One of the most significant side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdown has been the impact on air pollution. With so few people traveling and commuting - and many embracing green transport methods such as cycling – air quality across major cities has improved markedly.
Living with cleaner air increases the impetus on all of us to ensure transport emissions reduction remains at the front of policymakers’ and consumers’ minds. Green transport methods – the foremost of which is electric vehicles (EVs) – will be more prominent in national policy debates and consumer buying habits. As lockdown has eased, we’ve already seen policymakers taking action to ensure green recovery is at the centre of post-COVID economic growth. The Mayor of the West Midlands, for example, has launched a project to develop a future transport system for the region, with a focus on decarbonisation and green jobs.
At the same time, EVs are increasingly accessible, in part due to reductions in the cost of batteries and deployment of more charging stations. That prompts a big question: Will electric utilities be prepared for the load?
Reshaping the demand curve
The growing move to EVs will have inevitable impacts on the electrical distribution system, which was not designed with additional EV demand in mind. Despite the increasing number of licensed ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs) on the roads – 79,747 were newly registered in the UK in 2019 – the real surge is yet to come. Projections by National Grid suggest that the number of EVs on UK roads could reach between 2.7 million and 10.6 million by 2030, and up to 36 million by 2040.
Finding ways to spread out and balance the demand will be important to flatten out the peak of charging demand and that results from everyone coming home and plugging in at the end of the day. For example, if most users are unlikely to use their EVs for the rest of the evening, there’s no need for their cars to recharge immediately. Therefore, if a utility could control and stagger those charging periods over the course of a full night, it could balance the broader charging cycle across its service territory and prevent overloading of circuits. Ideally, customers would be able to set parameters for when their EV is not expected to be used, leaving open the details of when it gets charged during that window of opportunity.
Two-way communications on the grid will be important to develop that kind of fine-tuned control. When utilities can communicate with the inverters at the residential and retail level, their ability to manage grid operations and accommodate increased EV demand is greatly enhanced. Automation within the grid could make that even more efficient. Improving the efficiency of electrical infrastructure may be a more cost-effective option for utilities than upgrading wires and structures; bigger may be better, but it typically isn’t cheaper.
Collaborating for better control
This demand-spreading scenario also depends on the nature of the chargers and inverters. These can range from rudimentary equipment to more sophisticated, faster-charging systems. There are numerous manufacturers, and the capabilities of their equipment can vary significantly. Setting up programming for differing equipment will be a challenge, but if smart technology can help spread the demand from charging and better utilise electrical infrastructure capacity, utilities and policymakers alike have good cause to support consumer adoption of that equipment.
While it might seem improbable that consumers would give that level of control to their utility, there is in fact relatively recent precedent for this in the US, in the form of programmable thermostats. Many US utilities in recent years have offered free programmable thermostats to customers, offering incentives in exchange for allowing the utility to turn off the air conditioning occasionally if certain conditions arise.
If a comparable program could be developed in the UK, encouraging EV-owning customers to use specific outlets or equipment that allowed the utility to manage charging behaviour within customer-controlled parameters, significant efficiencies might be achieved. This would require unprecedented coordination between energy providers and network operators, but may prove to be a vital tool in managing increased energy demand.
Increased demand on electrical infrastructure from the adoption of new technologies is not a new phenomenon. The UK has experienced surges in energy generation growth as the grid has accommodated advances such as refrigeration and clothes washers and dryers. The nation’s power infrastructure as evolved over time and will continue to do so. While the near-term precipitous decline in the price of oil might delay or slow the timeline for EVs, the trajectory is still ultimately moving in the direction of electrified transportation. Utilities must be prepared to adapt.