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HGVs: Charging and Refuelling

Volume 830: debated on Monday 22 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage and develop a network of public charging and refuelling sites for zero-emission HGVs, and what policies are they adopting to encourage and facilitate the development of charging and refuelling infrastructure at commercial HGV depots.

My Lords, the Government recognise that charging and refuelling sites required to support zero-emission HGV uptake will need to increase before 2040. Last year’s future of freight plan committed to convening industry stakeholders to develop a plan for rollout, which is happening through our Freight Energy Forum. Extensive stakeholder engagement will begin later this year.

My Lords, it is accepted that a very large number of electric vehicle charging points, particularly ultra-fast ones, will be required in the near future, and that those will mainly be needed in depots. However, the National Grid is giving applicants for extra grid capacity completion dates and access dates that are well into the 2030s. What are the Government doing to ensure there is sufficiently large grid capacity throughout the UK to enable this logistics revolution to proceed apace?

The Government are taking a two-phased approach to this, and those phases are happening concurrently. The first is that we need to discuss with industry stakeholders exactly how they feel the strategy for the rollout of zero-emission vehicles will go, particularly at the heavy end. That is why we will publish the zero-emission HGV infrastructure strategy later this year, once we have been able to discuss it with those stakeholders. The Government are confident that the grid can cope with the increased demand, and the next step is to ensure that depots can connect to it. We are working with the DNOs to find the most cost-effective solution to that.

My Lords, can we pause and reflect for a moment on the implications of this situation? As has already been suggested, would not a fleet of HGVs all topping up with electricity add a colossal load to our electricity supply and transmission system, even to the point, some say, that the existing cables could melt, causing local outages? Where is this enormous extra volume of electricity going to come from and where is the investment to generate it; and where is the investment for the National Grid transformation required to get any of this to work?

My noble friend raises a very important point. That is why, as part of the decarbonisation of HGVs, the Government are investing £200 million in the zero-emission road freight demonstrator programme, which will look at all the different technologies available. For some vehicles, battery electric will be the best option, but for others we expect hydrogen fuel cells to be far more relevant. Therefore, we need the zero-emission HGV infrastructure strategy, which will examine what a network of green hydrogen sites would look like, as well as the impact on the grid and where on it the additional electricity will be needed.

My Lords, a number of HGV fleet operators I have talked to in Cambridgeshire just want decisions to be made and a strategy to be progressed. Many of them think that hydrogen fuel cells will be the best technology for large HGVs, but there is no infrastructure for that, and they are looking for support for infrastructure well before the date on which they have to stop buying new diesel trucks.

I accept it is most likely that a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure will be needed. That is exactly why the Government are taking time, over the next six months or so, working with the stakeholders who sit on the Freight Energy Forum to establish exactly what that might look like. We need to set the strategic direction to ensure that the infrastructure is in place for 2040, but we also need to look at the evidence that will come from the zero-emission road freight demonstrator programme so that it can feed into that strategy.

My Lords, I am encouraged by my noble friend the Minister’s reply to my noble friend Lord Lansley. It takes up to 10 hours for an HGV to plug in and recharge from one of these stations. More to the point, China controls 75% of battery production, but hydrogen is a race we are well placed to win. What plans does my noble friend have to work with producers of HGVs—not only fuel rod producers but producers of internal combustion engines that run on hydrogen—to achieve a workable rollout which will cover our transport networks?

My noble friend is right that working with stakeholders is key. The Government cannot solve the industry’s issues in this regard by centralising the decision-making for them, and it will be up to the stakeholders to decide what sort of vehicles they believe will be taken forward. I believe it will be a combination of battery electric and hydrogen fuel cells, and that is why the infrastructure strategy we are working on is so important. My noble friend mentioned hydrogen internal combustion engines. We believe that they are not zero-emission engines as they produce trace carbon dioxide and NOx. They also have very low energy efficiency in real-world applications, at about 25%, compared to 90% for battery electric and about 60% for hydrogen fuel cells.

My Lords, will the Government ensure that there are sufficient dedicated recharging facilities available for commercial vehicles so that large and small commercial vans are deterred from using the often scarce recharging facilities for private cars available at motorway services?

The Government are working at pace on electric vehicle chargers, for both commercial and private use. We are focusing on Project Rapid and the rapid charging fund, which looks at long-distance journeys. The second area is local electric vehicle infrastructure, including on-road charging in local areas, which can be used by commercial vehicles as well.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The problems with the grid and the urgent need for both investment in and strategic planning for the grid emerge as more and more of an issue. That is one of the reasons why this House supported an amendment to the Energy Bill, to give Ofgem an objective to contribute to the achievement of net zero. Would the Minister be kind enough to talk to her colleagues and make sure that the Government do not try to reverse that amendment in another place?

I will certainly ensure that my colleagues are aware of the noble Baroness’s interest. The price controls being used by Ofgem are very helpful in encouraging investment. There is new, agile regulation called the net zero reopener, which allows network operators to apply for additional funding for zero-emission projects.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, is absolutely right about the exponential increase in demand for electrical power. Does the Minister agree that the only way we can really achieve this and have the right amount of baseload power is through the use of nuclear? We really must put all our weight behind producing nuclear power, developing SMRs and getting it available; otherwise, there is no way we will meet this requirement.

My colleagues at DESNZ, as I believe it is called nowadays, will be cognisant of our need to produce a significant amount of renewable electricity in future, and I hope that nuclear is part of that.

Does the Minister see a connection between the previous Question and this one, and will she acknowledge that public transport in this country is in a dire condition? I drive electric. There is still nowhere to charge up here; one dare not go on a long journey because there is nowhere to charge. The train between Didcot and Oxford has been out of action for months. The main road from the west of Oxford to the station is being closed for 12 months. We are virtually prisoners in our own home. I dread to think what this is doing for the tourist trade and business generally, but nobody seems to care.

I am very sorry to hear that the noble Baroness has experienced those issues in her local area; they are certainly not replicated across the country. She may be talking about the Nuneham viaduct, where there has been some subsidence. It closed on 3 April. We understand the frustration, but we are working very closely with GWR, CrossCountry, Chiltern and Network Rail to ensure that we get passengers moving. Engineers are working on the project, and we hope to have good news for the noble Baroness soon.

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness said that the grid said it was confident it could meet the challenges of HGV electrical supply. The problem is extremely sophisticated: it is likely to be grouped in hubs and there is likely to be very high demand. Electrical systems are basically rather fragile, and this needs a very sophisticated approach. Is the National Grid part of the Freight Energy Forum, and if not, why not?

The Freight Energy Forum feeds into the Department for Transport and, indeed, across government. While I accept that HGV depots will have significantly high demand for renewable electricity, other areas, particularly hard-to-abate sectors, will need much more. We are confident that with continued investment in the grid, we will be able to meet the needs of all the elements that need to be decarbonised, and that will uptick their electricity usage. As I mentioned previously, we have done that with a range of price controls, but also strategic planning for the future.