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Thinking beyond the charger 

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Seth Townsley, energy marketing manager at Schneider Electric, highlights what’s needed in order to ready our electrical infrastructure for the rise of electric vehicles.

With the UK setting ambitious emissions reduction targets over the next few decades, electric vehicles are often cited as the solution to keeping the country on the road while cutting out fossil fuels. 

In the third quarter of 2019, just over 2% of new cars licensed in the United Kingdom were fully electric vehicles (according to ONS figures) with industry pundits forecasting an acceleration in adoption during 2020. However, with this early success arrives both challenges and opportunities for stakeholders throughout the energy and transport industries – from vehicle manufacturers and fleet operators to utilities providers and even consumers themselves. 

For vehicle manufacturers, there are large groups of customers who, by moving to EV truck fleets, for example, can cut their vehicle operational and maintenance costs by up to 50%. On the other hand, it is not easy for auto manufacturers to flip a switch from producing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to EVs. Factory physical infrastructures will need to modernise, and manufacturing lines for both types of vehicles will need to be maintained for quite a few years.

For electrical utilities, a robust network of EV charging stations represents a major opportunity for selling more electricity to consumers and for increasing grid efficiencies with new access to more stored energy.

New smart charging stations can provide services that can help improve power quality and reliability. EVs and digital innovations drive energy efficiency improvements by coordinating charging systems to grid capacities, thereby improving energy efficiencies and reducing the need for new lines and transformer stations. 

Even repurposed EV batteries used as storage can offer the possibility of regulating the grid or smoothing out peak demand when used as energy storage. This network “service” represents economic value. EVs are thus a significant source of flexibility in electricity demand.

Enhancing flexibility with modern EV charging stations

Modern smart charging stations make highly efficient use of the grid. Current charging profiles of EV drivers indicate that they charge three times a day, often in the morning, lunch or during the evening. Therefore, instead of investing in large connections to the grid that are expensive and inefficient (since they are not in use for most of the day), a more pragmatic approach is to invest in a charging station that offers a battery storage option. When drivers want to charge their vehicle, they can source their power either from the grid or from the battery storage. The charging station can be programmed to optimise the lowest price scenario for that particular time of the day.

The new charging stations are also flexible in the ways they can source their energy supply. For instance, the stations can repurpose lithium-ion automobile batteries as an OEM-packaged energy storage option. As ICE cars lessen in numbers while EVs increase, used lithium-ion batteries from ICE cars will present a low-cost option for supplying energy storage to some of these charging systems.

On the other hand, fleet intensive organisations that house and operate hundreds of vehicles throughout the day, can use solar or wind power installed on the roofs of their facilities to charge their EV battery storage. Smart charging stations are configured and designed so that they can use both traditional grid power in addition to solar and wind resources. In addition, any excess power produced can be sold back to the grid if grid demand is high and the battery control system suggests such an action.

Depending on the region, power purchased at night or at a time when the grid is at a low load, can be 10 – 40% less expensive and used during times when costs are high.

Building an integrated charging ecosystem

Investing in modern power infrastructure that is digitised and decentralised is vital to preparing for the electric vehicle revolution. Over the next few years our infrastructure must become more flexible and agile in order to cope with the significant energy demands and potential energy storing from electric vehicles. 

Modern charging stations are part of that movement, acting as network connection points capable of accessing the cloud and supplying electrical power when needed. Within these technologies, leading companies in energy management and automation have designed in the ability to safely and securely connect and send data to the point operator and to the electric power consumer. 

The opportunity presented by electric vehicles is fast making them the smart choice for both consumers and businesses. But they can only reach their full potential as part of the low carbon future once the potential hurdle of ‘dumb’ infrastructure is becoming a speck in the rear-view mirror.  


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