Kevin Murphy: Can Northern Ireland’s electric vehicle network grow?
Kevin Murphy, partner in TLT’s Belfast office, looks at how planning law reform could support Northern Ireland’s electric vehicle network.
Northern Ireland is making great progress in renewable energy generation. But when it comes to electric vehicle (EV) uptake and the infrastructure needed to support this, more work is needed to make sure it’s not left behind the rest of UK.
Further action is set to be taken soon, by both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, to make sure the sector continues to develop and thrive.
A recent BBC article revealed that Northern Ireland has the lowest number of both standard and rapid charging points in the UK. What’s surprising is that around seven years ago Belfast had the highest number of EV charging points in Europe, indicating progress may have stalled. With the number of zero-emission cars on the rise and the commitment by the government that no petrol or diesel cars will be sold by 2040, how can Northern Ireland make sure it’s ready and equipped for the shift to EVs?
Current NI charging infrastructure
The first steps to establish public charge-points across Northern Ireland have already been taken over the last few years, as a network of 337 charge stations have been rolled out across the country under the ecarNI banner. These are currently free for any registered EV driver to use.
Where the difference between the rest of the UK is clear, though, is in the lack of private charging points and networks. A handful can be found at retail parks or at car dealerships that have seen the benefits of getting on board early, but the network of private EV charge-points is otherwise sparse.
Will the government front the cost of the infrastructure needed, and not just in the main urban areas? And if they won’t, is there any potential for long-term return on any investment made by developers?
Public sector - opportunities
While there are currently around 50 public charge-points across land used by public sector organisations (such as local councils, Northern Ireland Executive Departments or health trusts), there are significant further opportunities for the sector to embrace electric vehicles.
Inevitably, there will be public sector bodies that will be able to use EVs and charge-points as part of a more sustainable, holistic way of getting around. Is it fair, though, to ask the public sector solely to cover the costs of offering charge-points for a growing number of EVs?
Perhaps, instead, the public sector should be leading the way in this area. It could become the catalyst that drives change, by shaping planning policy and helping Northern Ireland grow and develop into a sustainable place to live.
We have seen this across England, with the likes of Swindon Borough Council providing charging infrastructure for the local community. Greater Manchester has also been a trailblazer, as it’s invested in the Greater Manchester Transport Fund, which uses local funding to develop a more sustainable public transport system. However, pressure on existing public funds means that progress might be difficult without either new funding allocation or public-private partnerships.
Private Sector - Opportunities
Landowners and developers can choose between different business models offering charging. They have the option to become a loss leader, providing free charging points to attract drivers in, or operate on a cost recovery or profit making basis by charging a fee. So far in Northern Ireland, the focus has been on free charging. As electric vehicle adoption grows, we expect to see more commercial solutions emerge across the region to recoup the costs.
However, in our opinion, a significant roadblock to private sector investment in Northern Ireland is the Maximum Resale Price for electricity. Currently, it’s only possible for landowners to install charging points and re-sell electricity on a pass-through basis, meaning no mark-up or extra fee can be added to the price to generate a profit. As the motor industry continues to commit to electric vehicles, this is inevitably going to have to change to allow for more infrastructure to be installed across NI and to encourage developers to invest in it.
The Utility Regulator in Northern Ireland opened a consultation this week. It’s seeking opinions on whether the Maximum Resale Price (MRP) is a barrier to the development and/or maintenance of public charging infrastructure. It puts forward two options.
One option is to amend the MRP Direction to include an exemption for the resale of electricity where it relates to EV charging. This is an approach we’ve already seen elsewhere in the UK, with Ofgem’s 2014 decision that the MRP provisions would not apply to the resale of electricity from EV charge-points. This opens up the possibility for charge-point owners to take more than just a pass-through cost for electricity at their EV points.
The alternative is to leave the current MRP Direction unchanged. The consultation document suggests that non-electricity charges, such as infrastructure and operating costs, can be charged for under the existing Direction, as long as there’s transparency around how much of the fee is actually going towards the cost of the electricity.
Planning policy changes needed
In England, installing an electric vehicle charging point can generally be considered a permitted development if it meets certain criteria and takes place in an area lawfully used for off-street parking.
In NI, permitted development rights to include EV charging points have not yet moved forward. These proposals must be addressed urgently if and when the Assembly returns, to allow more private charging points to be installed.
EV charging points is also an issue that should be considered within Local Development Plans. Steps such as making EV charging points mandatory as part of specific types of development proposals could help. This could become as much of a material consideration in the approval of residential or retail/commercial scheme as parking, public transport and cycling provision currently are.
The rest of the UK recently held a consultation around building regulations and introducing electric vehicle charge-point requirements. We hope that any changes it brings also make their way to Northern Ireland to help alter the landscape of motoring for the future. Without much needed investment in infrastructure, Northern Ireland could be left behind the rest of Europe as the motor industry moves away from internal combustion engines to full electrification.