The widespread arrival of electric vehicles (EVs) – cars, buses, lorries, trams and trains – in cities across the world will show that we have arrived in the carbon neutral cities of the future.
However, getting to this exciting vision poses a significant challenge not only for city planners, but national governments who are grappling with the need to source more energy from renewable sources and ensure stability of supply as demand for electricity increases.
To make the widescale electrification of mobility a reality, significant investment and technical solutions will be required. And while government ambition may be growing – perhaps most promisingly in President-elect Joe Biden’s green energy plan – and technological solutions are coming on stream at a rapid pace, significant and urgent hurdles still remain.
The electrification of mobility – the challenge ahead
These hurdles can be best seen in the scale of the data on projected EV use: by 2030 more than 100 million electric cars are forecast to be on our roads. This is a 30-fold increase from today. Similarly, there are expected to be more than one million electric buses worldwide by this time.
Keeping these EVs alone going (not to mention the electric lorries, trains and trams) will require more than 500 TWh of electricity – broadly equivalent to France’s annual consumption of electricity in 2019.
And 2030 will be just the start. By 2040, electricity demand for EVs will be near to 10% of global electricity demand. And as the rate of EV adoption rises, so too will the global demand for flexible, reliable, sustainable and affordable electricity for other sectors like heavy industry and domestic heating.
Making widespread electric vehicle use a reality: the energy-mobility nexus
At Hitachi ABB Power Grids, we see the ‘energy-mobility nexus’ as the solution to this challenge. This understanding rests on our assumption that electricity networks will act as the glue that enables a truly sustainable electric mobility system, which meets rising demand and accommodates renewable energy. It will require two building blocks: Energy-mobility connection points, which deliver intelligent charging infrastructure that can link mobility to the grid, and enhanced grid infrastructure that can manage higher renewable loads reliably.
To accommodate this surge in demand with renewable energy, both building blocks in the ‘energy-mobility nexus’ will need to be realised.
Firstly, national governments will need to invest in their electricity networks. Significant investment is needed. Networks will need to be smarter, and more flexible – enabled by a digitally enhanced grid infrastructure that will be able to respond to the variable usages of power that communities will require.
Recent grid capacity issues in California during the summer heat wave showcased the need for intelligent grids that can act to moderate demand, coupled with investments in energy storage that can relieve pressure during peak demand. Governments and municipal authorities should encourage the development of demand-response systems, such as Ohm Connect’s virtual power plant which plans to connect 500,000 households.
Alongside solutions that make our electrical grids smarter and moderate consumption, grid connection technologies, such as High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) and others, provide the capability for us to simultaneously upgrade our existing assets and create new corridors of energy. Importantly, they would be more versatile and sustainable than ever before, enabling us to deliver renewably powered electric mobility systems for our towns, cities and rural areas.
Electric mobility hubs
Then at the city level, investment will also be needed in appropriate charging infrastructure that will deliver electricity efficiently to the new forms of e-transportation. At Hitachi ABB Power Grids, we see ‘electric mobility hubs’ as the solution to this infrastructure need.
These ‘hubs’ would-be large capacity one-stop-shops for charging. For cars and trucks, hubs could be installed in existing infrastructure like parking lots, logistic hubs or highways to enable long-haul clean transportation. For public transportation vehicles, depots and terminal stations provide ideal locations. And a system of hubs within and around cities can be planned for efficient energy-mobility integration. These electric mobility hubs can be more than a fuelling station or an intermodal hub for EVs, they can also help to build a smart and localised energy system fit for the future. They would include digital platforms for managing fleets and energy flows altogether.
They would be able to operate flexibly ‘on and off’ grid, host solar panels and energy storage facilities – reducing demand when required on the power grid. They would also help to maximise energy conservation and affordability locally, acting as ‘micro energy hubs’. These hubs would also offer the opportunity to effectively organise micro energy trading between fleet operators, energy providers and end-consumers.
In short, no matter how vehicle technology evolves and power demand grows, electric mobility hubs would enable municipalities to have greater control over how they upgrade their infrastructure as EV usage expands and leverage them to organise a better energy system in their area.
The final key to the energy-mobility nexus
These two aspects – investment in the grid and a suitable charging infrastructure – are essential. But there is another non-technical component required to enable the energy-mobility nexus: greater stakeholder coordination.
By ‘stakeholders’ I am referring to the several industrial sectors required to make the energy-mobility nexus work. Specifically, these are energy and mobility stakeholders, who need to converge to a common set of systems, standards and ways of working.
A lack of collaboration here will risk that the vehicle and supporting energy infrastructure are not in sync with each other, or the needs of the city planner, which in the long term will inevitably increase costs.
A key place where this disjointed approach is already visible is in current EV charging infrastructures. At present single charging stations for cars are deployed all over urban areas and charging facilities for public transport are considered separately, increasing the complexity for grid connection and network management.
By increasing cooperation in this sphere, all stakeholders stand to benefit from a more collaborative system that will benefit industry and the end user. It will do this through better optimisation, which ensures that e-mobility, charging infrastructure and the power grid can act together as one cohesive system. This cohesive system would reduce costs through efficiency savings and provide the potential for increased grid stability through a connected and intelligent charging infrastructure – which can help to manage demand.
Globally, the world’s energy and mobility systems are sitting at an inflection point. Dramatic reductions in the cost of generating renewable energy are showing that the pathway to a carbon neutral energy system is within our reach.
Meanwhile, new and existing technological solutions such as HVDC mean that this low-cost renewable energy can be transmitted to where it is needed, providing clean power to towns and cities evolving mobility systems.
Delivering these sustainable energy and mobility systems will bring huge environmental benefits to our societies, but how they’re implemented will have ramifications for their accessibility, affordability and the speed at which we can transition. By addressing this challenge through an energy mobility nexus, we can ensure that the infrastructure is in place to match the ambition we share for a carbon neutral society.