Plugging into the future: can electric vehicles clear the air?

“Electric Car2Go”by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Science tells us that improvements to our air quality bring real health benefits – fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature births, less cancer, dementia and asthma, and lower incidences of premature deaths.

Better health because of cleaner air has been a strong driving force behind efforts by local and national government to keep highly polluting vehicles away from city centres, where air quality can be especially poor.

Earlier this year, we blogged about initiatives to improve the air quality of cities by banning the most polluting vehicles that emit dangerous levels of nitrogen dioxide and poisonous particulate matter.

Driving out diesel

There have also been important policy announcements to underline how seriously national and local authorities are taking the issue of air pollution. In July 2017, the UK government announced plans to phase out the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, with all fuel-powered vehicles to be banned from the roads entirely by 2050. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government unveiled plans to ban new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 – eight years ahead of the proposed deadline set out by the London government. These moves replicate measures introduced by France and cities such as Amsterdam, and Hamburg.

Electric currents

As diesel and petrol cars are phased out, alternatives, such as battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles are moving in. These have a lower environmental impact and could also help the UK to meet its target of net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

At present, electric-powered vehicles make up a small part of the UK car market – just 0.9% of new cars are electric. But sales of electric cars have been rising – in June 2019 there was a 61.7% increase in battery electric vehicles registered in the UK, and in July electric car sales continued to accelerate (meanwhile, diesel registrations fell for the 28th consecutive month). This trend is set to continue as car manufacturers in the UK and overseas invest more in electric vehicle production.

Diesel and petrol cars could be phased out much more quickly if more drivers could be persuaded to go electric. But many are still reluctant to make the switch due to concerns about the distances that electric cars can travel between charges (the electric Volkswagen Golf, for example, needs recharging every 120 miles) and the availability of a robust charging infrastructure. But for most drivers, the leap in costs of switching to electric has proved the major stumbling block.

In the UK, the government has cut subsidies and grants for some hybrid and electric vehicles, leading to a slump in hybrid sales. By contrast, Norway’s government is leaving no doubt that they want drivers to turn away from diesel and petrol cars. The Norwegian government has backed up its ambitious goal to stop selling new gas and diesel passenger cars and vans by 2025 (15 years ahead of the UK government’s target) with incentives to go electric. These include tax breaks for electric cars, access for electric vehicles to fast-track bus lanes, plus discounts on parking and charging. Drivers are getting the message: in April 2019, almost 59% of all cars sold in Norway were electric.

Other countries are also joining the electric vehicle bandwagon, including France, the Netherlands, Germany and the world leader in electric mobility, China.

Meanwhile, in 2018, the House of Commons Business Select Committee said the UK government’s plans to ban diesel and petrol emitting vehicles were “vague and unambitious”. The committee was also critical of the subsidy cuts and the lack of charging points.

Putting the brakes on: the downside of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles have the potential to bring significant benefits to the UK economy, and many believe that Britain could become a world leader in electric car production. But this would require large-scale lithium-ion battery cell plants facilities. There are currently no plans for these in the UK, while China and Germany are setting the pace on battery production.

Although electric vehicles have been heralded as an environmental good news story, manufacturing their batteries requires raw materials such as cobalt, the mining of which has considerable environmental and human costs. At the same time, the electricity used to charge the vehicles is largely generated from fossil fuels. And, just like petrol and diesel vehicles, electric cars produce large amounts of pollution from brake and tyre dust.

Green for go?

Despite the drawbacks, electric vehicles are on the move. Manufacturers are launching new ranges to meet increasing demand and to comply with EU rules on carbon dioxide emissions limits. The International Energy Agency predicts there will be 125 million electric vehicles in use worldwide by 2030.

In Britain, the charging infrastructure is already growing, and  set to improve, further. The UK government is also proposing that all new-build homes should be fitted with charging points for electric vehicles. The Scottish Government has announced plans to make the A9 Scotland’s first fully electric-enabled road, and the city of Dundee is already making progress on zero-carbon transport. Meanwhile, in London Mayor Sadiq Khan has pledged that all London’s taxis and minicabs will be electric by 2033.

But, as a July 2019 report from the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (CREDS) warns, electric vehicles will not address the problems of congestion, urban sprawl and inactive lifestyles. The authors recommend that governments should be doing more to discourage people from driving, and shifting the focus of travel to more sustainable modes, such as walking and cycling.

