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.
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.