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House of Commons Hansard

Electric and Low-emission Vehicles

15 June 2016
Volume 611

  • I beg to move,

    That this House has considered infrastructure and regulations to support electric and low-emission vehicles.

    We have worked together a lot in various all-party parliamentary groups and on various issues, Mrs Moon, but this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, and I very much look forward to it. There should be a large measure of agreement on this subject; I do not expect much disagreement. My interest is in securing information from the Government, rather than challenging them on policy, so this should be a pretty easy debate for you to chair.

    I am not in any way a petrol-head—I am not even a car enthusiast. The drivers behind my interest have been more to do with climate change, the targets we set in 2008 to reduce carbon emissions and, following on from that, safety and training within the motor industry in relation to ultra-low emission vehicles.

    The transformation we are seeing in the motor industry in our country and across the world is happening much quicker than we might have anticipated a few years ago. Last year, there was a more than 50% increase in the number of pure electric vehicles sold in Britain. We heard last week that by 2025 all new vehicles in Norway will be electric or low-emission vehicles, which is a tremendous change that will accelerate. This is not one of those issues where we are talking about what might be achieved. It is only five years since most motor companies decided to go down this route. Obviously Toyota started in the 1990s, but five years ago every car company in the world started to recognise that electric vehicles were going to be the future and were moving quickly down the road.

    Additionally, we are seeing the development of driverless cars and trains. We are seeing an absolute transformation in the way in which we will use our roads in future. There are many important associated issues. One is the massive investment needed in the vehicle charging network across the country—the infrastructure, electric charging points and hydrogen charging points. We need unbelievable investment, which is the purpose of my speech.

    We also need investment in training and developing technicians to support electric vehicles. The main driver behind my initial interest in this subject was the climate change targets we set in 2008 to meet the fundamental target of an 80% reduction in our carbon emissions by 2050. The stepping stones are the fourth and fifth carbon budgets—we are currently discussing the fifth carbon budget—and we want transport to contribute to that. Power generation has changed an awful lot. Generally speaking, we will meet the targets, but transport and heating are two areas that simply have not moved as quickly as we might have wanted.

  • I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently looked into air quality, and one issue is the hotspots in the cities where we have very high levels of nitric oxide. We therefore need to get our diesel lorries, cars and buses out of those areas. We need more electric cars and electric vehicles. Government support to install the necessary plug-in points, and so on, especially in the centre of cities, is important to increasing air quality in those hotspots.

  • My hon. Friend is certainly right, but it goes much further than that. We are seeing a whole new industry develop. The motor industry is a big part of the British economy, and it will completely change over the next 20 years. My interest in the climate change targets led me to accept an invitation to go to the BMW training centre at Reading. It was an eye-opener in several different ways, and not just my drive in an i8, which I would recommend to anyone. It is a bit like being in a rocket—it is an amazing experience. The visit helped me to understand what is happening, particularly on the development and training of technicians.

    The second eye-opener was on the safety of working on electric cars. I had not realised that the batteries in electric cars are 600 V. Any mistake results in death or very serious injury. That is the reality, so training is crucial. Anyone who works on an electric car without experience and training puts themselves in great danger. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that people are properly trained. Of course, the main distributers already ensure that they have people who can work on such cars, but it will not be long before electric cars enter the second-hand car market and are taken to local garages and to people who do a bit of second-hand car repair. We have to avoid the sorts of accidents that will seriously damage the industry. Developing and discovering technicians is becoming increasingly difficult. The Institute of the Motor Industry tells me that its surveys show that more than 80% of small independent garages have huge difficulty recruiting technicians. Will the Minister comment on how we can increase the numbers, and the skills, of technicians available to work in this emerging industry across Britain?

  • My hon. Friend is making a powerful argument about technicians and the way that technology is moving. I am delighted that York was awarded “Go Ultra Low” city status for its work on installing electric charging points to move the electric car industry forwards. He is right about infrastructure, but does he agree that electric cars will not solve the whole problem and that we have to consider hydrogen, too? Does he agree that Germany and Japan are moving their hydrogen technology forward at a rapid pace? Is that not something that the UK should follow? We need to train technicians in hydrogen technology, as well as on the electrical side of things.

