RURAL communities are at risk of being left behind in Scotland’s electric vehicle revolution if vital infrastructure updates are not made, one of Britain’s largest energy firms has warned. 

Geographic equality of electric vehicle (EV) charge points could mirror the rollout of broadband, which left small towns and rural communities “lagging behind the rest of the country,” Keith Anderson, CEO of ScottishPower,has said.

Speaking to The Herald, Mr Anderson also said the industry regulator would need to take a “different path” when it comes to approving plans to update the electricity system, to ensure Scotland is ready for when consumer demand “flips” to plug-in vehicles. 

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His comments come after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency in Scotland and set the target to be a net zero country by 2045.

The Scottish Government has also vowed to phase out all new petrol and diesel cars by 2032, and continues to grant funding to alternative car ownership schemes, such as electric vehicle car clubs. 

However, the number of EVs on Scotland’s roads has increased four times faster than the number of new charge points over the last four years, according to research by the charity Electrical Safety First.

In 2015, 2,915 plug-in vehicles were licensed on Scotland’s roads, compared to 10,858 in 2018.

And 608 charge points were operating in 2015, rising to just 995 by 2018, according to data from the UK Department for Transport and Zap-Map. 

The placement of charge points is currently “market driven” and most companies will “chase the locations which they think have the biggest traffic fall,”, such as critical road junctions or busy town centres Mr Anderson said.

“The challenge is, who is going to go and install a charge point in a small town out in a rural community which will have far less traffic, far less footfall and far less usage?” he said.

“They may not have electric vehicles yet, but no one will switch to EVs until that infrastructure is out there.”

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Scottish Power is in discussion with the industry regulator, Ofgem, and the Scottish Government to ensure “mistakes are not repeated” from the adoption of broadband, and a solution is found for everyone, Mr Anderson added.

“We are a proponent of an open, liberalised market, but the issue is you need to have more than one option. Because if we just do it the way were doing it now there will be a massive risk it doesn’t work for everyone. We need to find an additional route to market in rural economies,” he said. 

The increase in EVs demanding power from the grid, which is currently “very, very low”, also needs to be considered, Mr Anderson said.

“The government says [the switch to EVs] needs to happen and the car industry thinks by about 2021/2022 an electric car will be as cheap as a petrol one.

“When we get to that stage you will see a real flip in consumer demand. We need to start planning for that now.” and how and where were going to invest, so that as and when that tipping point occurs the system is ready for it,” he said.

The 995 publicly available charge points in the country are funded by Transport Scotland but owned and maintained by their host, such as retail premises or local authorities.

In 2018/19, Transport Scotland provided £10 million of funding to local authorities to deliver charging infrastructure, enabling the installation of almost 400 charge points.

However, analysis by Electrical Safety First revealed there are only 1.94 charging locations per 10,000 people in Scotland. 

And, in a survey of UK EV owners, 40 per cent of Scottish respondents said that the current availability of charging points in their area was “not adequate at all”, Certsure said.

This has led to many Scottish EV owners being forced to use “dangerous” methods to charge their cars, such as using indoor extension leads from a domestic mains socket, the charity added. 

ScottishPower currently provides energy to over 5 million UK households.

However, all updates to this distribution system must be approved by the industry regulator to ensure any investment, which is paid for by consumers, is worthwhile.

It believes the “demand-led” approval mechanism from the regulator must change when it comes to preparing the Scottish distribution system for the increase in EVs.

“We need to approach this path a bit differently. That regulatory framework works fine, for example if you’re looking to go and build a wind farm… but what we’re saying is that the rollout of electric vehicles is far more instantaneous and the growth rate could be far more exponential,” Mr Anderson said. 

HeraldScotland: There are currently 995 charge points in the countryThere are currently 995 charge points in the country

Ofgem said the current framework “already provides funding and incentives to allow network companies to support new sources of demand, including the uptake of electric vehicles”.

A spokesman for Ofgem said: “Our approach will ensure that networks can continue to connect and manage the low carbon technologies required to meet climate change targets, maintain high levels of reliability, and ensure that network capacity is not increased unnecessarily or at high cost.

“We encourage the network companies to continue working closely with their stakeholders to develop well-justified investment plans than reflect local and regional needs and priorities.”

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Scottish Greens Environment and Energy Spokesperson Mark Ruskell MSP said:  
“It is essential that government, Ofgem and energy companies get around the table and plan for our future energy needs. We are faced with a climate emergency which means more renewables coming on line and more electric vehicles drawing power from the grid. 

“It’s important that we have adequate infrastructure across the country, ensuring that those in the rural communities that I represent and others across Scotland can benefit as we transition away from fossil fuels.”

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said the Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, recently met the heads of ScottishPower and SSE to hear about the challenges facing the electricity networks.

“We are committed to working in close collaboration with the network companies to ensure that Scotland and Scottish consumers benefit from a comprehensive and cost effective EV charging network,” he said.