Jeff Casey, UK business development director, Burns & McDonnell Customers, Electricity transmission/distribution, Energy networks, Opinion, electric vehicles, EV, EVs

"There are plenty of challenges for the industry when it comes to EVs"

A recent report by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders showed that consumer adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK is surging. EV registrations range between 1.3 and 2.9 per cent each month over the past two years. In 2017, more than 47,000 EV cars took to the road. EVs are becoming ever more prevalent in the UK and the energy industry needs to start preparing today.

There are plenty of challenges for the industry when it comes to EVs. This includes deciding how we will make up for the loss of petrol taxes and VAT as EVs gain increasing market share; how the electricity networks will respond to the changing mobility of storage (charged EV batteries) as a resource; and whether or not the edge of the distribution network is the right place to integrate chargers.

Too much of the debate, however, has focused on what we can’t do rather than on how we can embrace this new energy vector as an opportunity. The transition to EVs presents an incredible opportunity to change the entire system for the better. They provide the industry with the opportunity to show consumers just what is possible and will help the UK solidify its rightful place as a leader in the worldwide movement toward clean energy and a sustainable future. At such a critical point, the industry requires passion and leadership.

Some progress has been made already. Improvements in technology and efficient manufacturing are driving down EV car costs to price points that are nearly on par with petrol-powered vehicles, leading some analysts to predict dozens of different EV models being available by 2020.

Incentives are currently in place to drive adoption, too. In London, all-electric vehicles and eligible plug-in hybrid vehicles qualify for a 100 percent discount on the London Congestion Charge. The rest of the UK should consider similar incentives and mechanisms to accelerate adoption.

This means that charging infrastructure will need to be available more quickly than some have anticipated.

“It’s the critical infrastructure that’s key,” Graeme Cooper, project director of electric vehicles for National Grid, said at a recent industry conference. “It’s about future-proofing the network so it has the capacity to charge cars as quickly and efficiently as possible.” When queried if National Grid could support the EV transition if sales of fossil fuel-powered cars were banned in 2030, Cooper emphatically responded – “Absolutely, no problem at all.” This is the passion and leadership our industry needs.

Another solution to ensure that customers buy at the scale we need is to install “smart chargers” that allow EVs to charge when the network can accommodate the load and when prices signals match the networks characteristics. Ovo Energy recently launched the largest ever trial of smart vehicle chargers, allowing electric car owners to automatically store power when it’s cheap and sell it back to the grid at a higher price during peak demand periods.

However, the only way for this to work on a large scale would be for all chargers to be “smart”, with the ability to communicate with all other chargers on the network and automatically controlled at a neighbourhood level in conjunction with the local electrical infrastructure. This system would require advanced controls and the technology, practically speaking, is not ready for large-scale deployments in the market today.

We must also bear in mind that cost is king for consumers. This includes both direct, upfront costs of purchasing the EV, plus ongoing charging and maintenance costs. Technology has advanced rapidly, driving down costs in all three categories, but the industry is mired in jargon when it comes to helping consumers understand and evaluate costs. We must stop talking about the cost of energy as price-per-kilowatt-hour and adopt units consumers understand, such as distance, capacity and utilisation. In other words, how many miles can I drive before I need to charge again? Will there be power available? Will I have access to a fast charger or will I need to wait several hours when only a Level 1 or Level 2 charger is available? These barriers are top of mind for consumers and are poised to limit growth.

Many of these cultural barriers can be overcome as technology advances to allow faster charging cycles. When charging cycles begin to match the time it takes to refuel at a petrol station, consumer acceptance is likely to skyrocket.

But fundamentally what all of the above demonstrates is that the UK needs a national strategy specifically for EVs and the “Road to Zero Strategy” is just one of the needed mechanisms within the ecosystem. There are too many far-reaching problems currently and it is essential that original equipment manufacturers EV manufacturers, transmission and distribution network operators and the system operator are all on board if we are to reach a comprehensive solution.

There is still plenty of work to do but EVs are here to stay, and what a future they could usher in. Imagine a fully-automated world where our cars are synced with our calendars and all devices are fully connected to the utility network, communicating precise charging requirements in real-time. The only question that matters is what we must do to enable this carbon-free future we all desire.

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