04 NOV 2020


To achieve a truly green recovery, the transport and energy sectors need to work together to help change behaviours in how transport is powered, argue Joanna Bundy and Mayure Daby of Atkins. 

The sale of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) in the UK has surged by 664% since 2016 and 184% since last September, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders. In the same period, diesel sales are down by 75% and National Grid estimates there’ll be 35 million electric vehicles on our roads by 2050. 

The government’s commitment to a green regeneration should hopefully see an acceleration in the move to ULEVs. But to be a truly green revolution, we need the transport and energy sectors to work together for a low carbon energy industry and change our behaviours in how we power our transport. 

Powering our future ecosystem

The industry has evolved in fuel habits - diesel, unleaded petrol - and now the huge uptake in ULEVs. It’s all very well demanding a change in how we fuel our vehicles, but we must consider where this comes from - and how we can sustain and build the infrastructure to keep them (and more) going. 

The key is with the power sector, which must totally decarbonise electricity generation and double its output from 300TWh to over 650TWh to meet our energy and electrification demands, from cars to trains. Last year, zero carbon nuclear and renewables generated over 50% of our electricity and with the government’s latest green commitment, we’re looking at installing an ambitious target of 40GW in offshore wind by 2030. The growth in ULEVs will have a significant impact on electricity demand which must be managed carefully, particularly at peak times.

Automobile and energy working together 

One element to achieving climate change goals and navigating the legal ban of internal combustion engine new car sales by 2035 is to take a complete view of the wider ULEV ecosystem. The automotive and energy sectors conventionally haven’t worked together; the adoption of ULEVs will require this. This dynamic and fast-paced marketplace is producing business models and technologies which need to be future-proofed. However, we must also assess the impact of ULEVs on the resilience of our electricity network and what needs to be done – be it investment, or storage and capacity improvements – to maintain network stability. 

Local authorities must consider:  

  • Technologies: Battery electric vehicles (BEVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) or mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs) or different energy sources - fuel cell electric (FCEV) or biofuels.
  • Distances travelled & weight to be carried.
  • Availability of publicly accessible charge points.
  • Any long-distance unexpected journeys to remote areas.

Points of contact

The complexity continues with installing charge points at correct rates: 7kW, 22kW, 50kW and 150kW. The impact of this additional demand needs to be measured on our transmission and distribution network and consider reinforcing the grid if there isn’t the energy supply required. 

Other measures include battery storage and generating renewable energy. The average electric car will use the same power in one year as generated by one wind turbine in an hour. However, we need to understand and plan for the impact of increased demand from charging ULEVs on energy consumption - charging such a vehicle at home overnight would double the home’s electricity consumption and this all adds to the pressure on the power sector to ensure our electricity is low carbon. As assessed by National Grid, the battery inside an ULEV can also be used to store green energy. New vehicle-to-grid technology can see ULEVs give electricity back to the grid in times of high demand, reducing the reliance on fossil fuel-burning power plants. 

Charge points need to be available and reliable; the Office for Low Emission Vehicles states that a driver should never be over 25 miles away from one. Unavailability, out of order and incompatibility, leading to driver anxiety, will break the overall uptake of ULEVs. 

End goals for end users 

We must be clear why we’re adopting ULEVs - a reduction in air pollution or carbon emissions? Replacing every petrol or diesel vehicle with an ULEV will not solve traffic congestion, but it will reduce air pollution. To encourage modal shifts to reduce congestion, we need to understand the whole system, decarbonise modes of transport within it, and make them viable for users.  

Understanding early users and how demand will change will help develop roadmaps for infrastructure, forecasting, user expectations, and energy supply and demand. Roadmaps can be for the short, medium and long-term (suggested five, 10 and 15+ years). 

We must start now, even though as time progresses, we’ll probably need to adjust plans. With the government’s push to build back greener, and a pipeline of investment, there’s an opportunity to speed up ULEV programmes at local levels, with authorities leading the regional climate action drive. And as national and industry commitments to achieving net zero in 30 years’ time become a social prerogative, we will see further shifts in our daily lives and how we move around.  

In a post-Covid environment, we saw significant advances cycling and walking in cities and towns, and now there needs to be a push on making other modes greener to meet climate targets, as there will always be a need for other modes for long-distance journeys and the movement of freight. And an ULEV will never be truly green if the electricity used to power it isn’t.  

Joanna Bundy is a senior consultant, transportation and Mayure Daby is market lead, power networks, both at Atkins.


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