How far will electricity take us?

Head of markets at UK Power Networks Services, Philip Heathcote, examines the changes across the energy supply industry – and its impact on transportation.

Seismic changes are taking place in the energy supply industry. Some are obvious, like the EV charging points that are popping up around cities, and some perhaps that are less so. More and more, UK Power Networks Services has been working with transportation clients to help them take advantage of new technologies and the energy transition, in particular, the decentralisation of energy networks. 

A buzzword phrase that pops up frequently in our industry is the energy trilemma, the balance between energy security, social impact and environmental sensitivity and it is through this prism I will examine each transportation mode. 

Before we delve into each mode, it should be borne in mind throughout that around 30% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions came from the transportation sector and this sector will require transformation if the UK is to achieve its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

There also exists a commercial imperative. Passengers are increasingly considering the sustainability impact of their journeys from door to door. This not only means carbon offsetting their long-haul flight, but electric taxis, trains and, looking into the future, even electric aircraft. We need to create an infrastructure that supports passengers in making positive choices, while at the same time acknowledging that they are absolutely unforgiving for any delay in their journey – making resilience of that infrastructure vital. 

Get your motor running

The UK government is working towards no petrol or diesel vehicles sales after 2035. The most recent figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) show that, year to date, pure-electric models accounted for 6.9% of total new car registrations, and when you add in plug-in hybrids the figure goes up to 13.7%. When comparing January 2020 to today’s figures, there has been a 54.4% increase in the adoption of electric vehicles, a positive sign that consumers are overcoming their anxieties about range and where to charge their cars on longer journeys.  (Source)

However, the challenge to scale-up the EV charging network remains.  It is estimated that 25m vehicle charging point will be required nationwide to achieve net zero by 2050. To give some scale to that challenge there are currently approximately 19,000 public EV charge points in the UK. So there is some way to go to install and finance the required network.

Some argue that government intervention is required to underwrite the construction costs of a national charging network, particularly in rural areas, and in particular to cover the connection cost to the distribution network infrastructure. At this time government has yet to declare what role it sees for itself in the roll out of a national vehicle charging infrastructure. 

We are beginning to see the electrification of commercial vehicles, starting with light vans, where the product range is limited, but growing.  Whereas, there are very few larger heavy goods vehicles on the market, which is holding back adoption. 

UPS, a global leader in logistics, are a great example of deploying a light commercial EVs. Driven by their ambition and in part by London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). 

We have worked with UPS to electrify their Camden depot for 170 vehicles. Utilising artificial intelligence (AI) software the vehicles are charged when power is cheapest and cleanest, by using for example on-site energy storage at the most cost-effective times. 

UPS have used their Camden site as a test-bed for a wider roll out of EV fleets. To underline their commitment to EVs, in January 2020, UPS announced they were ordering 10,000 customer electric delivery vehicles from UK manufacturer, Arrival, with an option for a further 10,000. Others are following, like the Royal Mail, who currently have 295 commercial EVs and are trialling the use of refitted electric black taxi cabs for postal rounds. 

Bus electrification is also picking up pace. There are more than 200 fully electric buses running in London, with the city having a target to convert all 9,200 buses to electric by 2037. The challenge facing the bus operators is that electric buses are double the capital price of their diesel equivalent, (although they do have a lower total cost of ownership [TCO]) and they also have to invest in the charging infrastructure at depots. Currently the catalyst for the adoption of electric buses are local government policies in for example, in London and Manchester, to secure the operation of route, bus companies must commit to electrifying the fleet that will run on it. 

To stimulate wider adoption, in February 2020, the government announced a £50m funding competition for one local authority to develop an all-electric bus town. The winning town will then be used as a model for other local authorities up and down the country, as the government aims for all buses to be fully electric to support net zero. 

In London, bus electrification is certainly gathering pace. In 2020, despite the challenges of COVID-19 we successfully installed an electric vehicle charging solution in Stagecoach’s West Ham bus garage, allowing for another London bus route to run on fully electric vehicles. 

