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Exploring Oxford, the UK’s EV infrastructure capital

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt hones in on Oxford, home to a groundbreaking Zero Emission Zone pilot, Europe’s largest EV charger, and prototype street technologies aimed at solving logistical problems facing Britain’s switch from petrol and diesel.

With a teaching history dating to 1096, making it among the oldest seats of higher education on the planet, the University of Oxford’s reputation for era-defining innovations and breakthroughs is as enviable as the list of Nobel prize winners linked to the institution. Not to mention countless groundbreaking books it has published. But the city itself is also prone to game-changing ideas.

Nowhere is this more visible than the drive towards clean travel. Policymakers in Oxford have been positioning themselves at the frontier of ideas and technologies that can help the UK as a whole move away from heavily polluting modes of transport. The launch of a pilot Zero Emission Zone last year made headlines as one of the most far-reaching schemes of its kind anywhere in the world, and a larger permanent iteration is due to come into effect this year. And that’s just one example.

Elsewhere, an Oxford City Council report suggests six new ‘traffic filters’ on roads around town could offer a 35% reduction in congestion. Some are opposed, but this is music to the ears of others. Like members of Oxfordshire Liveable Streets, who branded public transport in the area as ‘no faster than horse and cart’, with official figures putting average bus speeds at just 10mph across all routes due to sheer volume of traffic.

But the city’s pioneering efforts in developing a more sustainable transport network go well beyond this. Take GUL-E, for example. The system involves a durable channel – or gully – installed in footways, enabling smooth home electric vehicle (EV) charging for those without a driveway. Integrated into the pavement to avoid obstructing public highways, this unique intervention causes less street clutter than charger bollards and comes in at a fraction of the cost.

Proof of where long-term commitment to moving past diesel and petrol vehicles has taken the city, the design is just one product from a wider project known as GULO, or Go Ultra Low Oxford. Launched in 2017, the aim is for 24 residents and car clubs to trial five different charging technologies to ascertain viability, with a view to wider rollout across the city, county and beyond. The results so far have been impressive enough for the University of Oxford to label them of ‘global scientific significance.’

‘As a city council we’ve sectioned off part of our services to become Oxford Direct Services, or ODS. They still have responsibility to fix rental housing stock, run the car parks, and it’s entirely owned by the Council, but it means this arm can also be income generating and bid for outside work,’ says Cllr Louise Upton, Cabinet Member for Health and Transport & Cycling Champion. ‘They’ve taken on GUL-E and are running with it, and this is very much something aimed at local authorities elsewhere to buy into. It’s not simple, and the work is about more than just the solution of getting a cable from someone’s house across the pavement.

‘The expertise required also involves understanding the planning consent needed to actually put this infrastructure in place, for example on the outside of a house that might be in a conservation area. And how you get permission from a transport authority to run GUL-E across pavements and things like that. But it’s really important that we get this solution because for terraced housing there’s no other way of charging your car,’ she continues.

Cllr Louise Upton 

To understand how urgent that need is, UK government figures for March 2020 – the most recent available – suggest around 7m homes in Britain’s overall housing stock are terraced, with most occupants reliant on street parking. If the country is really bound for a future in which zero carbon vehicles become the norm, a huge number of residences will need innovations like GUL-E to be made available if they are to have the option of switching to EVs. The solution is now being actively marketed in the hope of reaching as many regions as possible, helping others expand infrastructure and raising vital revenue for the city at a time when budgets are under immense pressure.

‘The ward I represent happens to be one of the wealthier, leafier parts of central Oxford. Lots of people want to know when they can start thinking about buying electric cars,’ Upton replies when we ask if everyone has welcomed the level of investment these projects have seen. ‘In other areas of the city this is never discussed on the doorstep, because there’s no way they can afford an electric car, although this is starting to change, I think, as a second hand market develops.

‘But this is one of the reasons we have written an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy,’ she continues. ‘We need to meet future demand for charging infrastructure, but we want to do this equitably. That’s not necessarily something the council can put in ourselves, we don’t have the money, so we’re looking to work with private contracts to make sure we parcel up the city equally.’

One shining example of a partnership between the Council and business is the Energy Superhub – the world’s largest hybrid battery storage system and Europe’s most powerful EV charger. Although demand is nowhere near potential capacity at the time of writing, excess electricity not used by vehicles is currently channelled to ground source pumps heating over 60 council homes. As Tim Rose, Energy Superhub Oxford programme manager at EDF Renewables UK, which runs the site, tells us: ‘The aim is to help Oxford reach net zero by 2040, by decarbonising power, transport and heat.

‘The project is fully operational and capturing data and insights from the different technologies and how they are used, to help create a blueprint for other towns and cities to achieve net zero,’ he says. ‘[This] is one of up to 40 Energy Superhubs EDF Renewables UK is developing around the country, delivering up to 2GW of battery storage and creating the charging infrastructure needed to support the estimated 36m EVs that will be on UK roads by 2040.’

This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of Air Quality News. Find out what else you missed here

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