In Japan, a company is showing how the grid of the future could work. But it’s not a utility, it’s Nissan.
Chris Wright, chief technology officer of battery supplier Moixa, has seen how the multi-national motor manufacturer gets its employees to plug in their electric Leaf models to help deal with peak loads at one of its plants.
Around 6 to 7 per cent of Japanese Leaf owners possess a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charger, he says. By contrast, Wright says he is one of a “handful” of UK electric vehicle (EV) enthusiasts who have one of the devices.
Bringing the UK up to speed in the EV revolution is the declared aim of The Road to Zero paper, which was issued last week by the Department for Transport (DfT).
But will it deliver the EV dream? The omens weren’t good in the run-up to the paper’s publication about how strongly the government would push the rollout of EVs.
Last summer, the government’s air pollution strategy included a pledge that the sale of all petrol and diesel vehicles would be banned by 2040.
The big concern for utilities is whether the distribution and transmission system will be able to cope with the increase in demand for electricity, sparked by National Grid’s estimate this time last year in its annual Future Energy Scenarios (FES) report that an extra 18GW of generation capacity might be required.
The Road to Zero states that the government is “confident” that existing electricity market mechanisms will be able to meet additional electricity demand from EVs.
National Grid, in its latest update to FES published on the day after the DfT’s EV paper, cuts the predicted increase in electricity peak demand by 2040 to as little as 8GW.
Northern Powergrid’s modelling suggests the average EV-owning household’s electricity use will roughly double, says the north east distribution network operator’s (DNO’s) policy and markets director Patrick Erwin.
But this increase is manageable, given other factors such as declining household demand for electricity as a result of more efficient appliances and light bulbs, he says: “As long as that is smeared out throughout the day, our network can cope.”
Key to keeping peak demand down will be a combination of smart charging technologies, consumers charging vehicles at off-peak times and the use of V2G technology, which alone could reduce additional peak capacity demand by 8GW, according to the FES.
However, this relatively rosy prognosis doesn’t address concerns about the short-term impact that rapid EV adoption will have on neighbourhood networks.
Pointing to feedback from DNOs that have mapped the impact of increased EV use, Wright says: “The first few per cent of EVs will be absolutely no problem, but once you hit 10 per cent, it’s not the case.
“At a 1 per cent penetration rate they couldn’t see it at the substation, at 5 per cent they could see a different profile and at 10 per cent the system was broken – my concern is that we will hit that 10 per cent very quickly.”This so-called clustering problem also vexes Oliver Rix, a partner in consultancy Baringa’s energy advisory practice.
He says: “In the long run, the network issues are manageable, but it [The Road to Zero] has skipped over the shorter-term issue of clusters of vehicles that could pose problems at specific points in the distribution network where multiple vehicles are potentially charging at the same time.
“If your network company tells you you can’t charge your vehicle, it won’t be good for consumer perceptions and could be a reason not to buy an EV.”
The issue is “not insoluble” but is going to “need some attention”, Rix believes.
Smart technology will be key to minimising these peaks and troughs on the electricity system, says Erwin: “There will be pinch points that need to be reinforced, but if we can harness smart technology, there is the capacity.”
And given that the typical vehicle is stationary 95 per cent of the time, he believes they could be an asset for the grid rather than a drain upon it.
EVs could be a “real threat” to moves to establish grid connection batteries, says Erwin: “If you have loads of storage at the end of the network, you don’t need that much storage in the middle of the network.”
Ed Gill, head of public affairs at the Energy Networks Association, believes the government is not being complacent about the electricity system’s ability to cope with upsurges in demand.
“The clear message from members is that we are ready and prepared if the government brings forward the target from 2040.”
Some reinforcement will be required, though. The Road to Zero says the government will gather further evidence of key network connection infrastructure barriers that may prevent further uptake of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs).
And the more flexible network this reinforcement must deliver will have implications for the upcoming review of the networks’ RIIO price control framework, says Gill: “Research shows that because of the systemic change taking place, the cost of equity is going to be higher than Ofgem suggests.
“The model of how that works is still being worked,” he says, adding that investors “will demand a slightly higher cost of equity”.