Electric cars may help clear the air and bring subsequent health benefits. But they won’t drive away all of the challenges facing our motor-centric cities.


If you’d like to read more on this subject, take a look at our previous blog posts…

Do planners dream of electric streets?

The last few years have seen a phenomenal growth in demand for electric vehicles in the UK.  Nearly 50,000 electric and plug in hybrid vehicles were registered between July and September 2017 a considerable achievement, when only 5 years ago it was less than 1,000.

Overall, there are now around 120,000 battery-powered cars on Britain’s roads, and this is expected to grow to 10m by 2035.  From the modest Nissan Leaf, to the futuristic Tesla, the choice of electric vehicles is expanding, and various car manufacturers have announced ambitious plans to develop even more electric vehicles to suit a range of tastes and budgets.

The benefits of moving to electric are clear – as well as lower emissions, they are also cheaper to run costing less than half as much than petrol-powered equivalents.

Out with the old

This means that a future where electric cars are the norm is now on the near horizon.  Indeed, the UK recently committed to banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, including hybrid vehicles, by 2040.  The Scottish government have set an even more ambitious target pledging that by 2032 all new vehicles sold in Scotland will be electric. Norway, India and France have also set similar goals.

At the local level, Oxford is set to become the first city centre to ban all non-electric vehicles with certain streets becoming electric-only by 2020, and the world’s first ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) will come into operation in London next year.

Delivery of EV infrastructure through the planning system

As desirable as a low emission, electric-only city may be, the use of electric vehicles poses a number of challenges for town planning and urban design.

Ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure in place to meet the increased demand for electric vehicle recharging will be a key issue. While there has been a significant growth in the number and geographic spread of EV connectors across the UK since 2011, many more will be required if predicted demand is to be met.

While motorway services and petrol stations will soon be required by law to install charge points for electric cars, simply replacing existing fuel pumps with EV chargers will not provide sufficient capacity, as at present, charging an electric car can take anywhere between 30 minutes to a couple of hours.  Additional charging stations will have to be incorporated into parking spots – either on the road, at home or in car parks.

The planning system is already taking some practical action to address this. Both planning policy and development management provide important delivery mechanisms.

At the national level, in England, the National Planning Policy Framework states that

developments should be located and designed where practical to… incorporate facilities for charging plug-in and other ultra-low emission vehicles”.

In Scotland, high level planning policy also recognises the importance of considering EV charging infrastructure in new developments, with supportive text included in both the Third National Planning Framework and the Scottish Planning Policy 2014. In addition, permitted development rights for off-road charge points came into force in 2014.

At the regional level, some policies require planning authorities to incorporate facilities for charging electric vehicles.  For example, The London Plan states:

developments in all parts of London must… ensure that 1 in 5 spaces provide an electrical charging point to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles”.

Several local authorities also use local plan policies to require electric vehicle provision, and others use their development control powers to require developers to provide electric vehicle charging points.

Some authorities have also taken opportunities to broker EV via non-planning routes, for example, the provision of public recharging point provision through grants.  One such example the On-Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme was set up in 2016, and provides up to 75% of the cost of procuring and installing chargepoints.

Challenges remain

While progress is being made, a number of challenges remain.

As well as increasing the overall number of available charging stations, planners will need to ensure that they are adequately distributed within a city so that there’s always one within reasonable driving range.  Specifying EV charging points on new developments runs the risk of a ‘scattergun’ approach, particularly where developments are concentrated in specific areas.  Local authorities would do well to adopt a strategic and planned approach to EV provision to ensure adequate coverage.  This will be particularly important in rural areas, as electric cars typically have a maximum range of around 150 miles. ’Range anxiety’ is an affliction suffered by many electric car drivers!

While various grants are available for electric car owners to install charging infrastructure at their homes, it is also not yet clear how home EV charging will work in densely populated areas without private parking, such as large blocks of flats. One potential solution may be the use of massive batteries kept in shipping container-style boxes, with up to 50 charging points attached.

The provision of on street EV charging facilities may present a design challenge in historic and/or conservation areas. In London, this has been dealt with by retrofitting existing street lamps with EV infrastructure, even including heritage lamps in Kensington and Chelsea.

There have also been concerns about the ability of the national grid to cope with millions of cars being plugged in to charge every evening.  Encouraging drivers to charge ‘smart’ at off-peak times may be the way forward.

