19 MAY 2021


Arup’s Alistair Hunter outlines three steps for accelerating the decarbonisation of road transport.

After years of talking, the time for decarbonising road transport has arrived. The EU has committed to becoming climate neutral by 2050 through the European Green Deal, which includes action to roll out cleaner, cheaper and healthier forms of transport, and in the UK, last year’s announcement that government will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 has focused minds. 

The question remains: what will make the greatest and fastest difference?

Reinforce local power distribution systems:

For the first time in most western geographies, local energy distributors face a new customer type on a rapid growth trajectory: light vehicles. A revolution in battery technology means that electric has 'won' the race over hydrogen for light vehicles, and with consumer anxiety about battery range fading, market desirability of electric vehicles (EVs) is high.

This means that the capacity and reliability of local power distribution systems matter in a way they never have before. Private EV users with at-home charging access will increasingly – and unwittingly – pose a profound challenge for local electricity distributors. We estimate that if up to four in ten houses use EVs on a typical UK housing estate and plug in at similar times after work, local electricity substations will reach capacity some of the time. Data-driven charging solutions that stagger vehicle charging can work around this demand issue, but only if we install such ‘smart’ systems now. Policymakers should take note – the market is unlikely to solve this one without being told to do so.

Given how little time we have for this transition, it’s time to get the governance right. Who is responsible for which element and how can problems be prevented that have the potential to choke progress? In many areas, if you’re the unlucky commercial customer who pushes local electricity demand above what the existing power infrastructure can cope with, your connection costs suddenly include the upgrade of a local electricity substation. This approach effectively halts connection applications in specific locations.

Provide equitable EV charging access:

One of the biggest issues facing local government is how to provide access to EV charging for those who can’t charge off-street at home. Around 30% of UK households are without access to off-street parking, with this problem affecting people of all socio-economic backgrounds.

Public authorities and planners are unsure how to provide safe, reliable, affordable EV charging provision to all – and unsure about their responsibilities on this. Clear national guidelines are needed on the provision of charging infrastructure, alongside clarity about the role each part of the supply chain will play, and new funding mechanisms to accelerate installation in areas we know will need it but where the market won’t provide. We will face a slower than necessary EV transition, unequal access to charging, and higher costs if the right national policies and funding don’t emerge quickly.

Take a closer look at hydrogen for heavier vehicles:

One of the debates about the ‘right’ way to decarbonise transport centres around the ‘best’ technology for heavy vehicles. Solutions include hydrogen, battery, and even catenary systems. Arguably, hydrogen is the most promising of these.

The combination of low-carbon hydrogen production and transport is clearly becoming a technically and commercially viable proposition across the world. Production distribution costs are still high but will drop with efficiencies. Investors and equipment manufacturers are keen to realise the potential, but what’s clear is that the market can only do so much – and carry so much risk – on its own.

A commercially viable hydrogen economy requires a healthy number of customers, which means that any government that wants to realise the potential of hydrogen for heavy vehicles needs to commit in the shape of clear policies and substantial public investment. Government support is also needed to set up scalable, future-looking value chains that allow for robust routes to market for investors, such as identifying locations to develop dedicated hydrogen corridors where heavy vehicle routes are abundant. In the UK, Industrial Cluster Funding for hydrogen is focusing on coastal areas like Teesside, Humberside and Merseyside, with public and private money combined to support large-scale hydrogen production.

With a transport decarbonisation plan from the government on the horizon, we need to turn ideas into action to reduce transport emissions while creating cities where people can thrive.

Alistair Hunter is highways leader in Arup’s UK, India, Middle East and Africa (UKIMEA) region.


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