Stewart Reid, head of DSO and innovation, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks Company strategy, Customers, Electricity transmission/distribution, Energy networks, Policy, Policy & regulation, Regulation, Strategy & management, Opinion, SSEN

"Electricity networks have a role to play in adapting to the changes that are taking place in the car industry and consumer behaviour"

With the Financial Times reporting last week that the government is considering extending its 2040 ban on petrol and diesel cars to include hybrid vehicles, it appears the nation’s transition towards the electrification of transport may be about to enter the fast lane.

In 2016, I predicted that the tipping point for EV uptake was fast approaching. The My Electric Avenue project SSEN launched in 2013 explored what impact the increased demand from EVs may have on the local electricity network. In designated ‘electric avenues’ where ten or more individuals committed to driving an EV for 18 months, as we sought to simulate a 2030 electricity network, and identify what steps were needed to ensure the UK’s networks were ready for the increased presence of EVs. By the time the trial ended, 58 per cent of the volunteers decided to say goodbye to the internal combustion engine for good.

This shift in thinking is happening in our major cities too. New research released last week by economic consultants CEBR, stated that 63 per cent of Londoners will feel comfortable making the switch to an electric vehicle, and that by 2030 up to 58 per cent of vehicles on London’s roads will be electric.

With falling purchase costs and an ever-increasing charging network likely to fuel widespread adoption, electricity networks have a role to play in adapting to the changes that are taking place in the car industry and consumer behaviour. These new demands mean our power network and infrastructure need to transform to ensure the power continues to flow; in other words, the transition from distribution network operator (DNO) to distribution systems operator (DSO).

Key to this transition is ENA’s Open Networks Project; which is laying the foundation for the smart grid in the UK. A collaborative project, that brings together both industry and policy makers, it aims to realise a managed transition to DSO through a unified approach, where new systems, trials and learnings can be shared. This major energy industry initiative will transform the way our energy networks work, and key areas of focus include the relationships between transmission and distribution operators; the transition from Distribution Network Operator to Distribution System Operator and what this means for distributors; future charging requirements and meeting customer expectations.

This collaboration between networks doesn’t end with the Open Networks project, and the ENA has refocused its Low Carbon Technologies group to co-ordinate the work of its members in a consistent and effective manner so that when it comes to EV and other low carbon technologies connecting to the network, best practice is available to everyone across the UK.

Meeting customer expectations around electric vehicles is one area in particular where the DSO transition has a role to play, particularly in relation to understanding usage patterns and how that in turn relates to smart charging. Across the industry, we have found evidence of diversity in charging behaviour and it’s encouraging that most customers are willing to engage with smart charging to provide the flexibility needed across the power networks to support a variety of charging patterns to prevent peaks in usage.

Earlier this year, the government announced £30 million in funding for 21 vehicle-to-grid projects, setting the ball rolling for customers to sell the electricity stored in their vehicles back to the grid to help supply energy during peak demand. While innovation in this area shows potential, ensuring adequate charging infrastructure is, ultimately, what will enable consumers to embrace EVs. The creation of OLEVs new “EV Energy Taskforce” is another welcome development and will provide focus and direction in this area.

Although the road to electrification of transport may not be completely clear, the momentum is real and the impact on our networks will be dramatic.  Innovation trials such as My Electric Avenue have helped to give the industry an informed understanding of the implications, the challenge now is to get the right mechanisms and governance in place before electric vehicles become the norm rather than the exception.  With collaborative working across industry and with government, we are on track to do just that.

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