Currently reading: How the National Grid will work with electric cars
Demand for electricity will increase as EV adoption grows, but those in charge of power delivery are prepared

Battery electric vehicles are no flash in the pan, they’re here to stay. From a whole life perspective and taking everything into account from battery production to end-of-life, recent studies rate battery vehicles as having the least impact on greenhouse gasses and the environment as a whole, than any other conventional or alternative powertrain type. That brings the importance of energy demand and sufficient charging capacity into even sharper focus than before and the organisation which will ultimately have to step up to that particular plate, will be National Grid plc.

Whether or not there will be enough capacity, the seemingly colossal scale of infrastructure improvements needed, and providing reliable enough public charging on a large enough scale have probably been the subject of more pub discussions than you could shake a stick at. That said, National Grid plc remains confident that everything will be just fine and after all, it should know.

First off, energy demand is lower now than it has been for years. The highest demand in the last couple of decades peaked in 2002 at 62GW and has now fallen to just over 50GW thanks to improvements in efficiency. National Grid estimates that even if there was an overnight switch to EVs, the increase in overall demand would only amount to 10 percent. This year, due to Covid measures, demand has fallen by another five percent and National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator) predicts 44.7GW peak demand this winter.

EVs set to routinely cover longer journeys

All new home chargers must now be equipped with smart features to enable the local electricity distribution networks to have some control as to when charging takes place, so they can manage peak demand between 6pm and 8pm. The big change to cope with increasing numbers of EVs is likely to be in public charging. Although it’s frequently pointed out that the majority of charging is done at home, that’s not much comfort for those who want to take advantage of rapidly increasing battery capacity and use their EVs for longer distances as well. Clearly, if battery EVs are going to replace conventional vehicles to the tune of 36 million by 2040 (the number National Grid is now basing its estimates on) then a large proportion of them will be used for much more than local shopping runs or average commutes.

Relatively affordable EVs at around the £35,000 mark are realistically capable of travelling over 200 miles even with an 80 percent charge. National Grid believes an under par public charging network will inhibit the uptake of EVs due to range anxiety. According to it’s own figures, 52 percent of drivers worry about driving any distance in an EV and it’s solution is to make that concern go away with a network of 50 ultra-fast chargers at motorway services. Sites have already been earmarked (from 54 originally identified) and an ultra-fast charger would enable a suitably specified EV to recharge in five to 12 minutes. The idea is more than just a theory, and consultations have been going on with motorway services operators to assess what’s need and how the chargers will connect to the network at each one. The cost of a 50 charger network is estimated at between £500 million and £1 billion. The bad news is, as drivers might expect, ideas to pay for this include vehicle excise duty, electricity bills or some other means of taxation.

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Whole life cycle an important factor

Still, two decades is a long time and what unfolds over the next couple of years will to some extent depend on the UK government’s approach to de-carbonisation and achieving net zero carbon by 2050. Life cycle analysis (LCA) is now emerging as the most accurate way to assess the carbon impact of any manufactured thing and takes into account every stage of a vehicle’s life rather than just the “use phase.” Ricardo, with partners E4tech and ifeu (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Heidelberg) have just completed a substantial study for the European Commission giving it the information it needs to base emissions policies on the whole life impact of vehicles, from cradle to grave. The UK government thinking is still inclined towards point of use (for example, ban all combustion engines by 2030) which some view as a simplistic approach to a complex subject. But if that approach should change, so might the speed of uptake of EVs. Either way, the transition to fully electric vehicles at some stage is now inevitable.

The Grid’s transmission system is continually upgraded and it’s expected that specific, EV-related, upgrades will only be needed for ultra-fast charging. That work will initially centre on motorways where heavy-duty electrical systems already exist. Given that plug-in electric powertrains look certain to form the backbone of road transport sooner rather than later, and not just for passenger cars, but taxis, vans and some trucks and buses, sustainable electricity to feed them is essential. If any significant amounts of greenhouse gasses or regulated pollutants like NOx are produced during its generation then the whole concept becomes a futile.

