Industry

06 DEC 2018

LET’S MAKE A SERIOUS COMMITMENT TO ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

Electric vehicles (EVs) are one exciting component of the UK’s clean energy and zero-carbon future. But while the vision is exciting, the pathway forward will require a carefully planned, thoughtful strategy for long-term investment in energy infrastructure, claims the UK managing director of Burns & McDonnell Jonathan Chapman.

As greater numbers of EVs come on to our roads, can our electricity network handle greater charging demand? 

As of today, the answer is generally yes. As long as uptake remains below 10-15% of the total vehicle fleet, the current local networks can be expected to handle the new load without too many problems, although this will vary depending on the age and design of the local networks.

But the UK’s Road to Zero strategy contemplates much higher levels of EV penetration. By 2030, sales of petrol-powered vehicles will end in the UK and the market share for EVs will steadily climb. But when will the inflection point hit? Latest forecasts from the National Infrastructure Commission expect EV uptake to rise to 30% by 2027, and more than 90% by 2042. 

As EV uptake rises above 25% there will be the need for widespread implementation of smart-charging technology to control times of day when vehicles may charge. This technology is already being deployed. It can be embedded in the cars, via sensors, or hard-wired into charging stations that sense relative power demands on the network and limit charging to avoid voltage overloads.

A number of these have been demonstrated in the UK as part of LCNI funded projects from the DNO operator perspective. Even smart phone apps that will be used to pay for charging services can be programmed to tell when network capacity is available. But, we need to consider the customer experience to further drive adoption.

However, smart-charging technology will have its limits. As levels of EV penetration starts to rise above 50%, investments in the electricity networks will likely be required, with further investment as EV saturation gets close to 100%. Higher capacity distribution lines, substations, transformers and advanced capacitors, inverters and other power quality equipment will be required to maintain and regulate voltage. 

Advanced controls and technology will be required at higher dissemination levels and, practically speaking, much of it doesn’t exist today or hasn’t been integrated together from the generator to the EV. Moreover, investment in grid infrastructure and technology will be essential if public sentiment barriers are to be overcome.

EVs today face three main issues: range of vehicles before charging is required; price of vehicles; and capacity of batteries to sustain a charge and function for longer periods before degradation.

Range anxiety is a much-discussed problem and will need to be addressed as the charging network is built out. It does beg the question – where should we charge EVs? We don’t refuel our cars at home today, but dwell time is a more important consideration in charging. That said, we shouldn’t get caught in the trap comparing petrol stations to EV charging stations.

It will be important for EV owners to have access to fast-charging nodes at places other than their own homes, potentially at destination and enroute locations. With the cost of EVs steadily coming down and battery technologies advancing, it seems inevitable that consumer sentiment will swing increasingly in favour of EVs. 

It is not clear precisely when we will approach the mile markers that indicate major infrastructure investments are needed. But why is Ofgem limiting investment ahead of need? We know major changes are needed. We are challenging the industry to consider all options now, setting out a roadmap for greater technology and network integration. The roadmap should include development of community energy schemes and breaking down barriers between stakeholders.

More specifically, we believe we should:

  • Further develop smart charging infrastructure that will permit EVs to draw power when the networks can best accommodate it and when prices are correspondingly low.
  • Encourage development of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charging technology allowing large numbers of vehicles to contribute power back to the grid and help offset the variability in system demands.
  • Develop long-term mandates and technology standards that allow industry to plan effectively and make necessary investments in advance of need. 

All options must be on the table as we contemplate ideas for greater technology and network integration and new innovative solutions that will result in better energy outcomes. All sectors must work together. This is crucial. Consumers must have flexibility and if they don’t get it, EVs will never achieve their true potential.

It is also clear Ofgem should adapt its rules to shape the future we desire for the UK. While it is clear market forces must be unleashed, standards for universal access to charging technologies must be enacted so fairness and opportunity are prevalent in the market. In addition, proper planning will be required to avoid “no-go” zones around the country where the charging infrastructure is not built out. 

Risks must be shared between utilities, government and energy consumers. Shared risk will be the formula policy makers will most likely approve.

Jonathan Chapman is the UK managing director of Burns & McDonnell.

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