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Leading the charge towards an electric vehicle future

After recently authoring an article for New Power, Deputy Managing Director, Chris Evans, summarises his thoughts from the piece exploring the evolving electric vehicle (EV) landscape and the challenges and opportunities that lie on the road ahead.

22nd November 2018    |     Chris Evans: Deputy Managing Director

No one can have failed to notice the meteoric rise of EVs in the UK over the past decade, and with this exponential growth only set to continue, the power generation and supply sector has a number of key issues to address. Over the coming years, electricity will become the dominant source of power for the majority of vehicles on British roads - but how can we ensure that we have both the power capacity and infrastructure in place to support this transformation?

The rise of electric vehicles

It wasn’t so long ago when electrically powered cars existed only in the realms of science fiction but now, the EV revolution is well and truly underway in real life, transforming the face of transportation across the UK. After a slow uptake amongst the nation’s drivers - with early models such as the Smart, GWiz and Mitsubishi MiEV accounting for just 138 registrations on UK roads in 2010 - just seven years later, the British plug-in fleet is now the fourth largest in Europe. There were almost 168,000 EVs registered in the UK by April 2018 – more than a 20-fold rise over the past three years alone.

The trend shows no sign of slowing and of the 38 million vehicles registered for use on UK roads, it is predicted that 35% will be electric by 2035. By 2050, EVs will have saturated the passenger vehicle market, which accounts for 69% of all UK vehicles. The UK forecast mirrors the global outlook with Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) predicting that worldwide sales of EVs will reach 41 million by 2040, representing 35% of all new light duty vehicle sales.

What’s driving the EV revolution?

Undoubtedly, environmental targets have been significant drivers for EV uptake across the UK. The Clean Growth Strategy was heralded as paving the way for a suite of low carbon opportunities, including increasing use of EVs and transitioning UK industry to clean fuels. The UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has also endorsed a target of 60% of new car sales to be EVs by 2030 - a scenario which would result in 13.6 million EVs on UK roads in just twelve years’ time. In addition, the UK is among the 13 members of the Zero Emission Vehicle Alliance, aiming to make all passenger vehicles “zero-emissions” by 2050.

Such environmentally focused legislations and policies are increasing the pressure on automotive manufacturers who all need to create vehicles that keep up with these new demands. As internal combustion engines are reaching a technological plateau for emissions efficiencies, EVs offer an effective way for manufacturers to reduce the average CO2 emissions of the cars they make.

The commercial viability of EVs is also increasing thanks to the reducing price of battery technology - indeed EV batteries and internal combustion engine costs are set to reach commercial parity as early as 2020. Essentially, the automotive manufacturers, spurred on by increasingly demanding legislation, are disrupting the internal combustion engine status quo by designing more attractive and practical electric cars, with elite and recognised global brands enticing drivers more and more.

The UK Government has made its commitment to an EV future clear, investing more than £600m by 2020 to “support the uptake and manufacturing of ultra-low-emission vehicles” and a further £400m in charging infrastructure. The Government’s announcement to ban the sale of solely petrol and diesel cars by 2040 means we may even reach the predicted EV figures faster than anticipated.

For vehicle buyers, the environmental and financial benefits of EV ownership are starting to combine. The Plug-in Car and Van Grants were introduced in 2011 and 2012 respectively, offering money towards the cost of EVs and charging points. EVs are also exempt from vehicle excise duty.

EVs in central London are already eligible for congestion charge exemptions and more discounts, and from April 2019, vehicles entering the current congestion charge zone will have to pay an additional fee unless they meet 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.

The challenges ahead

Moving away from petrol forecourts is a positive opportunity for the energy industry as a whole as consumer demand for power to charge EVs has the potential to grow hugely over the years to come. In an era where energy efficiency measures have risen up both the individual and political agendas in the UK, widespread uptake of EVs could reverse the trend for shrinking electricity demands.

But, of course, it is not as straightforward as simply replacing fuel pumps with charging points - we must have a robust and future-proof energy strategy in place. Is the energy industry fully prepared for the impact EVs will have on the National Grid? Will existing energy infrastructure be fit for purpose?

In place for decades, the UK’s ageing electricity network is constantly being stretched to its limits and EV charging could push it to breaking point. The predicted mainstream shift from fuel tanks to batteries will be a huge challenge. For many years, transportation in the UK has been powered 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.

Alarm bells have already been ringing in some quarters as demand for power continues to grow.As more and more owners seek to plug in EVs to charge at home, the National Grid has warned that people may have to make a choice between boiling a kettle or charging their car. It is even predicted that EV charging will create a new peak hour that could see demand rise nationwide by as much as 8GW by 2030. And with the potential of streets full of EV owners all plugging in simultaneously in years to come, we could see more widespread implications as energy demands outstrip supply.

Higher EV uptake in certain areas combined with lack of infrastructure investment has the potential to create imminent and significant local challenges. This is bad news, not just for residents, but also for businesses who require a secure energy supply.

The need for a new standard

In addition to the growing number of charging points being installed on private residential and commercial properties, over recent years we’ve also seen EV charging points spring up for public use across our road network, particularly in city centres and along our major highways. However, although EV uptake is gathering pace, regulations and guidance around implementing EV charging points are not yet widely in place, and 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 EVs and plug-in points and a user potentially requiring a handful of cables, connectors and apps to charge their car.

The power supply rates above are suitable for today’s typical 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.

The challenge will be to use new technologies, engineering and experience to deliver smart solutions that meet the evolving needs of homeowners and businesses by implementing a future-proof energy infrastructure.

Decentralised energy solutions

One solution could be decentralised energy generation, enabling less reliance on the UK electricity grid. Installing off-grid renewable power supply solutions - such as green waste to energy plants, PV or wind turbines - would facilitate the power requirements for EVs, if not completely, then at least in part. This would help meet the increased power requirements on a specific site, support the growing demand on the grid as a whole, and go towards meeting international environmental targets.

There is also a significant opportunity for localised energy storage measures. These would enable both the management of peak power demand from EV charging at a particular location and could also be used to provide grid balancing services to the grid. Energy storage can also negate the need for expensive infrastructure upgrades that may otherwise be required to successfully provide EV charging facilities.

Additionally, whilst yet to be adopted widely, the first installation of the Tesla Powerwall took place in Wales, 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 EVs.

In time, the possibility of EV batteries being combined as part of an energy storage solution (Vehicle-2-Grid system), for example, in a high density city centre development, could become widespread reality. The National Grid has acknowledged that EV batteries could also provide services and return power to the grid at a time when managing the network is becoming increasingly complex. This solution could provide an income stream through the sale of energy back to the grid and in the form of fees from drivers paying to use communal charge points.

For these kinds of power generation and storage innovations to work effectively, however, priority must also be given to strengthening our energy infrastructure, increasing the cost of low carbon generation and preventing otherwise viable low carbon schemes from being developed. Distribution Network Operators (DNO) are heavily legislated, partly through EU rules, and are severely restricted in their ability to invest in the network. Brexit presents an opportunity for these restrictions to be relaxed, allowing the flexibility in investment the grid so desperately needs.

Navigating the future

Ensuring that the UK is prepared for the multi-faceted challenges and opportunities offered by the mainstream adoption of EVs is critical and with the Government’s ban of solely diesel and petrol cars sales by 2040 driving widespread EV uptake, the clock is now ticking to find a viable energy solution.

As availability of power becomes a growing national headache, piecemeal approaches to EV charging are unfortunately not going far enough to address the fundamental problem. While the Government’s commitment to invest in EVs is clear, 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 EV world.

Visit to view our latest paper exploring the impact of EVs on the built environment.

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