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Massive offshore wind farms

Working on the LCA basis, vehicles need to be manufactured using sustainable energy, fuelled by it and eventually disposed of using it. It’s well known that greenhouse emissions do the same damage whether coming from a tailpipe or elsewhere and that feeding electric vehicles with fossil fuel-produced electricity just shifts regulated emissions away from tailpipes to the power generating stations. But in the UK the picture looks good. Though often the butt of jokes, sustainable energy generation is rapidly increasing and 2019 was a record year with sustainable sources like wind power (both on and off shore) solar, plant biomass and hydro, to name a few, outstripping fossil fuels. In the first quarter of 2020, 47.8 percent of all UK energy came from renewables and in the second quarter, it was a similar story at 44.6%. That said, by 2021 there had actually been a slump in renewable energy production, and in the second quarter of the year it represented just 37.3% of the total mix, a slump of 7.2%. That certainly puts a dent in the government's ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions, including upping offshore wind generation from 10GW today, to 40GW by 2030, which would be enough to power all the homes in the UK, including any EV wallboxes they may have.

Can I earn money from my EV?

Vehicle to grid charging is not a wild idea and it’s already being trialled by in the UK and Europe. The idea is that while your EV is plugged in, a special two-way V2G charger can take energy out of the EV battery when it’s not needed to balance the network during peak demand. So far, trials are restricted to business fleets, one of the latest being undertaken by Nissan and E.ON. The two companies predict that E.ON fleet customers could save the equivalent energy needed to drive 10,000 miles per annum (£308). Figures assume a 40kWh Nissan Leaf, 168 mile WLTP range on a full charge, consuming 0.238kWh per miles and an energy cost of 12.93p per kW/h (a unit). It’s still early days yet and similar plans for domestic customers have yet to be announced. One factor affecting domestic use will be cost and space. Today, the special V2G chargers are bulkier than a conventional home wall charger and government subsidies cover a significant chunk of the cost.

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Where exactly does renewable energy come from?

Switching completely to renewable energy will be crucial if EVs are to make any sense. It’s easy to assume renewable energy, which soared to nearly a half of the UK’s total energy supply at the beginning of this year, comes mainly from wind power and it’s true, on and offshore wind power does represent the lion’s share, but that’s not the whole story. Government figures list 12 forms of “installed” renewable energy sources ranging from shoreline wave and tidal, still in its infancy and capable of producing only 22MW, to onshore wind at the top, with an installed capacity of 48,487MW at the last count. Some of those in between may come as a surprise. Following behind onshore wind at 14,143MW is solar photovoltaics, then offshore wind and in fourth place, plant biomass at 4,551MW. Given it’s been around since the Victorian era, large-scale hydro electric’s contribution is surprisingly modest at 1,473MW especially since energy from waste and landfill gas follows close behind at 1,337MW and 1,055MW respectively. We all have a part to play in contributing to renewable energy though. Sewage sludge digestion contributes 247MW and Anaerobic digestion, 559MW. In the second quarter of 2020 bioenergy and waste contributed an impressive 14.7 percent of the UK’s total energy consumption.

Changing driving habits could affect the grid

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A benefit of EVs is seen as having more choice in where to ‘refuel’ rather than having to make visits to service stations. The Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce’s report, “Energising our Electric Vehicle Transition,” notes that although rapid charger networks are considered essential for the uptake of EVs, the Consumers, Vehicles and Energy Integration trials (CVEI) revealed participants chose to charge at home and pay for the electricity, despite having access to local free public charging stations. The vast majority of consumers in the trial said they would prefer smart charging but that doesn’t account for the millions of users who will park on the street. If the majority of EV drivers used smart charging, they could save money and at the same time reduce the load on the grid. Peak and off-peak tariffs would also have a ‘herding’ effect which would create stability in the system. When people re-charge and how they do it will have an effect on stabilising demand on the grid.

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405line 24 December 2021

I am one of the luddites that said there would be underground fires and other related issues like overheating and I still believe that, while the national grin may be able to produce the electricity the local (loop) infrastructure will need to be upgraded i.e all local wiring will need to be capable of carrying high current otherwise there will be local restrictions.

HiPo 289 21 December 2021

Thanks Jesse for busting a few myths with this article, especially the ones about the grid being overloaded and unable to deal with EVs.  We've known for a while that the grid will be able to cope just fine, but it's so helpful to read it in a car mag. 

Vehicle to grid (V2G) is one of the most exciting potential technologies that is emerging.  Taking a small amount of power, perhaps just 1kwh, from a million EVs during the evening demand peak, could remove the need for an entire gas-fired 'peaker' power station.  The electricity would then be returned to the cars overnight, by off-peak renewable energy, with no inconvenience to the driver.  It's for this kind of reason, alongside pollution reduction, that internal combustion will be replaced by electricity for everyday transport, because fossil fuel just can't offer the same level of advantages. 

xxxx 21 December 2021

A message that never seems to get across is just how much power it needs to create one gallon of petrol, I've seen figures of 4Kwh per gallon which would obviously be a big saving straight away.