The surprising obstacle to electric vehicles in Europe

This should be the moment for electric vehicles (EVs). There is popular momentum across Europe and beyond to curb carbon emissions. The European Union has agreed ambitious emissions-cutting measures, with some member states and cities going further. Every major manufacturer has committed to roll out EVs, with the number of models available in Europe expected to jump in 2020 from 100 to 175 (that number will double again to 330 by 2025).

Yet there is still a major obstacle hampering EVs. It is not, to be clear, the cost of the battery: while this was an issue a decade ago, it is being addressed by both industry and by policymakers. No, the barrier to an electric revolution lies elsewhere. It is the charging infrastructure.

Three million charging points needed

According a new report published by green campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) on January 8, Europe needs to increase its public charging points fifteen-fold by 2030 to reach the EU’s goal of becoming “climate neutral” by 2050. The report says if the 2030 projections of 44 million EVs on European roads are to be met, then three million public charging points will be needed.

Truck Charging Facility

With just 185,000 public charging points currently available in the EU, that implies a sharp increase. It is also far more than the plans laid out by the European Commission, which mentions just one million public chargers by 2025 in the European Green Deal published in December.

This is an issue that automotive manufacturers have underlined too. ACEA, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, has called for a dense EU-wide network of charging points and re-fuelling stations to be urgently deployed. Last November, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the country should install one million EV charging points by 2030.

Charging infrastructure plays vital role in purchase decision

Charging points matter for buyers, especially those who are buying EVs for the first time. This is not just a new technology under the bonnet, but a whole new system that needs different supporting services. According to research from General Motors (GM), the number one reason why consumers decide not to buy an EV is the lack of charging stations. This is equally true for the commercial vehicle sector. Charging infrastructure is vital.

For EVs to gain widespread acceptance, manufacturers, charging companies, industry groups and governments at all levels must work together to make public charging available in as many locations as possible. Private charging stations are also important: research shows nearly 80% of electric vehicle owners charge their vehicles at home, and almost 15% at work, with the rest at public stations.

Chicken or egg

T&E estimates the cost of building a pan-European recharging infrastructure at around €20 billion over the next 11 years – with between 20-30% of these chargers in disadvantaged and less densely populated areas. It calls on the EU to bring forward its revision of the EU’s Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Directive this year instead of 2021 to ensure a swift and harmonised roll-out of chargers across Europe – as well as a reorganisation of electricity grid power markets and digital payment systems, following last year’s pact between Eurelectric, ACEA and T&E on e-mobility.

Despite an increase in recent years, EVs currently account for only around 1% of the European car market. But change is coming: the combination of regulation and investment will transform the sector. Global automakers plan to spend around $300 billion on electrification over the next decade. The question of when that will happen is another issue, and better charging infrastructure could make it much sooner.