Overview: our work on transport decarbonisation

Centre for Net Zero
Jul 1 · 4 min read

The way we move people and things around the world is a huge contributor to climate change. With electricity increasingly powered by the sun and wind, transport is now the most polluting sector in the UK, with 19% of UK greenhouse gas emissions coming from cars and vans alone. Gains from increased fuel efficiency have been offset by bigger cars and increased van mileage, prompting a 4% rise in UK transport emissions since 2013.

Our progress in decarbonising power means electric vehicles (EVs) are now significantly better for the climate and air quality over their lifetimes. While fewer than 1% of vehicles on UK roads are currently fully electric, more than 5% of new vehicles purchased are electric and continued improvements in range and cost will compound these gains. With the UK Government bringing forward the ban on the sale of fossil-fuel powered cars and vans to 2030, almost 40% of drivers expect their next purchase to be a battery or hybrid-electric.

It’s clear that the electrification of mobility is gaining momentum. There is a school of thought that suggests that market dynamics will drive mass adoption, leading to a positive cycle of lower prices and greater demand. This will be compounded by improvements to battery performance. However, we believe it is important to consider where and for whom these advances may not cut through — and what kinds of interventions may need to be considered.

For those with off-street parking who can charge overnight when electricity prices are low, powering their electric cars may cost around 1p/mile (based on analysis of the Octopus Go tariff). By contrast, those who need to charge at public charge points could end up paying five times more. Without convenient and cost-effective solutions for these households, we risk excluding 25% of society. Likewise, business fleets where vehicles are taken home overnight may also struggle to make the switch.

The up-front cost of electric vehicles will fall, but even with current subsidies, it will likely remain a barrier to many households in the short and medium term. Financial products which spread costs may help, as will the growth of a meaningful second-hand market. Socio-economic background also influences awareness and therefore uptake: adoption so far has been concentrated within certain social groups. Two-thirds of people don’t know anyone with an electric vehicle. This indicates the general public’s lack of consciousness of EVs, which has a clear impact on uptake.

If we can confront these challenges, there is huge opportunity to be unlocked. EVs will have a transformative impact on our electricity networks. Not only will they significantly increase the demand for electricity, but each connected vehicle will have the technical ability to operate as a mini battery, charging and discharging to help the grid. This is a significant development, minimising the need for new wires and substations and helping our consumption of electricity to coincide with an abundance of solar and wind power.

Notwithstanding recent trials, we understand less about how human behaviour impacts flexibility. How often do different people charge and when? Does weather play a part in whether people plug-in at home or choose to run inside to escape the rain and charge another day? To what extent are people prepared to change their charging habits for financial gain? How can we make this easy for those that engage while protecting those who cannot or will not?

What Centre for Net Zero is doing

Our approach builds on the bottom-up, data-driven simulation we’re applying to decarbonising heat, to consider issues of speed, fairness and affordability. There are good reasons to consider issues of heat and transport together, not least due to the shared reliance on electricity networks and the high level of engagement of EV owners in wider energy issues. 72% of EV owners say they will consider low-carbon heating systems vs 41% of the general public.

Figure 1. While the positive feedback between EV adoption and cost appears compelling, there are still important questions to address around fairness and impacts on infrastructure

Our research brings to bear the experience and innovation of Octopus Energy, exploring at a granular level how adoption may unfold and where the blockers or acceleration points are likely to be. Octopus Energy’s activities provide valuable insight on real-world behaviour to inform our models, from smart EV tariffs for tens of thousands of customers to vehicle leasing products and simplified access to public charging stations.

A great deal of excellent research is already complete or underway across the industry. Our intent is to build models that promote research collaboration and systems thinking. Along with regular research insights and a consolidated report later this year, we will publish the models and data we use. We welcome interest, ideas and collaboration from organisations with aligned missions.

While charging infrastructure and EV adoption are often presented as a choice of chicken vs egg, our view is that this relationship will be more dynamic and localised, making modelling essential to identifying potential market failures and opportunities for intervention. We must capitalise on the growing momentum behind electric vehicles to deliver the change we need: a faster, fairer and more affordable transition to net zero.

Building the world’s largest ‘living lab’ for energy research

Centre for Net Zero

An open research lab that uses data-driven modelling and simulation to provide the critical insights that policy makers need to take bold climate action.

Centre for Net Zero

Written by

Open Research Lab, realising faster, fairer and more affordable paths to Net Zero. Powered by Octopus Energy

Centre for Net Zero

An open research lab that uses data-driven modelling and simulation to provide the critical insights that policy makers need to take bold climate action.