Despite the UK’s charging infrastructure receiving a welcome boost in 2019, there exists a hum-drum of concern around electric vehicles, particularly over range anxiety and vehicle cost.
However, 2020 could be the year the pendulum swings. Carmarkers are gearing up to make this the year of the electric car; the number of EV models available to European buyers is set to jump from fewer than 100 to 175 by the end of the year, and with carmakers now being heavily penalised if they do not abide by new European Union emissions rules, we’ll see familiar names launch flagship models, which means a wider choice and reduced cost.
However, charging and energy infrastructure development may be the Achilles’ heel of this emerging success story and it is unclear whether Britain’s cities are ready to meet the charging demand. It should not be assumed that existing electric connections are adequate to deal with a significant increase in power demand from EVs.
With the transport industry under growing pressure to decarbonise, local government will need to reflect upon the different challenges that it will be faced with, particularly in rural areas where charge points are further apart and therefore concern over range anxiety is likely more prevalent. The challenge for local government however is not simply to cut harmful emissions; to build a truly sustainable infrastructure that can support the growing number of EVs, we need to reduce the grid’s support on non-sustainable energy sources and must consider green and durable fuels, like solar, as the linchpin in this rapid time of change, with immediate effect.
A local and bespoke approach
In November, Bristol set a nationwide standard of change by announcing that it will become the UK’s first city to ban diesel cars, and it’s a change that cannot come soon enough for its most at-risk residents. The city has been hailed as a pioneer on the UK’s mission to bring air pollution levels down, bravely going one-step further than London’s clean air zone policy and whilst the UK’s net zero emissions target may be sizeable, it is certainly not impossible.
In Dundee’s drive for 100% e-mobility by 2030, the city has taken an intelligent approach by looking closely at its individual challenges - both social and economic - to build a bespoke strategy. It has installed three stand-alone ‘charging hubs’ for electric vehicles - more are in the pipeline, and they will gradually replace the city’s petrol stations. The hubs combine electric vehicle charging capabilities with solar canopies and energy storage and were created to support EV taxis (as one of the main polluters in the city) and to address the needs of its residents as half the population in Dundee do not have driveways.
Any pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a step in the right direction; but true change - particularly one that is set out to tackle toxic transport systems like the examples in Bristol and Dundee - requires imagination and action beyond what we have already seen, and at a local level. Smart distributed energy generation and storage solutions are key to making electric vehicle charging in cities accessible and affordable for all.
This is also where alternative methods of power generation, notably solar, become essential. Generating and storing energy on-site through solar and battery storage is an effective way to minimise expensive grid connection upgrades and provide the additional power on-demand. This is especially relevant to businesses – having to meet demand from tens or hundreds of EV chargers on a single site, such as fleets or large car parks.
Balancing the network
As the network-wide deployment of cost-effective renewable generation increases, systems with sufficient scale have the potential to generate additional revenue supporting the grid - whether it be through Vehicle-to-Grid (leveraging the energy storage capacity within a stationary car battery) or simpler Demand Side Response solutions (turning up or down demand dependent on how the grid is under strain). These ancillary services, which help balance the network, reduce the threat of brownouts, particularly as clusters of EV uptake have the potential to create significant local distribution network challenges.
In addition, with the majority of EV charging currently taking place at home (80%), residential smart technology must be optimised if the UK, and regions within it, are to meet the charging demand of the growing use of EVs. Charging infrastructure is playing catch-up, however public and private sector organisations working collaboratively over the next decade will ensure the UK’s smart transport system and carbon reduction ambitions are realised and sustainable for the future. Increasing the intelligence of energy is critical to the success of a number of sectors – and it is being pushed by both Government policy and pulled by customer demand.
The growing demand on the electricity grid
Over the next few years, mobility-as-a-service models will start to replace traditional taxi and consumer vehicles services and we will see more cities put their green future stake in the ground. With this comes increasing pressure on public sector bodies to meet the new, at-scale public transport demands - from April 2020, company car drivers will have an opportunity to make huge savings on pure battery and efficient plug-in hybrid vehicles as new company car tax (BiK) rates come into force. Pair the new BiK tax with growing clean air initiatives that influence the consumer choice of vehicle, and it is a logical move for public sector bodies to start collaborating on the development of robust, coherent and innovative energy management and smart transport systems. Preparation for, and fulfilment of, the immediate demand created by the increased uptake of EVs is important, but what’s critical is for the public sector to future-proof energy and charging infrastructure to ensure the system can cope with the continuing need to scale over the next five, 5, 10 and 20 years.
Solar power - the local linchpin to green transport
Solar is an environmental game-changer in our ability to produce clean power from renewables themselves and reduce our need for ‘grid energy’. One of the major arguments against solar power in the UK has been the weather. And, having seen a spate of flood warnings throughout the country in the middle of summer, it’s not hard to see why. But that is a misnomer. Solar power generation relies on daylight, not sunlight, and while the UK may not have the climate of the Mediterranean, it does not mean solar is a non-starter.
But solar is arguably much more chicken and egg than any other renewable. Uptake, investment and interest is reliant on efficiencies, innovations and reductions in cost in a self-perpetuating cycle. Thankfully the news here is also promising. Support and subsidies to date have seen the costs of solar panels fall dramatically. The technological advances in the solar energy sector have made solar panels much more efficient than ever before and this has directly contributed to the falling cost of solar energy up to 50% over the past decade.
What’s needed to make a green transport system possible
Whilst the electrification of the transport system will greatly reduce our reliance on dirty fuel, what’s equally as important are changes to the management of electricity networks, particularly for local government to create a sustainable and scalable charging network. The current infrastructure is increasingly unsuitable for significant increases in demand without cities having to face potentially costly upgrades. Whilst many sectors embrace green technology, energy storage solutions will play a crucial part in not only the UK’s, but also the world’s progress towards a clean-energy future.
Energy storage adds crucial stability to the grid, benefiting operators and users alike. Installations that come with dynamic load management, which are able to listen to the energy demands of buildings, smooth out loads and optimise charging levels when power is in demand from a fleet of EVs. It’s a capability that will alleviate power cuts and can also help avoid costly network upgrades. It also means the nation is less dependent on non-renewable power sources like nuclear and coal. Any surplus renewable energy generated can be diverted and stored to charge the EVs, rather than relying solely on the grid - particularly during peak times, which would be more expensive. In addition to saving money on power generation, this storing energy onsite will empower organisations to sell excess energy back to the grid and generate additional revenue.
Collaboration for a green future
These developments are critical given the increasing role solar power is required to play when it comes to reducing the dependency on buying energy and easing peak pressure on the grid. This will be particularly acute if the projections on EV growth and clean transport infrastructure are to be realised. Embedded solar and storage will be a key method of avoiding expensive grid connection upgrades to cope with the extra power demand from having hundreds of EV chargers on public and commercial sites, for instance fleets or car parks. Thankfully, we’re seeing signs of collaboration between public and private enterprise to bring this vision to life but there’s no hiding that more and immediate action is needed to support the change that is happening, now.
Thomas Newby is chief operations officer at Tonik Energy