Innovative solutions

Despite these challenges, there are promising signs of progress.  Some noteworthy examples include Elgin-based housebuilder Springfield Properties committing to installing cabling for electric car charging points in all new-build homes as standard, including its new 3,000-home development in Perth.  There are also plans to turn the A9 into an ‘electric highway’ and for a new ‘charging hub’ in the centre of Dundee – which will also be part-powered by the use of solar canopies.

EV technology is an area of fast-paced change and addressing the many challenges that it presents will require planners to adopt similarly innovative and forward-thinking solutions.  With advances being made on contactless under-road EV charging, it may not be long before electric streets charge our cars on the move.  We in the Information Service are excited to see what the future holds, and will be keeping abreast of the latest developments in both policy and practice.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Why the future of public transport has to be green

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Ending our use of oil, coal and natural gas by the end of the century? It seems an impossible task, but this week’s G7 Summit closed with the announcement that the leaders of 7 leading industrial nations had agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels. As one of the G7, the UK is part of this long-term commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is also legally-bound, via The Climate Change Act (2008), to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

These national and international targets will only be met however if we all make practical changes to our patterns of energy consumption. Organisations like the Energy Saving Trust Foundation and NESTA have pointed out that providing new technologies is not enough to increase public engagement with alternative energy. Success is dependent on getting real people to use these technologies in everyday situations.

Use of renewable energy in public transport

Earlier this week I attended an event on the use of renewable energy in public transport. Not being a transport specialist, but interested from the point of view of community development and social exclusion, it was a useful introduction to some of the innovative work that is underway in Europe.

Organised to present the results of the REPUTE (Renewable Energy in Public Transport Enterprise) project, the event explored the challenges of ensuring accessible public transport in rural areas. People in rural areas typically travel 50% further than people living in urban areas. Travel which is essential to daily life such as going to school or work, going shopping or getting to doctors and hospitals all requires longer journeys, mostly by car or bus. A lack of integration between different modes of transport also makes travel by car more convenient in rural areas.

Pilot projects showcased at the event included personal travel planning in Fort William; solar-powered real-time bus information signs in the Highlands and Islands region; and electric vehicle rental in rural towns in Portugal.

A new guide written by Oxford Brookes University was also launched at the event and includes lots of examples of community-based transport and energy schemes.

Signs of progress

I picked up on a few heartening signs of a shift in attitudes. Many local authorities are publicly supporting alternative energy use in their fleets and providing charging points. A recent survey showed that Scottish councils in particular are leading the way in the UK in the adoption of electric vehicles, with Dundee placed in the number 1 spot and South Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Fife also in the top 5.

  • Aberdeen now has the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel buses of any authority in Europe.
  • 2 of Edinburgh’s bus routes have switched completely to low carbon hybrid vehicles.
  • There are more electric vehicles in Scottish car clubs than the total in car clubs in the rest of the UK.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, Oslo’s initiative to open up bus lanes to electric vehicles has become a victim of its own success with the announcement in May that the law is being changed. A fifth of new cars bought in Norway in the last 3 years have been electric.

A key aspect of pilot schemes is to introduce the public to new energy solutions in a way that is engaging. For example, visitors to the Brecon Beacons National Park can hire electric cars to travel around the area, turning eco travel into a fun activity in itself. A new ‘poo bus’ which runs in Bristol and is fuelled by bio-waste, is a witty way to spark debate about alternative fuel sources. And in Oxford, the city is transforming into a Living Lab for integrated transport experimentation.

Public transport as eco-transport

The need for a transport system which is cleaner and less-energy dependent is clear – the transport sector is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

However investing in innovative renewable energy technologies at a time of budget constraints, requires government and local authorities to show leadership and vision. More importantly, there won’t be a step change in behaviour and attitudes without imaginative approaches to community engagement. Locally-led projects such as those highlighted by REPUTE’s guide are a great way to do this.


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Plugging in or opting out?

car exhaust

by James Carson

Visitors to the this year’s Geneva Motor Show , which closed on Sunday evening,  may have noticed some signs that the times are changing: half of the space on Renault’s large exhibition stand was dedicated to battery-powered cars; new electric vehicle models were unveiled by BMW, Volkswagen and Kia and Porsche exhibited the Panamera S, a hybrid model able to travel for 20 miles on nothing but battery power.

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