The race to electrify transport is on

The UK Climate Change Committee has suggested that the government has ‘ambition but no detailed plans on reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050’. But in May, the electricity regulator Ofgem announced £300 million of investment – part of a larger £40 billion strategy – to get Britain ready for more electric transport and heat. Dr Jon Hiscock, Managing Director of power technology specialist Fundamentals Ltd, examines how the electricity industry is rising to the challenge of electric vehicles.

The National Grid predicts 11 million electric vehicles (EVs) in the UK by 2030 – up from 550,000 in 2021. The primary problem is not so much generating more electricity – it is transmitting and distributing power to where it is needed for EV charge points, across local grids which were never built to handle the flows required.

The problem is twofold: coping with both the volume and timing of charging. Both are difficult to predict and plan for, years in advance. 

Will millions of commuters be plugging their cars in at the same time when they get home from work – and the evening peak demand begins for heat, showers and cooking (all increasingly electric)? Will fleets of newly electrified commercial vehicles be hooking into superfast chargers on the road networks and at work? When? Where? And what charging speeds will they need?

Batteries are getting cheaper and can replenish faster and faster, while chargers are getting ever more powerful. 100kW chargers (defined by Zap Map as ultra-rapid) are becoming more commonplace, while BP has announced the roll out of 150kW chargers across its Pulse network. There is increasing talk of 350kW chargers and batteries that are built to take on hundreds of miles of range in under 10 minutes – the equivalent of 50 domestic wall chargers, drawing 7kW each simultaneously. And will there be HYPER-rapid chargers by 2030?

As Ofgem stated: “Britain’s cables, substations and other infrastructure need a massive upgrade to support this new demand for electricity.”

£300m down, £40 billion to come

The regulator describes its £300 million investment announcement as ‘a down payment’, which in the next two years will include new infrastructure for 1,800 ultra-rapid charging points on motorways (triple the current number), plus a further 1,750 in town and cities. A good step forward – but that rate needs to increase by 35,000 new charge points per year in order to accommodate  11 million EVs on the roads by 2030. 

There is much more to come, however. Ofgem has already committed to a £40 billion investment programme for new infrastructure to support low carbon transport and heating, with further announcements slated for next year. It also promises many more charge points at commuter railway stations, together with small towns across England, Wales and Scotland. 

A word of warning here: wholesale upgrading of the UK’s entire electricity grid to deliver ultra-rapid EV charging everywhere would be prohibitively expensive and disruptive. The realistic objective is to ensure that, in addition to more strategically-placed superfast charge points, millions of homes, businesses and smaller communities have ready access to lower rated charge points – typically 7kW at present. That alone is a challenge to the distribution system, given the numbers of users likely to be involved.

Stronger grids and smarter tech

Apart from putting in bigger wires and more substations, grid operators are increasingly adopting smart new technologies to ensure existing networks can deliver widespread EV charging reliably and at affordable cost. The trick is to be able to predict and cope with sudden and massive increases in local demand (and fluctuations in power available from low carbon generation sources, including solar and wind). Failure to do that would cause unexpected power cuts or grey outs (voltage drops that would see lights dim and some equipment not working properly). 

One example of how grid operators are adopting new technologies to tackle the problem uses a combination of satellite navigation, data gathering and deep machine learning. This powerful union provides operators with hyper-visibility of changes in power demand, down to street level. Hundreds of thousands of substations can be upgraded with units which monitor and communicate local load changes. The system learns precisely where, when and how many EVs are plugged in locally, building up an accurate and ever-changing picture of patterns in demand, so operators can predict load surges and respond immediately. 

There is a road out of this complex task to accommodate millions of EVs. It involves a combination of major investment in grid reinforcement, together with the emergence of smart new technologies, to deliver a lot more charge points, in a lot more places. The race to electrify transport is on.  

FUNDAMENTALS has been improving the health and performance of the electrical grid for 25 years. Its combination of voltage control systems for electrical power grid infrastructure coupled with cutting edge big data and machine learning technologies places it at the heart of the industry as operators prepare for the demands of an electric future. 

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