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By Nigel Morris, Electric Vehicle Integration Manager, Active Building Centre

There’s no doubt that the drive to move towards a net-zero carbon society by 2050 is one of the biggest challenges currently facing UK business, particularly those with vehicle fleets.

To put it in perspective, we’ve got 30 years left to reach our agreed targets and over 70% of company fleets are still reliant on internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles compared to only 4% with fully electric fleets. It presents a considerable challenge as we are already on the back foot in meeting our objectives. Road transport accounts for 30% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions and 23% worldwide.

The silver lining is that there are a number of solutions currently being developed, or available. These have the ability to rapidly turn the tides, encouraging a sea change in attitudes which will foster mass adoption of electric vehicles, a crucial step to significantly reducing carbon output from transport. One method to engender this shift is through the proliferation of ‘Active Buildings’.

The built environment is often overlooked when it comes to emissions but it accounts for a sizeable proportion of emissions, inextricably linked with transport and infrastructure. The way we think about our buildings could be the key to unlocking the potential of electric vehicles for company fleets, and offsetting the initial replacement costs of phasing out ICE vehicles.

Taking an Active Building approach

In brief, an Active Building is a systems approach, which supports the wider energy system by intelligently integrating renewable energy technologies for heat, power and transport. Significantly, they reduce demand on the National Grid, currently a crucial balancing factor towards mass adoption of EVs.

It’s a relatively modest proposal, but equally, it’s not as banal as tacking a solar panel to the office roof and an extra power outlet in the carpark. What we’re referring to is an intuitive system by which energy is directly generated through photovoltaic panels (or other renewable energy systems) on a building’s roof and walls, can be stored in the structure of the building itself and then released on demand through a smart management system.

The idea is that, as well as heating and powering the building, it could power vehicles too, supporting mobility needs, whether a single car or a fleet of lorries. As such, structures built according to this system present an opportunity for businesses to start switching their fleets away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable, green energy solutions.

Change will need to be gradual, and many businesses will need to be incentivised by our policy makers in order to absorb the upfront costs associated with rapid ICE scrappage and EV introduction. The best place to start will be with future builds, whether that be warehouses, headquarters or offices, before focusing on the challenges of retrofitting existing structures.

How the Active Building approach is cost-effective

Fundamentally, an Active Building will make this a cost effective move in the long term. The potential fuel savings should be a major motivator. For example, on our test site at Swansea University, our founder, Professor Dave Worsley, has covered 20,000 miles in his Nissan Leaf over the last 12 months, all powered solely by energy generated through PV panels – effectively, free fuel. It’s easy to imagine the potential on a large scale and the substantial savings which could be made on a company’s fleet cost. The long-term benefits will quickly outweigh the short-term impact.

Equally, Active Buildings will contribute to a reduction in the running costs of a company’s built assets as the energy, when correctly harnessed, stored and released, can also be used to heat the building and power appliances. This will, in turn, significantly reduce energy bills and drive down internal costs.

Of course there are a few hurdles which need to be surmounted on a national scale. Chief amongst these is the lack of EV charging points, particularly in rural and remote areas, as highlighted by ACFO’s chair in a recent Fleet News article. The fact is, the more Active Buildings we have, the more charge points there will be available to drivers at regular intervals. The recent roaming agreement struck by Europe’s largest charge point providers is a step in the right direction, but it must go further. We also need buy-in from policy makers and energy suppliers.

Importantly, the next government needs to create a holistic strategy which allows for the establishment of charging points in remoter, rural areas. This will truly pave the way for EV fleets to become the norm, not the exception.

It’s our aim to develop and increase an understanding amongst fleet managers and business owners about how our structures can work harder towards a net zero carbon future. However, it must be cost effective in the long term if we are going to induce UK PLC to make a significant change to their business models. Building with electric vehicles in mind is just one way of doing it. Active Buildings offer a readily available answer.

Published December 2019 

Originally published: Fleet News