UK: EVs will not alter peak demand hugely if smart charging in place, says National Grid

Following the U.K. government’s decision in July to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, a new debate has sprung up in the country concerning new demand for electricity consumption.

Critics of the decision argue that the U.K.’s power fleet is not broad enough to power a widescale switch from the internal combustion engines that vehicles use today, to EVs. Therefore, they add, it will be necessary to build new generation plants and upgrade the electricity infrastructure, leading to massive additional costs that will be born by the consumers.

As of May 2017, there were 100,000 EVs on the U.K.’s roads compared to a total volume of 30 million cars and light vans.

Smart charging is key
Mike O’Hare, senior development manager at the National Grid Ventures, told the UK Solar and Storage show that the roll-out of EVs will increase electricity demand, but smart charging will be key if EVs are to be efficiently integrated into the electricity system.

Smart charging, added O’Hare, means that the U.K. needs to develop a mosaic of charging solutions ranging from in-home charging to rapid charging in stations – a logistic, financial and time-sensitive challenge.

The National Grid publishes its Future Energy Scenarios (FES) each year that provide different pathways (but not necessarily forecasts) for the U.K.’s energy sector up to 2050. All four of the future scenarios (Two Degrees, Steady State, Slow Progression and Consumer Power) published in July include EVs, said O’Hare, while some are more optimistic and others more conservative.

The Two Degrees scenario specifically is the only scenario where all U.K. carbon reduction targets are achieved and envisages that all cars and light vans will be electric by 2050. O’Hare explained that if a smart charging system is in place, the Two Degrees scenario suggests only a 5 GW increase on current electricity peak in the year 2050. However, he added, if the charging profile of the EVs is unconstrained without a smart process in use, the same scenario leads to an 18 GW increase on the current electricity peak.

Nevertheless, O’Hare argued that the EV trend is not going to disappear. Air quality concerns, targets for carbon reduction, falling battery costs and personal choices (e.g. some drivers like EVs because they are quiet) mean their usage will develop rapidly. His only concern is for heavy vehicles, which he finds more likely to turn firstly to natural gas or hydrogen solutions before they go electric.

EVs to grid?
The plug-in of EV batteries to the electricity grid, helping it to stabilize, is also regularly discussed among the U.K.’s energy technology, business and policy communities.

O’Hare appeared sceptical on this front, referring to the argument that the most valuable part of an EV is the battery. Therefore, EV owners might prove unwilling to engage with the grid, preferring to avoid the degradation of their batteries. For this reason, O’Hare suggested that there is room for the industry to communicate that a certain amount of battery degradation is natural, while vehicle to grid services could perhaps be promoted via incentives, given that they are necessary to manage peak demands.

O’Hare’s comment on the role of the distribution network operators (DNOs) is also crucial: large investment might be needed in some areas if residents install home chargers in bulk (e.g. in affluent areas). But DNOs are heavily regulated entities, aiming always to keep costs down, and rarely making strategic investments.

Eventually, EVs plus energy storage plus solar might all come together nicely, providing the right business models and leading to a low carbon future. But the emerging question is who is going to make the strategic plan to pave the way for it?

A positive point in the seminar was the presentations by many city councils, which are building their own local transportation strategies. The representative of London’s council told the conference that there are 9,400 plug-in EVs registered today in London; Milton Keynes plans to build an EV charging hub comprising 6 to 10 rapid EV chargers, and Manchester aims to develop a so-called transport eco-system. Such projects are mainly funded by U.K. government grants.

Regional city councils are also active, said Colin Herron of Zero Carbon Futures, a consultancy specializing in low carbon vehicle technologies. But the overall EV growth in the U.K. is happening ad hoc and lacking strategy, said Herron, adding that the country needs to decide how much infrastructure it needs and where, based on demographics, traffic flows and traffic density.