And it is vital that networks can see as soon as possible about future demands on their systems, Gill says.
Here, though, there is still considerable uncertainty about where the pinch points on the network will be.
The Road to Zero backs a commitment by Highways England to ensure charge points every 20 miles along the strategic road network by 2020, which would impose strains on the network that it is not currently geared up for. The trunk road agency will run a pilot project to increase electrical capacity at a motorway service area.
But Erwin doesn’t think there will be sufficient demand to justify a mass rollout of fast chargers at service stations. While people are forced to go to service stations now because it’s the only place to buy fuel, in the future they will be merely somewhere to top up, he says: “Most people are pretty predictable and drive 30 to 40 miles a day. They don’t need a fast charger and have loads of time to charge.
“Motorway service areas will be an important part of addressing range anxiety when people get caught, but won’t have 500 fast chargers. Some people argue that every motorway parking space should have a fast charger, but if you can charge at home and work, most people won’t go to a service station by choice but because they have to.”
This of course assumes that convenient home charging will be available.
The Road to Zero contains a pledge to consult on a requirement for charge points at all new homes in England. But these must, it says, be installed in the “most cost-effective way” so they do not hinder the government’s objective to enhance housing supply.
In addition, the home-charging point requirements look set to only apply “where appropriate”, which would seem to rule out a lot of inner-city areas where off-street parking is scarce.
In these built-up areas, the government says it want all new street light posts to include charge points.
Baringa’s Rix believes this is an area where the government needs to give a stronger steer, given the myriad interests that need to be co-ordinated to deliver this infrastructure, notably councils and DNOs.
And Moixa’s Wright is sceptical that lamp posts will be able to cope with the amount of electricity that will be flowing through them.
“The trouble with lamp posts is that the wiring is designed to deal with 100W light bulbs, not a 7kW charger, which is significantly more problematic.”
The government has stated its ambition to be a world leader on EVs, an ambition that it aims to parade at a conference in the West Midlands in September.
But right now, such claims are hard to justify, says Wright: “At the moment, there’s no sense that the UK is leading on this.”
He’s not the only one worried that the UK could end up in the EV slow lane.
The Road to Zero report: modest ambitions and long-term targets
Energy UK and National Grid have both publicly stated that the electricity system can cope with bringing forward an outright ban on the sale combustion engine cars and vans to 2030.
But The Road to Zero set out a more modest ambition: that at least half of cars and 40 per cent of vans sold in the UK must be ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) by the end of the next decade.
And this target, as well as the 2040 phase-out of combustion engine vehicle sales, will not apply to hybrid models, according to the paper.
Chaitanya Kumar, senior policy adviser at the Green Alliance umbrella group of environmental NGOs, thinks fragile business confidence in the run-up to Brexit lies behind the government’s reluctance to push motor manufacturers harder.
But letting car companies off the hook is short-sighted, he says: “Twenty-two years is way too long. If it is 2030, it becomes more material and they will start retooling.”
Baringa’s Rix agrees. “If you set a really clear long-term stake in the ground, people will work to that. It feels like a shame to take a clear statement and essentially blur it.”
The government should also set more interim targets to guide the motor industry towards the cut-off date, says Kumar: “In China and California, these are providing a strong market signal for operators to align their product lines to meet those kinds of targets.”
The document has also generated uncertainty over the future of the plug-in grants, which currently subsidise the cost of buying EVs.
Moixa’s Wright is concerned that the government has given no guarantee about the future of these subsidies after October. The concern is that the government will pull the plug on these grants before the cost of owning such vehicles drops into line with petrol and diesel engine cars and vans.
With such cost parity unlikely to be reached until the mid-2020s, the government appears to be unwinding its support for EV purchases “too soon”, says Rix: “It’s great news that costs are coming down, but they’re not there yet. We are some way from a point where consumers can get an equivalent vehicle for the same cost.”
Pointing to the Netherlands, where sales of hybrids halved following the axing of subsidies, he says: “If you remove those direct financial incentives early, the danger is you lose the momentum and get a drop off in sales. It doesn’t seem consistent with the targets.”