The move to electric vehicles (EV) is a critical element in the global mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and one that is gathering pace.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders there are now around 50,000 EVs on the road in the UK. The sector is expected to develop at ‘breakneck’ speed over the next 10 years, according to analysts IDTechEx Research in a recent report, with support from chancellor George Osborne through an independent body to fast-track the building of new energy and transport infrastructure across the UK. In total the EV market is expected to be worth $500 billion by 2026.

Power engineering consultants EA Technology say 2016 is “the year of the EV”. There are 32 full or part EVs available to buy or lease in the UK already, with six new models coming to market this year. Just this week a new car manufacturer, Faraday Future has entered the EV market with a new supercar. But despite the push from car manufacturers, 2016 is unlikely to be the year that electricity distribution network operators (DNOs) see any meaningful increase in electricity demand as a result of EV uptake. It could be more than five years before any significant increase is seen. But the rise of EVs is one of the key focuses of network operators this year in the battle to get ahead of the curve.

EA Technology has been leading one of the most important ongoing EV projects for DNOs, My Electric Avenue, looking at the effects of human behaviour on EV uptake. EA Technology’s director, smart interventions, Dave Roberts says the size of the EV market is already vastly increased compared to when the project started.

“The advent and increase in EVs is real. EV sales have risen exponentially over the last two years. In real terms, registrations of new plug-in cars have rocketed by 716 per cent since 2013,” Roberts says.

The EV market is right to be buoyant, but the rate of continued growth over the next few years is a less certain picture. Current uptake is being driven by investment made before the oil market crashed, and with oil prices set to stay low and the climate agreement in Paris a slow burn, it is a “confusing picture” whether there will be a spike or step-up in vehicle sales in 2016.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology Energy Policy Panel chair Simon Harrison says any meaningful ramp up from the perspective of DNOs is unlikely this year or even in the very near future. “I’m not sure that I yet see the kind of massive turn over to electric vehicles on the kind of timescale that would be really scary.”

Harrison quantifies a “scary” timescale as five years, but also acknowledges that if the mobile phone market is used as a marker of likely uptake rates of consumer technology, an explosion within five years is not out of the question.

What is important is that DNOs use whatever time they have until that happens to prepare. One of the biggest fears about EV uptake from a DNOs point of view is the effect of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, resulting in ‘clustering’ of vehicle charging which will put certain sections of the distribution network under strain.

DNOs have been hard at work to understand the likely direction of human behaviour when it comes to clustering. My Electric Avenue and Low Carbon London, the Low Carbon Network Funded project run by UK Power Networks that released its findings late last year, have already shed important light on this area.

Early indications are that there will be enough diversity in charging patterns to keep peak demand lower than feared, but Harrison says it is “too early to understand how universally applicable” the findings from these projects are when applied across different characteristics of network.

Despite questions over universal application, the trials have already revealed huge potential savings in network reinforcement. My Electric Avenue alone has trialled technology that could save £2.2 billion by 2050.

“There’s been some wonderful work done, we have learnt a huge amount in the last three years but there is still quite a long way to go,” Harrison says. He adds: “We will also probably learn by experience as it happens”.

Alongside investigating the potential effects of EV uptake, the industry is actively looking to support future growth. The Energy Networks Association met with the Office of Low Emission Vehicles within the Department for Transport last year, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change to discuss support for growth in EVs which resulted in the publication of ‘Towards a Smart Energy System’ before Christmas. The document identifies potential barriers to the move to smarter grids and areas of focus for Decc and Ofgem in the future.

EA Technology has also called on more interaction between the two industries going forward. “There is a crucial overlap between these two industries; the lack of capacity in some local electricity networks for EV charging needs to be addressed, and it is a cross-sector issue,” Roberts says.

The company will be facilitating the establishment of an Automotive-Utilities Task Force “to ensure that the lessons learned from My Electric Avenue are transformed into action”. EA Technology say the taskforce has already received backing in principle from all six of the DNOs and National Grid, and is now in the process of securing funding.

2016 may not be the year that EVs appear on every street and interrupt the daily life of the DNOs, but it is certainly time for the energy industry to kick up a gear in preparation.