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not know exactly what the future holds. We should use the term “ultra-low emission vehicles,” rather than “electric vehicles,” because hydrogen fuel cell technology may well develop quicker. Things change incredibly quickly. It is only five years since the companies starting producing electric cars. In another five years, who knows? Hydrogen fuel cells might be the future, but that technology requires massive infrastructure investment, too. Unless people can charge their car at a reasonable distance from home, the industry will not take off. That is one of the issues the Government face. There has to be an element of assessment of what the future will be, but having said that, we must be prepared for technology and invention taking us down a road that we had not wholly anticipated taking.

    There are three points that I wish to raise with the Government; I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to them. First, I am not a natural regulator, or a person who would naturally support new licensing regimes; I would probably support the opposite approach. However, this is a massive industry. The IMI claims that by 2030 there will be a commercial and social benefit of £51 billion. I do not know how accurate that figure is, but clearly there will be a huge commercial benefit from what is going to happen. There is potential for a huge export business. All those things will happen, but we must have the safety and the technicians. Developing that side of the industry is important. It is not just about having the ability to manufacture cars; we also need the technicians to support that industry, and at the moment we just do not have them. We have to develop a system to deal with the safety aspects, and probably to help the development of a professionalism in working with these low-emission vehicles.

    The Government might have to consider providing financial support, and they will certainly have to introduce a licensing system, because one death in an electric vehicle would clearly be massively tragic for the individual concerned and their family, and also tragic for the entire industry. A report of a death from an electric car on the front page of the Daily Mail would inflict a massive blow on an industry that I think will be hugely important to the future economy of our country.

    The second issue is whether the Government should financially support a training industry. Again, I am not a natural supporter of Government intervention, through finance, in commercial markets, but the Government already support the development of the electric car industry. We offer grant support for the purchase of new vehicles, to reduce their price and to develop the industry, so I do not see any reason why we ought not to consider supporting the training infrastructure that is absolutely vital if the industry is to develop successfully. That is another issue that I would quite like to hear the Minister comment on.

    The third issue is about the IMI. I have been very grateful for its advice and support; it makes a very strong argument on this issue, and that has informed some of the things that I have said this morning. I hope that the Minister would consider meeting the IMI to talk through the points that it makes very powerfully and persuasively. In my view, such a meeting would be very helpful, and I hope that the Minister is willing to agree to it.

  • My hon. Friend is giving the Minister some good points to consider; I have a further point that he might wish to consider about this industry. In most EU countries, electric cars increase carbon emissions because of our current generating profile. As was rightly said, the fifth carbon budget is under consideration. Do we not need to be aware that this technology, at least for the next decade, will potentially increase carbon emissions in the UK and most parts of Europe?

  • I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is a comment I have heard before. However, we are developing a completely new technology. The aim is lower emissions. We are trying to reach a decarbonisation target. Unless we achieve the aim of decarbonisation, this industry will not deliver what we want. However, I think that in the longer run, this is the route that we will go down. Practically, this is what is going to happen, and we need to take commercial advantage of this opportunity.

  • My hon. Friend has secured an excellent debate, and he is being a very useful advocate for electric cars. However, does he agree that the great advantage of electric cars, as part of the electrification of both transport and heat, is that they present a fantastic storage opportunity within the grid, which may help us to achieve our decarbonisation targets, rather than making them more difficult to achieve?

  • Again, that is a hugely helpful contribution to the debate. I am on the Environment and Climate Change Committee with my hon. Friend, and we know how important the development of storage is for the future. Electric cars are potentially one of the major means of storage. If their use develops quickly, as I expect it to, they will be a major contributor right across the board to our meeting our decarbonisation targets.

    I do not disagree with the Minister; I hope that he can respond to the questions that I have put to him. This debate is the start of a major discussion about the development of a new industry, and I look forward to hearing his response to it. In closing, may I say how grateful I am to those hon. Friends who have intervened? They have made very good points that I probably should have included in my speech.

  • It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) on securing the debate. I must admit to being a petrol-head, or rather a diesel and steam-head. Nevertheless, I understand that although it is important that we preserve our historic vehicle heritage, we should also look to a more sustainable future. I assure the House that the Government are committed to positioning the United Kingdom as a world leader in electric vehicle uptake and manufacture.

    Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK became the first country to introduce a legally binding target on climate change—an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Transport needs to play a leading role, both to meet this important national target and to address air quality issues in the UK.

