Solving the EV charging jigsaw

As DNOs present Ofgem with their electric vehicle (EV) readiness documents, illustrating how the transport revolution can be effectively managed, Patrick Erwin, policy and markets director at Northern Powergrid, outlines key policies that would ensure a fair, and properly managed transition.

Solving the EV charging jigsaw

UK emissions have been in steady decline in recent years. However, transport remains a black mark against our efforts to tackle climate change. Transport alone is now our biggest source of emissions – accounting for 26 per cent of all UK greenhouse gases – sparking a raft of new decarbonisation strategies and the need for a surge in EV uptake.

National Grid’s Future Energy Systems (FES) report predicts there will be 35 million EVs on British roads by 2050 – a figure that could see an additional 6.5GW of demand at peak time and an increased annual power demand of approximately 88TWh[i]. This presents one of the biggest challenges faced by operators of power infrastructure since the conception of our electricity network.

Despite these grid balancing hurdles, there are also a wealth of opportunities. For example, the same 35 million EVs, each with a modest 40kWh battery, represent enough storage to run today’s electricity system for a day and a half. To capitalise on this untapped future resource, Northern Powergrid last year launched a world-first £9.8 million trial alongside Nissan, Newcastle University, Imperial College London, UK Power Networks, National Grid and Nuvve. The project will see the installation of 1,000 vehicle-to-grid (V2G) chargers to put the UK at forefront of the EV revolution and demonstrate how this new fleet of vehicles can be fully integrated into the electricity grid. Through this and other projects, we are showing how EVs can smooth peaks and troughs in supply and demand, drive down the cost of clean technologies and increase the integration of renewable energy on the UK grid.

Northern Powergrid also announced three initiatives to encourage its 2,500 employees to get hands-on with EVs, while monitoring the impact on the network. The first of these initiatives is to provide EV charging facilities at 11 of our larger sites to give employees the confidence to go electric. This is supported by a second initiative to install 16 onsite V2G charging points, which will contribute to a trial of best use of the technology in fleet operations. Coupled with the ongoing process of fleet electrification, this is providing valuable data that will ensure our network is able to effectively manage the EV transition. Making our fleet greener is an additional benefit.


Managing charging

We believe that the UK’s networks are already well placed to support the mass adoption of EVs. A typical electric car might consume 10 kWhrs a day. If that demand is spread across the day and the country, and if charging is managed properly, distribution networks – at least in Northern Powergrid’s service area – will be able to meet the extra demand from EVs with minimal new investment. However, if we don’t properly manage charging and we allow it to be concentrated at particular times of day, or in places with limited capacity, EVs will disrupt our networks, making peak demand more difficult to manage and adding cost to the system.

But we are more ambitious than simply avoiding a problem. We want our customers to be able to extract the maximum value from their vehicles and use EVs (and other energy assets) to provide flexibility to the system, help manage energy supply, and make the electricity supplies to their homes and businesses more resilient at times of stress. They will be able to help keep their own, and their communities’, lights on. We think this is important to help move to lower carbon energy sources, but also to maximise affordability and wider sustainability. If we can harness the energy in EVs to provide energy storage for a wider energy system, we will need less expensive, resource-intensive dedicated storage, and fewer carbon emitting peaking plants on our system.  

That’s why we’re calling on industry, regulators and policy makers to act now to ensure our energy system is prepared to cope with the demands and embrace the opportunities of the EV transition.

In order to deliver this, we must first solve the EV charging jigsaw. Where should we charge? How should we charge? How can we manage mass charging at peak times?

From a network perspective, by far the best answer to that first question is to focus on home, work and destination charging. This typically lower rate charging will enable network operators to better manage peak charging times and delay expensive network upgrades. Car manufacturers also tell us that lower rate charging is better for the EV and its battery. For long distance journeys or for those without off-street parking, rapid on-route charging has a role but should be complementary to home charging and not constitute the bulk of EV infrastructure.

Drivers would also benefit in this scenario. Imagine leaving the house every morning with a full tank of petrol – how often would you have to drive to a traditional petrol forecourt? Almost never. The same principle can be applied to EVs. As they become common place, everyone with a charger at home will leave each morning with a full tank, therefore reducing the need to fill up with more expensive, less convenient, and less sustainable rapid chargers. Slower charging can actually save you time.


Infrastructure is key

The government strengthened the case for this argument even further by requiring all government funded EV home and workplace chargepoints to be smart by July this year. National Grid predicts that 75 per cent of EVs could be using smart charging by 2050. Smart charging allows chargepoints to respond to network demand and lets customers choose when to charge. For example, the chargepoints can be programmed to only turn on when energy is at its cheapest. This cuts bills for the customer and reduces peak demand, allowing network operators to manage the grid more effectively. This process reduces peaks of electricity demand, reducing the need for new generators, and minimises the strain of charging EVs on the electricity system, reducing the need for new electricity network infrastructure. All this keeps costs down for consumers.

Taking this one step further, Northern Powergrid supports the Government’s recent decision to legislate that all new homes must be built with EV chargers as standard[ii]. The cost benefits of providing this infrastructure at the new build stage – rather than expensive retrofitting in the future that may require roads to be dug up – cannot be overstated. This is especially pertinent as we undergo one of the most rapid home building exercises in our history in order to tackle the ongoing housing crisis.

DNOs like Northern Powergrid are in the perfect position to provide reliable advice to planners, developers and local authorities if this legislation were to be introduced. In fact, we’re already doing just that. Earlier this year, we launched a series of local authority events, providing a platform for local authority employees in our service area to come together and explore the pressing issues they face around installing EV charging infrastructure. We’re also in the process of developing a new online, self-service tool to give near-instant budget estimates for new EV charging connections. It will guide users to the most cost effective and realistic connection option i.e. where suitable capacity is available on the distribution network. Some local authorities have been given hands on access to try out the tool already, giving us valuable feedback as we prepare to roll out the tool more widely.

Using existing technology and network assets, such as EVs, to support the grid and postpone expensive network upgrades is the cornerstone of Northern Powergrid’s DSO vison. However, this can only be done if EV charging is properly managed. By encouraging home and destination charging, while minimising costly, energy intensive on-route rapid charging, we can not only cope with mass EV adoption, we can keep charging costs as low as possible. Moreover, by ensuring that these chargers are internet connected, we open ourselves up to an intelligent and manageable EV charging system that’s able to create a resilient customer-centric network, minimising the need for expensive network upgrades and helping to increase the share of renewable energy on the grid.

These policies would cultivate a resilient, smart, renewable and affordable energy network and distribute the benefits of EVs to all in society, not just the privileged few that are able to afford the new technology. Policy makers should make these changes today to proactively prepare our energy system for the coming wave of EVs.


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