Richard North, 12/09/2021  

If it wasn't for the fact that we are becoming steadily immunised to the absurdities which beset modern life, a story in the Sunday Times on electric car charging points could easily be mistaken for an April fool joke, except for the minor detail that it's come more than half a year too early.

The gist of the story is that under new regulations, due to come into force in May, electric car charging points in people’s homes will be pre-set to switch off for nine hours each weekday at times of peak demand, from 8am to 11am and 4pm to 10pm.

The precaution is being taken because ministers fear that surges arising from electric car owners plugging in when they come home – or topping up before they leave for work – might over-stress the National Grid and cause blackouts.

The government, we are also told, is also taking powers to impose a "randomised delay" of up to 30 minutes at other times to avoid pressure on the grid if there is a scramble among motorists to recharge their batteries at the same time.

These restrictions are tucked into same regulations which will require all new homes and offices to be fitted with electric car chargers, with industry bodies saying that 700 electric car chargers need to be installed at homes each day to meet demand, but currently only around 500 are being added each month.

Thus, we have the bizarre situation where the government, on the one hand, is to force people to fit home chargers while, on the other hand, restricting their use. And then, there is the "vehicle to grid" provision, where the National Grid can suck the juice out of car batteries when the windmills stop turning, which could leave many drivers with no power at all.

For many people, though, this will not be a problem. As long as they are stereotypical plebs who conveniently work nine-to-five jobs, and are obediently tucked-in overnight, charging their cars as they sleep – provided they have off-street parking – the limitations should not present a problem. Pity the people with non-standard lifestyles.

Nevertheless, the government clearly realises is has what it believes to be a "perception" problem, having last week published on its website a propaganda screed entitled: "Common misconceptions about electric vehicles".

This starts off by addressing the most serious concern of EV drivers – potential and actual – that the cars "don't have the battery range to travel as far as people need". The "reality" says our wise and beneficent government is that 99 percent of journeys in England are under 100 miles. Therefore, we are assured, "most drivers' needs are easily met by an electric car".

For those pesky plebs who insist on driving further in one session, we are happily advised that there are "over 20 models available with a quoted 200-plus mile range". Some new electric cars, we are told, "come with a range of over 270 miles, enough to get from Southampton to York".

What we are not told, of course, is that the longer-range models cost considerably more than the basic "utility" versions and, as I wrote back in August actual range (as opposed to posted figures) varies according to conditions.

Factors such as ambient temperature, battery state of charge and condition, driving style, vehicle payload, vehicle electronics, heating and climate settings, can all reduce range, and driving on a cold night, with lights and heater on, can cut the range by as much as 60 percent.

Assuming 200-mile journey, even for those lucky enough to start with a fully-charged car, that means at least one, if not more, stops to re-charge on the journey. But, for those concerned with how long this might take, the government is nothing if not reassuring.

"Most charging", it says, "will be done at or near home overnight". Thus, it implies, the amount of time it takes to charge doesn't really matter. But if you are rash enough to risk a long journey, it tells us: "new cars are typically capable of charging up 120 miles or more in as little as 20 minutes – the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee".

You know it is a million miles away from reality when it uses the word "enjoy" in relation to motorway service station coffee, especially as this chirpy optimism doesn't take account of a Friday night when hundreds of thousand of motorists are all setting off at the same time to travel long distances up and down the nation's motorways.

When we used to live in London, my wife and I used to travel up from Croydon at least once a month to visit her folks in Yorkshire. Originally, we had a Hillman Imp which, coincidentally, had a range of almost exactly 200 miles. With a partial tank after a day's driving at work, we would top up at Hendon, just before joining the M1, and just about make it to Boroughbridge, driving on fumes, filling up again to complete the journey.

Even at 20-minutes a charge, that would add an hour to the journey. But. on a Friday night, we could be waiting ten minutes in a queue for petrol. Does the government have any idea what the queues are going to be like for working EV charging points, once the 14 million electric cars forecast for 2030 are on the road?

But never mind. At least, says the government, you're going to save money. EVs do cost more to buy outright today, it concedes, but "they already benefit from a huge advantage in running costs: as low as 1p a mile for off-peak electricity and far fewer moving parts, so much lower maintenance costs".

Already, in a number of cases, it says that EVs have a lower total cost over four years. Further, owners of EVs don't pay Vehicle Excise Duty and new cars under £35,000 are eligible for a government grant of £2,500. Vehicle manufacturers, including BMW and Nissan, have even reduced prices of electric models to under £35,000 to qualify for the grant.

Clearly, though, our government is not telling the whole story. As the Sunday Telegraph obligingly points out, the government's commitment to phase out petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 will leave the Treasury with a £40 billion black hole.

The head of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is saying that the Chancellor will make "sweeping changes" to transport levies to raise revenue from battery-powered vehicles, not least the £28 billion generated from fuel duty.

Motoring taxes account for 5 percent of total government revenue, which will create a huge problem for the chancellor if people do as expected and buy into the electric car schtick – assuming they have any choice.

One option being considered by the Treasury is a road pricing, or "pay per mile", system, but nothing here is being said of a rather embarrassing elephant in the room. To manage a universal road charging system, a high-accuracy, secure GPS system is needed.

Such a facility could be afforded via the EU's Galileo system – which was the real reason for which, many of us suspected, the system was designed. But, rather inconveniently, with Brexit, we have dropped out of this facility and it will not be available for any UK road charging scheme.

Nevertheless, there will be a revenue "black hole" and the government will have to fill it. Electric vehicles will not remain tax-free for long. No chancellor can afford to let such an easy target go free. A way will be found to load costs onto the electric driving experience.

As time goes on therefore, Johnson's 2030 electric fantasy looks more and more unrealistic. But if the real agenda is to drive the average pleb off the road, leaving more room for ministerial chaikas, then his policy is on its way to being an outstanding success.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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