    In the transport sector, emissions are dominated by those from road vehicles. We have therefore set ourselves the aim of nearly every car and van on our roads being a zero-emissions vehicle by 2050. That will require all new cars and vans on sale to be zero-emissions by around 2040. I understand that this is a bold and ambitious target, which is why we have in place one of the most comprehensive support packages in the world, and at the last spending review we committed over £600 million to help grow the UK market for these vehicles.

  • I congratulate the Government on the money they are spending in this sector. However, in the particular hot-spots within cities, where there is actually a court case for Britain to reduce its emissions by 2025, there is a need to act much more quickly, particularly in those inner-city areas where we have problems with nitric oxide.

  • Thankfully it is not nitrous oxide, which would be a laughing matter. Nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide are major pollutants. Of course, now that we know more about what is happening in diesel engines after the Volkswagen scandal came to light, the Government are working on that issue. Indeed, I am working with my fellow European Ministers, particularly those in Germany, to address that problem. Sustainable vehicles such as electric and hydrogen cars, which produce no tailpipe emissions, will certainly play a very important part in the transport sector.

    It is interesting to note that although the record on car emissions has been disappointing, trucks have been operating pretty much as they should, mainly due to the fact that the monitoring equipment, which previously was too big to get in the boot of a car, is now able to be put on the back of a lorry. So the truck and bus sectors have actually been very good.

    Since 2011, more than 70,000 claims have been made for plug-in car and van grants. At least £400 million has been committed to this scheme. With the grant guaranteed until at least March 2018, tens of thousands more motorists will be helped to make the switch to a cleaner vehicle.

    Electric vehicle sales are now growing rapidly. Registrations reached a record high in 2015, as 28,188 new electric vehicles arrived on UK roads. More electric vehicles were registered in the UK in 2015 than in the previous four years combined. I am very proud of that progress. Electric vehicles have the potential to unlock innovation and create new advanced industries that spur job growth and enhance economic prosperity.

    The low emission vehicle industry already supports more than 18,000 UK jobs and is a key pillar in our ambition for a low-carbon, high-tech, high-skills economy. The UK is already attracting global investment. Nissan’s LEAF, which is built in Sunderland, makes up 20% of electric vehicle sales across Europe. Geely has pledged £300 million to make plug-in hybrid taxis and vans at a new plant under construction in Coventry, creating 1,000 jobs. Ford’s Dunton technical centre in Essex is one of only two global hubs for the development of its electric powertrains.

    Support for electric vehicle charging infrastructure has also facilitated the growth of home-grown and ambitious small and medium-sized enterprises. For example, in 2015 Chargemaster, a company that designs and manufactures its products in Milton Keynes, launched its new UltraCharger, which is already being sold in the UK and abroad.

    The electric vehicle market is already a success story for the UK, but we need to maintain momentum if we are to meet our ambitious goals. We recognise the need to develop manufacturing and servicing skills to support the growing ultra-low emission vehicle market. The Government have set out an industry-led approach to skills training and apprenticeships. The new Institute for Apprenticeships’ programmes are already emerging, for example at Gateshead College’s skills academy and at Nissan in Sunderland. I understand the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire made: as cars get older and move down the vehicle food chain, so to speak, there will be more call for servicing at local garages. It is important that they have the skills to service the vehicles safely and so ensure that we do not have any nasty accidents.

    In terms of air quality, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles’ “Go Ultra Low” city scheme is dedicated to supporting cities across the UK to deliver transformational change. Some £40 million has been awarded to eight cities delivering more infrastructure, including lane access, additional planning requirements and a host of other measures. Those exemplar cities will be key in demonstrating ways of addressing air quality issues. The Government-backed self-regulatory body for the motor industry is committed to maintaining high standards covering new technologies, warranties, car service and repair. The garage finder helps locate businesses committed to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute’s approved code of practice. I hope the progress we made through the block exemption on data for the servicing of conventional vehicles will also help people access the data they need to service these new kinds of vehicles.

    Thanks to Government leadership and growing private sector and local authority engagement, the UK now has more than 11,000 public charge points, including more than 850 rapid charge points. That is the largest network in Europe. There are also more than 60,000 domestic charge points. The latest statistics suggest that the average distance to the nearest charge point is just over 4 miles in Great Britain, although I admit that my constituency is a little bit of a charge point desert, and I hope that will be addressed. There are a number of such locations; the constituency of the Secretary of State for Transport is another that does not have a large number of charge points, and we need to address that in parallel with the tourist industry.