Electric vehicles are coming, albeit baby steps at the moment – the charging infrastructure is key.

Ahoy me hearties

Shipping is amongst the only industries not covered by the Paris Agreement on climate change and yet it currently contributes to 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, mainly through the burning of dirty, heavy fuel oil. 

The industry has begun to tackle its environmental footprint. Effective from 1 January 2020, vessels are now required to utilise low-sulphur fuel or have scrubbers fitted to remove the sulphur emissions. Other short-term measures being investigated by the industry to reduce emissions include ‘slow steaming’ where the speed of the vessel is limited, the adoption of bio-fuels, more stream lined designs and using wind power propulsion. 

To achieve zero emissions the smart money for the future of ocean going vessels in all probability lies with fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen. However there are plenty of vessels that only travel short distances, in inland and coastal water, such as ferries, tugs and service ships, and the same smart money is that these will all go electric in due course and will require on-shore charging infrastructure.

Later this year the world’s largest all-electric container ship, the Yara Birkeland is expected to make its maiden voyage. Commissioned by a Norwegian fertilizer company, it will move product around the country, with capacity for 120 TEUs (containers), taking 40,000 diesel powered truck trips off the roads of Norway annually. Interestingly this will become a crewless, fully autonomous vessel at some point in 2022.

Energy innovation in the maritime industry is not confined to the main propulsion systems. It is no longer acceptable to have noisy polluting ports – they have zero emission targets too. 

A quick win, via proven technologies, to reduce emissions, but one that requires investment by the port operator, is for power to be supplied to berthed vessels via a direct connection to the port’s electrical network and transferred without interruption. This is called cold ironing, a shipping term used when ships had coal fired engines, when in port the fires would not be fed and the engine would eventually go cold. Cold ironing allows for the shutdown of generators that power systems such as lighting, ventilation and fire systems, eliminating emissions, vibration and noise.

Cold ironing will present the challenge of supplying enough electricity to power a single ship, let alone multiple vessels in a harbour simultaneously. To accommodate the increase in electricity demand ports have options, these include increasing the capacity of the connection to the distribution network and/or use renewable resources such as wind and solar to self-generate coupled with energy storage to create a micro-grid. 

The adoption of electrically powered infrastructure is gaining pace thanks to the combination of environmental challenges coupled with the drive for increased efficiency through automation. At the Port of Rotterdam, one of the world’s leading Smart Ports gigantic unmanned cranes lift containers from vessels, whilst electric Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), a truck with no cab, transport the containers to storage facilities. From there, the containers are lifted automatically onto road vehicles. The emphasis is on a quick turnaround for the vessels; quick to unload and load and minimum handling by the port authority. We will increasingly see more integrated greener transport systems like this.

The search for efficiency through increased automation is driving the increased electrification of ports.

Come fly with me

It must be acknowledge that these are indeed tough times for the aviation sector, with the levels of activity not expected to return to pre-Covid-19 levels for at least two to three years, but return they will as it is a key driver of the global economy.

Before COVID-19 took hold, public scrutiny around the emissions and noise created by the aviation industry was at an all-time high. 

We all saw climate activist Greta Thunberg sail her zero-carbon yacht from Plymouth to New York for the Climate Action Summit in August 2019 to highlight the emissions that air travel is responsible for. It’s clear from the press coverage this achieved that this new call for action will only get louder, particularly as the Swedish term Flygskam, or flight shame becomes part of the climate crisis vernacular. At the same time the Extinction Rebellion protests were taking place in London. 

Like shipping, aviation is looking at short-term mitigations to reduce its environmental impact through the procurement of more fuel efficient aircraft – the Airbus A320 neo is 13-15% more fuel efficient than existing models. As in shipping, the use of bio-fuels that can be manufactured using renewable energy are also being trailed. In the UK an airspace modernisation programme is underway, making the movement of planes in the sky flow more efficiently that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, fuel burn and noise. 

