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Are Electric Vehicles driving us in the right direction to a low-carbon future?

February 26, 2018

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Are Electric Vehicles driving us in the right direction to a low-carbon future?

By Simon Sjenitzer Director - Energy & Climate Change Business Development at WYG

There are now more than 128, 200 battery powered cars and vans on the UK’s roads. Ten years ago, you’d be lucky if you saw one of these carbon combatting vehicles cruise past. Britain is investing more than £1.2bn in electric and driverless-vehicle technology to create a market the government estimates could be worth £50bn by 2035. With sales of electric vehicles (EVs) increasing year on year, whilst the number of their petrol and diesel cousins continues to fall, the number of plug-in cars and vans is predicted to reach 9 million by 2030.

This number is likely to grow, particularly when you consider the Government’s announcement last year that they plan to ban all sales of internal combustion engines by 2040. The British oil firm BP flexed their renewable muscles earlier in January this year by announcing they plan to add rapid charging points for electric cars at its UK petrol stations in the coming months following a $5m investment in electric technology. This paired with the sizable investments in EV technology we have seen over recent years from the likes of Jaguar Range Rover, Volvo and BMW, it is clear EVs are here to stay.

With more battery powered cars on the roads, and with more expected, whether the UK’s existing infrastructure can cope is a question that has not been give due consideration. The commitment to low-carbon vehicles should be whole heartedly encouraged and while at present EVs still have some way to go to reach mass appeal, these issues should be kept at bay for a few more years at least. This is partly due to the fact that the smaller batteries currently fitted into EVs, which are predominantly put on trickle charge overnight, are not significantly impacting the overall system. But once you look to the future, questions such as how fast will these new vehicles charge, how much power will they need, where they will be charged and how will the existing infrastructure cope will need to answered.

The UK’s EV charging infrastructure has so far failed to live up to expectation with anecdotal instances of whole streets tripping due to the effects of multiple EV owners. With only 13,900 publicly-available electric and hybrid chargers in the UK to service around 130,000 EVs, this number will need to increase substantially to accommodate the ever-growing uptake in EV ownership. The government’s recently published Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill however, features a draft law requiring petrol stations across the country to install more charging points. Alongside BP, other leading international fuel companies are beginning to take notice, with Shell’s first wave of EV charging points hitting petrol stations in London, Surrey and Derby back in October 2017. These charging points will see drivers able to recharge 80% of their battery in half an hour at these new forecourts.

While we are seeing changes being made to accommodate EVs in the public sphere, EV owners will also need to rapidly charge their cars at home. This is where the UK’s grid infrastructure falls short. Currently, EVs are typically charged at home for long periods at low speed, using 7kW chargers. However, most homes only have a 60-100 Amp supply. If EV users want to charge their cars faster in the future, they will need to invest in larger batteries, which, according to the National Grid, may overload the main fuse when a kettle, oven, shower or immersion heater is used at the same time during charging. Thinking wider, how would the local supply cope with multiple EV car owners on the same street? When we begin to consider the impact an increase in EV ownership may have on automatic habits like flicking on light switches when we arrive home, it brings into focus just how important efficient EV charging points in the home will be.

When it comes to the technology used in EVs themselves, it is becoming increasingly clear that the heftier the price tag, the better in terms of comfort, reliability and performance. Electric vehicle market leaders, Tesla, produce some of the best EVs money can buy, particularly when it comes to performance. Cheaper mass market EVs are more suited to an urban lifestyle, as opposed to longer journeys and scaling steep hills – a fundamental aspect of countryside living.

Last year’s Government announcement that British businesses will be able to bid for £20million of funding for research into car battery storage technology has been seen by many as a step in the right direction. This technology could mean batteries in thousands of electric cars could top up the renewable input into the power grid and potentially return electricity to the grid at peak times. Having energy put back into the grid via these batteries also provides capacity to top up underperforming renewable inputs. However, using EV's as potential energy storage devices to back up grid capability would require radical deployment numbers and game changing contracts. Without the correct infrastructure in place to help get the balance right, there is a danger you could wake up to a driving range capacity falling someway short of the morning commute requirements. 

The commitment seen by both the UK government and the private sector to transform the UK’s energy consumption habits is undoubtedly extremely positive. However, with the National Grid already falling short on the demands of EV owners, as well as EV technology itself failing to live up to expectations, will we truly be able to adopt this low carbon alternative as our new reality?

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