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UK unprepared for surge in electric car use warns green think tank

The UK’s energy system isn’t prepared for the growing number of consumers choosing to buy small scale energy technologies like electric vehicles and solar panels, argues a new report by think tank Green Alliance.

Without changes being made to energy infrastructure, just six electric cars charging in close proximity at peak time could overload the grid and disrupt the local power supply, says the report, People power: how consumer choice is changing the UK's energy system. Currently, one in five of the UK’s local grids are unable to accept distributed energy like rooftop solar.

Dustin Benton, acting policy director at Green Alliance said: “If government designs a smarter power system now, electric car batteries could store enough power to keep the UK’s lights on for seven hours at a time by 2025, virtually eliminating blackouts, and distributed energy could save customers over £1.6bn per year.”

Currently, technology is moving faster than the government. Recently Tesla surpassed General Motors to become the US automaker with the highest market value, by 2020 IKEA will be a net exporter of its own solar and wind energy, and the falling price of battery storage could soon allow UK households to operate off the grid for months at a time.

The report predicts that the UK will reach a tipping point as soon as 2020, when government will lose the ability to control the speed of small scale energy deployment.

Similar tipping points outside the UK have seen mixed responses. In Nevada, attempts to clampdown on rooftop solar’s effect on the local power system were met with ferocious consumer backlash, ultimately leading to a reversal of new less favourable tariffs and the grid administration being sacked. But in California, smart EV charging infrastructure has been used to keep the lights on at peak times and given that 40% of drivers would consider buying an EV,the report argues that the UK should follow California’s lead.

The report says four main government interventions are necessary to get the benefits of small scale energy:

  • A new, independent system designer should be employed to ensure small scale energy is well integrated;
  • Distribution network operators should be transformed into distribution system operators to actively integrate EVs and solar in a smart network;
  • Small scale technologies should be enabled to provide system flexibility, for instance through smart charging of EVs;
  • Automation and aggregators should be adopted to make more flexible ‘time of use’ tariffs attractive to consumers

Matthew Knight, director of energy strategy and government affairs at Siemens, said: “The energy transition is unstoppable and will in part be driven by customer choice, ie democratisation as well as decarbonisation of energy. The challenge for government and industry is to help customers to make good choices. And adapt markets so that the system can benefit from the flexibility new technologies can bring.”

Dustin Benton, acting policy director at Green Alliance, said: “Small scale energy is growing rapidly because consumers are choosing it, regardless of government subsidy. It has already led to blackouts and billion pound losses for unprepared governments, and it won’t be any different for the UK. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right policy, EVs and solar could help keep the lights on and cut consumer bills. Political parties need to outline how the large scale energy the UK needs and the small scale energy people want can work better together.”

Click here to download People power: how consumer choice is changing the UK's energy system.