EV charging must be priority for restored Northern Ireland Assembly

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Northern Ireland is home to just 1% of the UK’s total public chargers

While number of rapid and ultra-rapid chargers has grown fivefold in past 18 months, only 100 are in operation

The restoration of the Stormont Assembly is good news for Northern Ireland and its people, but the 24-month break in action means politicians face a to-do list piled as high as Everest – and experts fear that accelerating EV infrastructure growth is somewhere down in the foothills.

While the number of rapid and ultra-rapid chargers in Northern Ireland has increased fivefold in the past 18 months, the country can still claim only to have around 100 in operation, the majority located in the north-east.

As of October 2023, Northern Ireland had the fewest 50kW-plus chargers in the UK, at 2.9 per 100,000 people, compared with an average of 13.3, and is home to just 1% of the UK’s total number of public chargers.

Meanwhile, with only 40% of households having a driveway, home charging is for many people not an option.  

Critics point to what they claim is six years of underinvestment in Northern Ireland’s EV infrastructure, during which the progress the country initially made has been undermined by poor maintenance of chargers, high grid-connection fees and planning delays.

Throughout this the Assembly has endured a succession of suspensions, the latest only just resolved. As a result, the country has been unable to enact the UK’s ZEV mandate, which compels car makers to sell more electric cars at the expense of ICE ones or face stiff penalties. Experts fear that without the ZEV mandate, adoption of EVs in Northern Ireland will falter.

The Department for Transport said that Northern Ireland will enact it when the Assembly is able to pass the required legislation. It added that in the interim, the country will retain an appropriately scaled version of the existing CO2 emissions regulation for new cars that will achieve the same result. However, at the end of last year, it was ruled that the country had no legal powers to do so.

In 2021, Northern Ireland’s Department for Infrastructure (DfI) formed a task force with stakeholders in the EV sector to consider how to accelerate progress and the following year published a six-point action plan. However, by last November, only one point, paying to charge – the aim being to improve network use and encourage more providers to enter the market – had been completed when the country’s Electricity Supply Board (ESB) ended a decade of free charging.

Taskforce stakeholders have been told that the DfI and other key departments, including Environment, lack the financial and staffing resources to progress the action plan – a problem blamed on the suspension of the Assembly.

Mark McCall, chairman of the Electric Vehicle Association Northern Ireland (EVANI), one of the taskforce stakeholders, said the industry needs a solution urgently.

“In the early days, we looked to the DfI to kick-start the market, but we’ve passed that now,” he said. “We need action on things such as planning consent for a site with grid connection, which currently can take up to 11 months. Connection charges to the grid, ranging from £250,000 to £1 million, are the highest in the UK and need to be lower, too.

“We understand that the Department for the Economy and the Utility Regulator are considering the findings of a recent consultation into the charges. It doesn’t help that just one company, Northern Ireland Electricity Networks, has the distribution monopoly.”

Despite the challenges, though, McCall believes there are grounds for optimism.

He said: “In addition to the recent increase in the number of rapid chargers, ESB is replacing all of its existing fast and rapid EV chargers and has pledged to double its existing number of rapid chargers and install five ultra-rapid charging hubs in strategic locations, all by the end of 2024. More operators are entering the market, too, which will help drive competition, while sales of EVs are increasing such that there are now almost 14,000 of them on the road. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Thomas O’Hagan, co-founder and CEO of Weev, a privately owned EV charging network, agrees. In 2022, his company won a £50m investment from Octopus to help fund its planned roll-out of rapid and ultra-rapid chargers across the country.

“The cost and planning challenges are real, but we’re working through them,” he said.

“The ZEV mandate would have been helpful, but car makers will continue to make more EVs, which they will need to sell here as well as elsewhere.

“We think Motability will take many of them. The charity accounts for 30% of new car sales in Northern Ireland, and we expect a sizeable number of them to be EVs. We also expect that corporate fleets and workers offered salary sacrifice will demand EVs too.”

Responding to comments about its stalled action plan and the challenges facing EV infrastructure operators and drivers, a DfI spokesperson said: “In the EV Infrastructure Action Plan, increased provision of charging infrastructure and operators, the cost of charging and how to pay for charging have been highlighted as fundamental issues which need to be addressed now for people wanting to make the transition from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles.

“The department has provided match-funding to support a range of charger installation projects across Northern Ireland and is committed to working with partners across government and other stakeholders to improve access to EV charging, particularly for those without access to off-street parking.” 

Source: Autocar

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