The Department for Transport’s strategy does at least appreciate that without the right infrastructure in place, the EV transition will get stuck in first gear.

It was never going to be an easy policy to get right. Road to Zero states its mission is to put the UK at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of zero emission vehicles, forming part of the UK’s wider Industrial Strategy. According to think tanks and advisory bodies, including the Green Alliance and the Committee on Climate Change, by sticking with the 2040 ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars, the government has missed an opportunity to send a clear positive signal to auto manufacturers to build a clean automotive industry, ahead of other economies in Europe.

According to ING, once battery electric vehicles (EVs) beat internal combustion engine (ICE) cars on price and quality, transition can move fast. The investment bank sees high-range battery EV total cost of ownership to start becoming competitive with comparable ICE cars from 2024 in Europe, six years away.

 

Limitations of mandates

Decarbonisation of transport, via its electrification, is a global trend. Though car makers have dragged their feet that stance is changing, fast. The battery pack, the most expensive component of an EV, is falling in cost, due to huge investment in lithium ion cell production capacity and technology, predominantly by battery makers in China and South Korea. More than government mandates this trend is dictating EV investment strategies by carmakers all over the world.

Norway has been held up as an exemplar of a country that has taken bold steps to decarbonise mobility and road transport, where new cars must be carbon-free by 2025. It has the highest proportion of EV ownership, with 215.6 per 10,000 inhabitants, followed by Netherlands with 78.7, and the UK in third place with 13.4 electric cars per 10,000 (International Energy Agency and the Financial Times).

However, EV adoption has taken its toll on the grid network in Norway. In certain places, with higher EV penetration, there have been reported cases of utilities requesting EV owners in certain areas to avoid installing fast charging units or pay the equivalent of thousands of pounds in grid connection costs, and instances of energy companies discouraging use of rapid chargers during peak times.

The UK is addicted to car ownership, with a refuelling infrastructure that has grown up to meet this level of demand. But there are signs that the one car, one owner trend is on the wane with car ownership levels falling among younger drivers. Mobility electrification as Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) points out is just one key trend, which could potentially converge with ride-sharing platforms and autonomous driving technologies, to turn the automotive industry on its head. We could be looking at a future where mobility-as-a-service proliferates, which means fewer cars used more intensively, surely the best outcome of any progress towards sustainable mobility. EVs are highly suited to such a future, as they become even more competitive at higher mileages, since electricity costs less and maintenance costs are lower.

 

In the Electric Nation project, UK utility WPD shows how clusters of EVs charging at the same time can exceed capacity on local networks

Acknowledging the grid challenge

In the dawn of the EV age many of us will be charging our cars at home, but not all will have the means, so more investment in public charging infrastructure is necessary. One of the biggest barriers to EV adoption still, despite the falling price tags and more choice in EV make and model options, is consumers’ concerns over a lack of where to charge. As future models roll onto dealership forecourts, with longer ranges achieved by more energy dense batteries, higher power rapid chargers will be needed. A cornerstone of the Road to Zero strategy is the launch of a £400 million fund to accelerate investment in different types of charging infrastructure.

The strategy may not be ground-breaking in its attempt to tackle emissions, but it is trying to be practical at the intersection of EVs and energy distribution. This approach depends on change in how grid networks are managed, so that distributed intermittent generation, like solar PV arrays, and clusters of EVs, which threaten peaky loads, can be integrated as flexible resources.

Decarbonising transport demands joined up approaches because more EVs will create problems for the grid, driving bills up if capacity is upgraded by traditional approaches of installing more cables, transformers and substations. UK Power Networks, a wires utility responsible for distributing a third of the UK’s electricity supply is now tendering for what will be the largest roll-out of active network management (ANM) software across a grid to date.

ANM can locate distributed electricity generation sources across the network and show what they are doing in real-time as well as manage thermal and voltage constraints. Four years ago UK Power Networks piloted the technology with EV chargers, to briefly suspend the flow of electricity to selected public EV charge points at peak times on the network, while still ensuring drivers receive a sufficient level of charge.

By enabling investment in charging infrastructure and supporting innovative projects, many of which address the impact more and more EVs will have on the grid, the UK’s export opportunity may lie in grid-friendly EV charging infrastructure, based on models which optimise renewables supply, and earn owners/investors of such as assets steady revenues. A recent project, supported by the UK government research funding arm, is demonstrating a direct current (DC) microgrid incorporating EV charging that will optimise returns for a carpark operator while relieving strain on the local network. Energy, stored in batteries, in vehicle-to-grid enabled EVs as well as stationary bulk batteries, can be used by the electrical grid system during peak times. EV owners would be able to charge their cars while parked beneath a solar PV carport. When not being used, the car remains allowing the power grid to use some of the stored capacity in the EV’s battery at times of higher demand.

 

Bringing the components together

The technology pieces exist but how they can be put together will lead to opportunities. Look no further than the UK if you want to see how various players and stakeholders, which span utilities, EV owners as well as fleet operators, aggregators, energy storage providers, suppliers of chargers and academia, are coming together to design systems and develop commercial models that integrate cheaper renewable energy supplies, intelligently managed charging and energy storage, to avoid peak demand, mitigate grid connection upgrade costs and earn grid balancing revenues.

If the Road to Zero Strategy is regarded purely as a missed opportunity to boost investment in clean automotive manufacturing then yes, it can be accused of being in cruise control, as much of the coverage has suggested. But if it manages to steer the decarbonisation of the energy and transportation sectors to occur symbiotically, then the UK government’s strategy is looking more Road to El Dorado and less Road to Nowhere.