Putting electricity in the driving seat

It’s half time. And electricity demand surges across the country as football fans head to the kitchen to put the kettle on.

Charging electric vehicles (EVs) could become as much of a daily habit as switching on a kettle. People are creatures of habit and most will automatically choose to charge their cars as soon as they get in from work.

Uptake of EVs has been swift in the past five years, particularly in China, Europe and the US, as governments seek to reduce emissions and improve local air quality, by offering incentives for clean-energy cars. Manufacturers are also rapidly introducing new EVs and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

But range anxiety, driven by fears of getting stranded and the availability of charging points, is proving one of the biggest barriers to more widespread EV-ownership. Overcoming this fear factor – as well as moving away from the familiarity of filling a car up at a petrol station – will ultimately lead to more widespread adoption.

New technology provides many solutions. Mobile chargers can bring electricity supplies to the vehicle rather than vice versa and smart-charging apps can ensure charging happens during periods of low demand and at a cheaper price.

At the same time, there are also possibilities, such as using EV batteries as storage and then selling excess electricity back to the grid, or to local businesses.

Change is never easy, but innovations like these will work together to ensure a smooth transition.

Transport is responsible for two-thirds of global oil demand, so shifting to EVs will play a central role in reducing carbon-dioxide emissions and improving air quality.

Indeed, many governments already have plans in place to ban the production of new diesel and petrol cars and eventually remove them from the roads altogether. In the UK, the manufacture of new diesel and petrol vehicles will be banned from 2040, for example.

According to the IEA’s global EV outlook, the worldwide stock of electric cars grew more than 50% in 2017 from a year earlier.

While the number of EVs is at a record 3 million, they’re still just a fraction of the total number of cars.

Widespread adoption faces some key barriers including the initial cost of the vehicles as well as worries about how many miles the car can travel and whether there are enough charging points along the way.

Even where public charging points exist, they may be made by different companies and are not always interchangeable, adding to the fear factor.

Charging the vehicles at home is not always an option: according to the 2017 English Housing Survey, 34% of homes in the UK don’t have a garage or off street parking, which means they can’t charge their cars conveniently.

Solving these challenges will require significant investment into EV infrastructure.

Driving Change

Challenges to the Grid

A surge in EVs – and the need to charge them -- will also add to pressure on the national grid.

“The average fast charger is about 7 kilowatts. That compares to peak household demand, which is close to 4 kilowatts. So, we’re looking at a huge increase in localised load. The current power system really isn’t built for that," explains Ed Reid, Head of Strategy for Centrica Business Solutions.

Smart charging could hold the answer, offering a more flexible solution. Chargers with built-in artificial intelligence could pick a time of day to charge when they know the cost of electricity is at its lowest.

Energy suppliers are also playing their part. British Gas, for example, has just launched a new smart time-of-use tariff for EV users that offers cheaper electricity at night, encouraging them to charge their vehicles outside of the peak period of 4 - 8pm.

This type of flexible charging means that at least 60% more EVs could be charged, according to research by the UK’s energy regulator, Ofgem, reducing the need to build expensive new power stations and extra grid capacity.

Alongside this, it may also become possible to feed electricity from a charged EV back into the household, as and when it is needed - a bit like having a battery parked on the drive.

All this means predictions that capacity will need to increase by 30GW to cope with demand are likely to be vastly overstated. National Grid says the most likely figure is actually around 5GW, an 8% increase from today’s value.

Even so, drivers will still need to change their habits to achieve this more flexible and strategic approach: the problem won’t be solved if every customer charges their EV when they get back from work in the evening.

The Role of Digital Technology

The UK Government estimates that innovations such as smart tariffs and smart charging, could save the country as much as £40 billion between now and 2050.

New technology – including charging apps, mobile chargers and lampposts that double as charging points – offers solutions that could well become mainstream.

Ultimately the headache of where and when to charge a car needs removing.

There are a number of innovative solutions on the horizon to help do just that.

  • The Israeli-based start-up Driivz offers a platform for EV charging networks that allows drivers to plan exactly where and when to charge their car using an interactive map. It also allows drivers to narrow down a specific type of charger and easily view pricing and payment options.
  • FreeWire Technologies, a US-based firm, is pioneering flexible EV charging technology. Their product is essentially a charger on wheels that is brought to the vehicle, eliminating the need to take the vehicle to a charging station. The mobile chargers, which have been installed at BP stations in the UK and Europe, use low-voltage power, allowing operators to simply use existing power outlets.
  • The London borough of Southwark says it’s leading the way in using existing electric infrastructure to help solve the issue. It’s testing 50 open-access charging points in lampposts. This avoids having to take up parking spaces or clog pavements with charging points.

    Making charging accessible in urban areas is a critical hurdle to overcome if city leaders are to achieve their aim of using EV adoption to improve local air quality.

A Focus on Commercial Vehicles

Fleets of vehicles are often an ideal testing ground for such technologies.

With commercial vehicles making up nearly two-thirds of all cars and vans on roads in the UK, it is essential that businesses are fully-committed to the roll-out of EVs.

And it’s already starting to happen.

FreeWire’s mobile EV charging technology will be used by Zipcar’s electrified fleet, in a trial that will enable businesses to understand driver preferences and use that data to install convenient solutions.

More recently, the world’s biggest trial of commercial EVs has been given the green light by UK energy regulator Ofgem.

The three-year project, named Optimise Prime, brings together leading power, technology and transport companies. It aims to come up with practical ways of overcoming the up-front costs currently holding many commercial-vehicle operators back from making the switch to EVs.

Led by data technology solutions provider Hitachi Vantara and electricity distributor UK Power Networks, the trial will see up to 3,000 EVs from Royal Mail, Uber and Centrica take to the road, supported by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, Hitachi Europe and Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions.

“For electric vehicles it’s no longer a case of the tipping point, but the jumping point, because when large-scale commercial electric vehicle operators decide to switch from petrol or diesel to electric the impact will be instant," says Ian Cameron, Head of Innovation at UK Power Networks.

"There’s incredible potential to improve the air quality of our towns and cities and we want to help that happen at the lowest possible cost to our customers.”

The project will deliver an end-to-end overview of what the shift to EVs means for the cables and substations that deliver electricity, for the businesses that need to invest in new infrastructure, and for people that need to power their vehicles.

With businesses buying the majority of new vehicles in the UK, their commitment to EVs will determine the speed of the transition to low-carbon transport.

The widespread adoption of EVs holds great promise in the fight against climate change, with new technology leading the way.

Turning that potential into an everyday reality, however, is energy’s next big challenge.