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Electric vehicles - driving towards an energy dilemma

Our Chairman Peter Rolton has been featured in this month's edition of Energy World, with a thought piece exploring the evolving electric vehicle landscape and the challenges that lie on the road ahead.

26th June 2017    |     Peter Rolton: Chairman

Just a few years ago, electrically powered cars were solely in the realms of science fiction but now the great electric vehicle revolution is well and truly upon us. According to The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders there are 87,000 full electric or hybrid EVs on our roads today – more than a 20-fold rise over the past three years alone. And it’s not just passenger transport where drivers are making the switch to plug-ins. EVs are also infiltrating goods vehicle fleets with around 5,000 electric vans registered in March 2017 alone.

The pace of change shows no signs of slowing. It is predicted [1] that uptake of EVs will increase to saturate the passenger vehicle fleet over the next 30 years, with an estimated 35% of all vehicles on UK roads being electrically powered by 2035 rising to two thirds of vehicles by 2050. This rapid emergence of EVs from concept into the world of everyday transport has far-reaching implications, particularly impacting on our built environment and across our highways, energy and communications networks.

A number of factors are driving the uptake of EVs in the UK, with increased choice from car manufacturers, improved technology, growing consumer demand and government incentives all playing a part. Their adoption has also been in large part down to environmentally-led legislation. The UK is among 13 members of the Zero Emission Vehicle Alliance to have pledged to make all passenger vehicles “zero-emissions” by 2050. In London, the environmental and financial benefits of EV ownership are starting to combine. From April 2019, vehicles entering the current congestion charge zone will have to pay an additional fee unless they meet exhaust emissions standards ultra-low emission standards. Several other UK cities are also considering following the capital’s example by introducing their own congestion zones with charge exemptions and discounts available for ultra-low emission vehicles. Moreover, government investment of more than £600m by 2020 to “support the uptake and manufacturing of ultra-low-emission vehicles”, including £38m to be spent on public charging points, is bound to boost ownership of EVs still further.

Over recent years, we’ve seen electric vehicle charging points spring up for public use across our road network, particularly in city centres and along our major highways. Taking note of the changes in the automotive market, and in a bid to own a slice of the electric vehicles sector, we’re also seeing the big oil companies reacting to the evolution as drivers swap from fuel pumps to plug-ins. Both Shell and Total, traditionally known for their nationwide fuel stations, are introducing battery charging points at European stations. In addition, there is a growing number of charging points being installed on private residential and commercial properties. As a result of this private investment and a sustained push from government, the UK network of electric vehicle charging points has increased from a just few hundred in 2011 to more than 12,000 today.

However, there has been little or no cohesion in creating this charging network. There are four main EV charger types to be found installed across the UK: 'slow' (up to 3kW) which are best suited for charging overnight of small vehicles; 'fast' (7-22kW) which can fully recharge some models in 3-4 hours; 'rapid' (43-50kW) which are increasingly being installed across the UK and can provide an 80% charge in around 30 minutes for smaller vehicles and the Tesla Superchargers which are 120kW that can charge to full in 75 minutes for larger capacity batteries like the Model 90s. The result is a fragmented and unreliable experience for drivers, with lack of compatibility between some electric vehicles and plug-in points and a user potentially requiring a handful of apps to charge their car.

The power supply rates noted above are suitable for today’s EV battery capacities; but with this likely to increase in the coming years driven by demand for improved vehicle ranges, the power provision may no longer be sufficient hence the increasing demand for superchargers. Whilst the early adopters of EVs were largely those making shorter journeys (typically no more than 100 miles) due to the relatively small battery capacities available, disruptive technology is continuing to reshape our transport choices. Take for example Tesla, who have developed a vehicle with market-leading batteries offering the best mileage currently available – theoretically over 300 miles on a single charge. The brand delivered over 76,000 electric vehicles last year, accounting for a 9% market share and overtaking Ford in its market value. Such technological advances by automotive manufacturers and battery developers to improve the ranges of EVs are increasing the feasibility and attractiveness of electric vehicles for the mass market.

The speed at which electric vehicles are being adopted in the UK and the resulting rising demand for charging points has far-reaching implications when it comes to energy production and consumption. In place for decades, the UK’s ageing electricity network is facing unprecedented demand for power. Our old grid is constantly being stretched to its limits and electric vehicle charging could push it to breaking point. The predicted mainstream shift from fuel tanks to batteries will be a huge challenge. Indeed, BP’s latest annual report on future energy trends, reveals the company is bracing itself for a revolution in electric car use that it predicts could halve driver demand for oil; based on a very conservative estimate of uptake in EV. For decades, the energy demands for the UK have been provided by burning an enormous volume of petrol and diesel. This will instead be taken as electricity from the grid – an immense change in capacity and load profile demands.

It is not just the energy infrastructure at national level that needs to be considered. While the grid as a whole theoretically has capacity to supply the average increase in power for EV charging expected in the UK in the short term, peaks in demand, higher uptake in certain areas and lack of infrastructure investment have the potential to create imminent and significant challenges at a local level. The Green Alliance recently commented that, without action by 2020, clusters of battery powered cars could result in 1% of the UK experiencing unplanned drops in voltage, potentially damaging electronic equipment. Simply charging one car requires a similar amount of electricity to that which a typical home uses in three days. On a housing development where commuters all return home from work at a similar time of day and simultaneously plug in their EVs, the resulting peak could overstretch networks at a local level.

There is a clear need for us to develop a robust and sustainable energy infrastructure to meet our growing demand. One solution could be decentralised energy generation, allowing less reliance on the UK electricity grid. Installing off-grid power supply solutions, such as PV or wind turbines, would not only facilitate the power requirements that come with EVs but would also a secure energy supply for the future. This solution not only meets the increased power demand on a specific site, but also supports the growing demand on the grid as a whole.

There are also new options beginning to emerge for energy-conscious homeowners. Whilst it is yet to be adopted widely, the first installation of the Tesla Powerwall took place in Wales last month, aiming to provide the “missing link” between solar power and EV charging. Tesla claims that by utilising existing PV panels to store energy in a household battery, UK homes could be supplying their own electricity independently for months at a time by 2025 in order to power both their property and their vehicles.

There is a significant opportunity for the development of a new generation of these types of localised energy storage measures. These would enable both the management of peak power demand from electric vehicle charging at a particular location and could also be used provide grid balancing services to the UK electricity grid which is of paramount importance for a successful infrastructure solution. Energy storage can also negate the need for expensive infrastructure upgrades that may be required to successfully provide electric vehicle charging.

With the EV revolution well and truly underway, ensuring that the UK is prepared for the multi-faceted challenges and opportunities offered by mainstream adoption of electric vehicles is critical. Regardless of the changes to the political landscape thrown up by Brexit and the announcement of the snap general election, the government’s commitment to invest in electric vehicles is clear. But there is no such commitment to ensuring that our ageing energy infrastructure will remain fit for purpose. Our transport, energy and communications networks are becoming increasingly and inextricably linked and a cohesive UK-wide strategy driving cross-sector collaboration between government and industry will be vital to develop a robust infrastructure to meet the challenges posed by the emerging brave new electric vehicle world.

[1] Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative

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