Some of the world’s biggest industrial names from Boeing to Siemens to Rolls Royce are working on plans to bring electrically powered aircraft to market. There are a wide range of predictions about when electric flying will become commercially viable, but there appears to be a consensus that it remains unlikely that people will be flying long distances on an all-electric plane. Hybrid solutions are the most likely way forwards – and if you reflect back, this is where other transport modes started out – remember when the trendy car to own was the Toyota Prius? Incredibly the Prius was launched back in 1997 and was the first commercially available hybrid. 

It is on the ground that the aviation can make a more immediate environmental impact by utilising the decentralisation of electricity networks. This is allowing airports to take advantage of new technologies – such as renewable generation including solar photo voltaics (PV) and Combined Heat & Power engines (CHP), battery storage, micro-grids and automation of traditional networks. And of course the fleets of buses and servicing vehicles that operate in the perimeter can and are being converted to EVs.

It provides them with an opportunity to rely less on the national electricity network and become more self-sufficient, which reduces the cost of energy through self-generation, proactive demand management, as well as decarbonised operations and providing resilience to electricity outages.

With one of our airport clients we have done a piece of analytics, that showed a 2 milliseconds transient, an energy spike that overloads a system causing it to trip, could disable a baggage handling system for two hours after which it would take four days to reunite the passengers with their luggage.

We are currently working with London City Airport to support them to achieve their net zero ambitions as they expand the airport. We already operate and maintain the airport’s existing HV network and we are now developing an innovative micro-grid that will integrate solar PV, combine heat and power and smart automation that will not only improve the airport’s green credentials, but double the size of the electricity network, delivering the capacity they require in a more sustainable way.

In the short to medium term our focus in the aviation sector is very much on the ground at airports.

The runaway train

In the rail sector, we already have hybrid electric/diesel trains in operation on the national network. The battle between further electrification and the adoption of hydrogen powered rolling stock is now being played out. 

Electrification is expensive, costing around £1m/km and its construction is disruptive to passenger services. 

Hydrogen offers a potential lower cost solution to replacing diesel rolling stock, but in the UK no national distribution network exists, however an Alstom built fleet of hydrogen powered trains in service in Germany has proved its viability. 

But hang on, there is another way to eliminate emissions without electrifying the whole track, which is for a train to carry a battery and recharge en-route, as has been successfully trailed in the UK by Bombardier, and this in itself may be cheaper and simpler to apply than a hydrogen powered solution. 

UK Power Networks Services has been involved a number of design feasibility studies that demonstrate trains branching off the electrified section of line with a fully charged battery have a range of around 50 km, with sufficient redundancies for the unexpected, allowing them to proceed to a station with a charging infrastructure where they can top up the battery before travelling to the next location. 

Interestingly, Hitachi when launching their new design of battery train estimated that they have a 50% lower life cycle cost than hydrogen trains.

One should also remember that railway stations are nodes in the transportation system. They offer the chance for the installation of EV charging infrastructure, solar canopies and energy storage to create green stations, to facilitate the door-to-door green journey that society is increasingly seeking. Personally, I feel quite smug when I get into an electric taxi, but it will not be long until this smugness turns to an expectation.

So What

A tsunami of electrification is coming in all modes of transport to support decarbonisation and required infrastructure to supports it. 

And I have not touched upon e-scooters, bikes, skateboards or electric flying taxi’s that the likes of Uber are researching nor the impacts upon electricity generation capacity and its subsequent distribution.

The key driving forces for change are all in play, are the so called 4Ds of the Energy Transition: decarbonisation, decentralisation, digitisation and deregulation. The pace of change and innovation makes me hopeful that we will limit the impact of transportation on climate change and I am cautiously optimistic that the pace of change is rapid enough for the UK to be net zero by 2050. My optimism is driven not just by a misty eyed optimism because we need to tackle climate change, but because the transition makes economic sense.

When it comes to getting from A to B, I believe the future is electric, the main question is just how far will electricity take us? 

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