  • In advance of the Energy and Climate Change Committee’s hearing about electric cars last week, I did some work to look at the roll-out of petrol pumps for petrol engines a century ago. It was clear that the car came first and the petrol network thereafter. Incentivising the uptake of electric cars must surely be the priority, rather than incentivising the roll-out of charging points. Will the Minister comment on how the Department for Transport and the Treasury intend to compensate for the loss of petrol pump tax revenues as a result of an increased uptake of electric cars?

  • I suspect that that question should be put to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but falling duty levels from petrol and diesel because we have embraced this new technology would be a very good problem to have. Dare I say it, but I am sure the Chancellor or future Chancellors will come up with other, more devious ways of collecting tax from everyday people. As someone who owns a car constructed in 1900, I am well aware of the problems—particularly in the UK, as we were so slow to embrace the gasoline engine car—that people had refuelling their cars. They are not unlike the problems that people are having in charging their electric vehicles.

    The electric vehicle only really makes sense on a slow overnight charge, when we have surplus electricity in the grid. Although fast charging is there to address issues of range, there is not really a prospect of thousands and thousands of cars up and down the country fast-charging at service stations. Electric cars make sense in terms of overnight charging at home.

    A point was made earlier about sustainable electricity. We talk about zero tailpipe emissions, but that electricity has to be generated somewhere. Germany has sustainable delivery, but given its decision to abandon its nuclear programme and rely more on fossil fuels, the way that hydrogen and electricity are generated is a problem when it comes to better electric and hydrogen vehicles. Norway, with its large amounts of hydroelectricity, is well able to take that up.

    Another point raised in an intervention was about electric cars as a means of storage. I was recently at a conference in Germany, where that issue was raised with Tesla. One of the issues is the number of cycles that a car’s battery may have to undergo if it is used as a means of storing electricity to be released into the grid. Some of the manufacturers are concerned that the battery life of their vehicles—it is very good, and better than many expected—could be compromised by large numbers of charge cycles being used in that way. An alternative is that when cars are scrapped the old batteries could be put into banks and used for emergency power supplies in hospitals or to augment the grid.

  • I was listening carefully to what the Minister said about the potential for increased carbon emissions due to this technology, notwithstanding the storage point, which I accept. He said that there were 28,000 electric cars in the UK. Does his Department make any attempt to measure the incremental increase in carbon emissions that that has caused, given our current generating profile and our likely profile in the short term? Is that number measured at all? I know that is an issue for the Energy and Climate Change Committee.

  • The calculation certainly needs to be done as we roll out these vehicles. I expect that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is making those predictions. It depends, as my hon. Friend said, not only on the proportion of sustainable vehicles in the fleet, but on how that electricity is generated, particularly off-peak and overnight. Nuclear energy—the Government are determined to press forward in building a new fleet of stations—is ideally suited to overnight charging using off-peak electricity.

    Throughout this Parliament, charging infrastructure will also be delivered through dedicated schemes for cleaner buses and taxis. As part of the £40-million “Go Ultra Low” city scheme, millions of pounds of funding will contribute to infrastructure deployment across eight cities in the UK. Those projects are focused on the most advanced technology for fast, reliable, smart and easily accessible charging for every driver. Highways England, which the Government have more control over than cities, has £15 million of funding to ensure that there is a charge point every 20 miles across 95% of the strategic road network, with rapid charging where possible.

    Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles also have an important role in decarbonising road transport. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire had to say about driving the BMW vehicle. I drove the Honda vehicle, and it was no different from driving any other car, which is probably a problem solved. It was a pleasure, and I did not know that it did not have a normal engine under the bonnet. We are supporting infrastructure provision in line with the current state of market development. The Government provided £5 million of funding to help develop 12 publicly accessible hydrogen refuelling stations to support the roll-out of hydrogen vehicles. All 12 are being commissioned during the course of this year and will provide a significant first step towards an initial hydrogen refuelling network.

    Just last month, a refuelling station in Teddington in London was officially opened by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones). The network of stations will support vehicle manufacturers that are introducing their first models of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Indeed, our support for hydrogen for transport has helped secure the UK’s status as one of only a handful of global launch markets for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

    There is much more that I could have said about our ambitions to press forward with this new technology. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate on an important subject. I underline the Government’s commitment to ensuring that these sustainable new technologies are rolled out in the UK.

    Question put and agreed to.

  • Sitting suspended.