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Collaborative working can help to make electric car ownership a practical reality

Paul Stapleton


Cleaner future: progess on charging points for electric vehicles is essential

Cleaner future: progess on charging points for electric vehicles is essential

Cleaner future: progess on charging points for electric vehicles is essential

Driving in Northern Ireland is undergoing one of the biggest changes since the introduction of the Model T Ford.

Then, Henry Ford's automobile was breaking new ground for its relative reliability and, crucially, affordability.

The explosion in car ownership in the immediate aftermath and many years since then has been relentless, with some 50,000 new vehicles leaving Northern Ireland's forecourts last year.

A constant in our motoring since Henry Ford's days has been fossil fuel - either petrol or diesel - which has been the source of power not so much as a result of its affordability, but for the lack of an affordable alternative.

Now, however, the tables are turning.

The urgent need for increased sustainability and a reduction in carbon emissions has resulted in new regulations which will have significant impact for the vehicle industry and anyone who uses or relies on a car.

The UK Government has announced a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars from 2035, and we can expect a similar target to apply for Northern Ireland. Therefore we may have just 15 years to complete the transition to all-electric cars or other low carbon modes of transport. It may seem like a long time away but it is actually a relatively tight time-frame for transforming a 100-year old habit.

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Improvements in the range and affordability of hybrid and electric cars has certainly made them more popular in Northern Ireland, but with only an estimated 3,000 of them on our roads currently, there is a steep hill climb to traverse if we're to be prepared for such a time when the sale of petrol and diesel cars will be banned entirely.

The key to tempering that gradient is ensuring there are sufficient charging points at strategic locations. An increased availability of charging points will inevitably lead to more people changing to electric vehicles. At present there are just 337 public charging points in Northern Ireland, a number which is far below that needed to ensure ease of operation of electric cars for motorists here and one which puts us far behind the rest of the UK in terms of charging provision.

Many more are needed in the coming years if we are to make low carbon transportation a reality, with both public and private sector investment needed across the board.

A key change to legislation by the Northern Ireland Utility Regulator should encourage the set-up of more privately or part-privately operated charging points. Stipulations which prevented EV charge point operators from making a profit on electricity being sold for the purpose of electric mobility have now been removed.

If the number of charging points is to increase significantly, the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to ensure that all branches of government support the roll out of charging points, particularly around planning policy and adopting a co-ordinated approach.

We also need an appropriate funding framework to make sure an electric vehicle infrastructure is provided in the initial absence of commercial viability. Customers aren't buying them in large volumes due to the lack of charging infrastructure and there isn't the commercial interest from companies to enter the infrastructure market whilst numbers remain low.

Barriers to investment include the high infrastructure and connection costs, the lack of a specific Northern Ireland funding stream, planning legalities and the lack of an EV charging infrastructure plan.

It is not just about public charging points though as we do expect most EV charging will be done by customers at home and we need to make sure that private dwellings have sufficient electricity capacity to cater for that. NIE Networks will soon be issuing a consultation on proposals to increase the design capacity of electricity connections for new residential dwellings, and we will also need to reinforce the existing electricity network to enable a significant uptake of electric vehicles.

As the operator of the electricity network in Northern Ireland, we need customers to inform us of any intended installations to ensure we can plan for sufficient supply and the capacity of the grid for both today and the future.

Making progress on EV charging infrastructure will require collaborative working and a tri-sided approach of public and private sector investment, government co-operation and close working with NIE Networks, to make electric vehicle ownership a reality.

By doing that we can follow in the footsteps of Henry Ford and transform not just the world of motoring, but society and the environment, drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and ensuring a more sustainable future for our children.

Paul Stapleton is managing director of NIE Networks