plan to achieve 100 per cent clean vehicle sales between 2025 and 2030, ranked ahead.

But while transport authorities scramble to get the required infrastructure in place to help reassure drivers who lack Chris and Julie Ramsey’s confidence in electric cars, some parts of the country are already much further ahead than others.

At present, Dundee City Council has 83 electric vehicles in its fleet, the most of any local authority in the UK.

In fact, the city also has one of the most extensive charging infrastructures in Britain, with its rapid charger in Broughty Ferry the most used in Scotland, averaging 18 charges per day. The charger at Dundee Ice Arena is the second most used in Scotland.

In total, there are charging points at nine locations in the local authority area, while city council mechanics have also been attending dedicated electric vehicle training courses to allow the continued expansion of the council’s electric fleet. Most recently, the local authority opened a £330,000 charging hub for members of the public and the taxi industry, with four 50kw and three 22kw chargers.

In total, the council estimated that using EVs reduced carbon dioxide by 122 tonnes in 2016/17.

Mark Flynn, depute convener of Dundee City Council’s city development committee, said: “As well as new charging points springing up all over the city, with backing from both OLEV and Transport Scotland, we are now able to put them into neighbouring council areas as a way of developing a regional network.

“Drivers and owners of electric vehicles can enjoy the benefits of a more extensive charging network but all of us reap the benefits of cleaner air.”

And so the proliferation of electric vehicles looks likely to continue, even if some will take longer than others to make the jump.

Euan McTurk is an electric vehicle battery engineer, who got his first electric car in 2009 (a 1999 Peugeot 106 electric), though he has since decided to lend it to the Dundee Museum of Transport.

He told Holyrood: “Within the last ten years we have gone from having no properly defined, readily available standards for charging in Europe, to having agreed a common format for destination charging. Any electric vehicle can plug into that – it’s universally standard.”

To McTurk, some of the most significant advancements has been in charging speed, with new charger formats tripling the speed at which they can fill a battery, with current 50kw chargers likely to be overtaken with newer, 150kw units. Meanwhile, European manufacturers are working on new 350kw chargers.

“You’re talking about taking a vehicle with a 300-mile all-electric range and being able to charge that in ten minutes. Significant progress has been made in a very short period of time. Within the last decade we have gone from the myth that EVs take forever to charge to being able to top them up from empty to 80 per cent in about half an hour.

“EV loans are oversubscribed, and if you look at the waiting list for any EV on the market today, you are talking about a minimum six-month wait. Residual values are rising and the reason we don’t see more electric vehicles on the road at the moment is purely because of the bottleneck in trying to supply new vehicles. The demand is there, and that is partly down to increased public awareness – as more come on the roads and people approach them at charge points and learn about the savings – but there is also ‘dieselgate’. People are increasingly aware of just how inefficient and polluting the internal combustion engine is.

“Manufacturers cannot build electric vehicles fast enough at the moment, and that demand will only increase. There will be cheaper models with even more range, and we will see the point when electric vehicles overtake petrol vehicles in being cheaper to buy outright, let alone run, and that will probably happen by 2025 at the latest. We are already past the point of no return but at some point, there will be a landslide.”

So what could policymakers do to help the transition?

“Scotland has enough rapid chargers for you to be able to go anywhere and not run out of charge. However, quite a few of the ones out in the sticks, and along the A9, are individually located rapid chargers, which means you either need to queue, or keep driving. Now that we have reached the level of EV uptake that we have, that is no longer acceptable.”

Still, with new infrastructure on its way, the days of having to charge at home, or, as in Chris and Julie Ramsey’s case, rely on the help of strangers, look like a thing of the past.

For their part, the Ramseys’ pan-European search for chargers actually earned them enough attention to be invited to the 2017 Future Energy Expo in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, so they could display the car.

Chris Ramsey explained: “The expo is basically about every country displaying a showcase for what they see as the future for energy – electric vehicles, renewable technology, solar panels, wind turbines. We were invited by the Dutch and UK pavilions because interest in the car was so high.”

He added: “It was great, and I made sure we got an extension cable so we could charge the car from the stand. We got it to full charge, actually.”

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