EVs: Can they help defer costly reinforcements?

Look ahead to 2050, and it is expected that every new car and van sold in the UK will be electric, with each petrol powered engine being retired bringing the country closer to a purely electric fleet of vehicles.

EVs: Can they help defer costly reinforcements?

Petrol stations will give way to commercial and public charging stations, and corporate packages to enable employees to charge while working will have become the norm. If brought to reality, the electric vehicle (EV) revolution will play a major role in enabling the country’s decarbonisation targets to be achieved, but it will not come without its challenges. For every internal combustion engine that is replaced by electric or plug-in hybrid, emissions will be reduced, but pressure on the electricity grid will increase.

“We want to see DNOs involved in discussions at a local and national level to help shape positive outcomes for both network operators and electric vehicle users.”

Extreme shift

Such a shift will be extreme, but will grow gradually between then and now, and it is incumbent upon those managing today’s electricity demands to prepare for tomorrow’s reality. Like the transition away from traditional sources of power and towards renewables, and the enablement of domestic demand response, supporting the rise of electric vehicles will bring added pressures to each and every network across the land. Bearable today, it won’t be long before clusters early adopters start to appear in localised areas, and the effects of a high penetration of EVs start to impinge on local networks.

And with the one million registered EV mark expected to be broken by 2020, now is the time that networks, regulators and policymakers need to start preparing.

There is an ongoing debate about the extent to which networks should fund new infrastructure up front, as this entails today’s customers paying for what tomorrow’s customers might – or might not – need. Ofgem argues these pressures can be managed within its current regime.

Significant cash

Through its innovation funding, the regulator has made significant cash available for the networks to finance projects in order to understand the coming demands and develop solutions to solve them. However the regulator insists that through innovation, bills to customers must be kept as low as possible, so the simple reinforcement of networks must be avoided wherever possible. Furthermore, such costs of reinforcement would be high.

An Ofgem spokesman said: “Our message to DNOs is that they can use the existing funding we have agreed in their price control to respond to demand from electric vehicles to use the networks.  

“Electric vehicle use could develop in clusters in certain parts of GB, such as London boroughs. So DNOs need to engage with stakeholders such as local authorities, central and devolved governments, vehicle manufacturers and consumers to determine what is needed.

“We want to see DNOs involved in discussions at a local and national level to help shape positive outcomes for both network operators and electric vehicle users.”

When the time comes for the networks to act, there is support available to enable that. Through the innovation roll-out support mechanism, Ofgem offers up to £10 million in funding to roll-out technologies or techniques that would enable it to go two years beyond business as usual. In order to secure the funding, networks must show that the roll-out would provide ‘enduring benefits to consumers’ and would be uneconomic to roll out within the balancing services incentive scheme.

“If distribution network operators do nothing to mitigate that impact, then by 2050, there will be an economic cost to customers of at least £2.2 billion in terms of having to traditionally reinforce networks through new cables, new copper in the ground,” explains Gill Nowell, a senior consultant at EA Technology, in reference to a finding from My Electric Avenue, an ongoing study of EV use by EA in partnership with SSE Networks – of which, more below.

In terms of the scale of the challenge, it is forecast that major issues for operation would not occur until penetration reached levels between 40% and 70%, at which point around a third of networks would be effected.

But with the current penetration level sitting below 10% and the reality that even by that point, the increased overall demand would only be 2%-3%, an increase well within the average headroom levels of networks, there is no immediate danger posed by the adoption of EVs.

The time is right

However, with its increasing popularity, and a need for planning in the long term, now is the right time to look for ways of avoiding the need to reinforce.

In order to alleviate these potential stresses on networks, the solution seen by most as offering the greatest hope is smart charging, where an element of the control of the charging of EVs is taken out of the hands of the owners and instead put in the hands of the networks.

By reducing the rate of charge within that period, or shifting it outside of it entirely, the networks can ease stress on the network, while customers benefit from charging at cheaper times.

And it’s an area where positive results have already been found, through the My Electric Avenue project.

Funded in large part through Ofgem’s LCN fund, and carried out with EA Technology, the project trialled EA’s Esprit technology on 10 groups of 10 localised EV drivers to see whether they would be willing have charging curtailed in times of high stress to the network.

Built around the Nissan Leaf vehicle, with participants provided it at a lease rate of just £100 per month, and a free 3.5Kv charging station, the trial found positive results for the theory of smart charging. “As long as they could wake up the next day with enough charge in their vehicle to get where they needed to go, they were happy,” explains Nowell, who was a lead on the project.

However, while My Electric Avenue supported the principle of smart charging, it had inherent limitations, with the pool of just a single vehicle and charging station no longer offering an accurate picture of today’s EV climate.

Western Power Distribution’s Electric Nation, also conducted by EA Technology, will resolve that issue by trialling the full spectrum of vehicles involved and also a variety of chargers. This, as Nowell explains, will enable a more detailed picture for the networks on the potential impact of EVs through the production of a modelling tool that will enable networks to see what levels of penetration will bring undue stress to a local network.

“If you imagine a sliding scale of interventions, it will let them know that on this network it looks quite problematic, so X number of EVs will be acceptable but this number will be problematic and require intervention,” explains Nowell.

Greater understanding

Such knowledge will leave DNOs better positioned to plan what action will need to be taken on its various networks to account for the impact of EVs, but the results of Electric Nation will also offer a far greater understanding as to just how valuable smart charging can be, and how flexible their owners are willing to be.

For Mark Dale, innovation and low carbon networks engineer at WPD, understanding that user attitude and the points at which the system is overridden to force charging will be a valuable resource to networks. “If you need your car and you’re on a demand restriction, you can override it, and the number of times people override the control will be a key piece of learning.”

With the positive results of My Electric Avenue, and the promise of a more comprehensive understanding through Electric Nation, the potential for smart charging to enable the impact of EVs to mitigated is strong.

However, in order for that potential to be realised, it is critical that through the formation of bodies such as the Office for Low Emission Vehicles and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, that the electric utilities and automotive industries establish a strong collaborative relationship in order to maximise its potential.

The recent decision from the government, as part of the Modern Transport Bill, that powers will be enacted that will require manufacturers of car charging systems to ensure they possess ‘smart charging’ capability, should support the further development of such relations.

However, through the process of developing the detailed standard, it is critical that both parties work closely to understand the needs and objectives of the other.

Developed effectively, such standards and cross-industry collaboration will ensure that the potential for smart charging to shift EV demand away from the peak periods can be maximised. That, combined with continued developments and outcomes of innovation projects such as Electric Nation, and the requirement for reinforcement may well be avoided


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