Energy watchdog accused of stalling electric vehicle rollout

The energy regulator has been accused by Scottish Power of hindering the UK’s electric vehicle rollout due to its “colossal disconnect” with Britain’s climate policies.

Keith Anderson, the chief executive of the “big six” energy company, said businesses in the sector could do more to help the UK become a carbon neutral economy, but efforts are being held back by Ofgem’s outdated regulation.

The Guardian revealed earlier this year that Ofgem’s remit as regulator has remained unchanged since 2011, despite the growing public concern over the climate crisis and new legislation to establish a carbon neutral economy by 2050.

The regulator refused to allow Scottish Power to invest an extra £42m in upgrading its networks in Scotland and the north-west of England to prepare for rising demand for electric vehicles chargers.

Ofgem said customers should not have to foot the bill for the company’s plans because the proposal does not offer enough evidence for how much car charging capacity will be used in future.

The decision has reignited concern that Ofgem’s existing mandate, which aims to protect energy customers, does not factor in the need for long-term investment to cut carbon emissions.

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“There is a colossal disconnect between government policy and the regulator’s policy,” Anderson said.

“We have a government willing to invest money in electric vehicles ahead of time, and an industry regulator sitting back and saying, ‘No, we don’t think so.’ But the government has set a 2050 climate target, and a ban on combustion engine vehicles by 2040 which could come forward to 2035. This is going to happen.”

Ofgem said delivering a zero emissions economy is one of its “key priorities”, and it has already ensured energy networks are well-funded to accommodate low carbon demand such as electric vehicles.

“If Scottish Power can adequately demonstrate the investment that is needed they may be able to reapply at a later date,” a spokeswoman said.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) warned last week that the UK will fail to meet its climate targets unless Ofgem is given new responsibilities to support climate action.

The government’s infrastructure tsars said ministers need to update the mandate for energy, water and telecoms regulators to dismantle the “culture of short-termism” that undermines the long-term investment decisions needed to tackle the climate crisis.

Quick guide

What zero emissions in 2050 would mean for the UK

The Committee on Climate Change says cutting greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 is necessary, affordable and desirable. Here are some of the actions needed to make that happen:

• Petrol and diesel cars banned from sale ideally by 2030 and 2035 at the latest.

• Quadrupling clean electricity production from wind, solar and perhaps nuclear, plus batteries to store it and connections to Europe to share the load.

• Connection of new homes to the gas grid ending in 2025, with boilers using clean hydrogen or replaced by electric powered heat pumps. Plus, all homes and appliances being highly efficient. 

• Beef, lamb and dairy consumption falling by 20%, though this is far lower than other studies recommend and a bigger shift to plant-based diets would make meeting the zero target easier.

• A fifth of all farmland – 15% of the UK – being converted to tree planting and growing biofuel crops and restoration of peat bogs. This is vital to take CO2 out of the air to balance unavoidable emissions from cattle and planes.

• 1.5bn new trees will be needed, meaning more than 150 football pitches a day of new forests from now to 2050.

• Flying would not be banned, but the number of flights will depend on how much airlines can cut emissions with electric planes or biofuels.

Sir John Armitt, the chair of the NIC, said: “If ministers are serious about a low-carbon revolution, they must act quickly and decisively to modernise regulation.”

The Energy Networks Association added that including a climate change mandate in Ofgem’s regulatory duties would be “a major step forward” to help ensure that the UK “takes the smartest, most innovative approach to delivering decarbonisation”.