Leading the charge

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Gregory Allouis, strategic solutions director at SPIE UK, outlines why first and foremost, an efficient EV charging infrastructure must start with the grid.

Currently, the UK government plans to ban the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars by 2040. Yet some commentators, such as the Committee on Climate Change, believe that deadline should be brought forward in order to tackle the burgeoning issue that is global warming.

It’s all well and good setting ambitious targets to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles (EV), but some thought must be given to the charging and power supply infrastructure that will support a dramatic increase in energy use for transportation purposes. We need to ensure that the infrastructure itself is energy efficient. But as a country with over 38 million vehicles on our roads, how will this be possible?

The problem goes deeper than the EV charging infrastructure. For a reliable and efficient charging network to become a reality, we need to consider how the entire National Grid is managed. Reflecting upon the extensive blackout experienced by millions of households in August resulting from a sudden drop in electricity frequency on the grid, evidently extreme care needs to be taken when it comes to adding further strain to the nation’s power infrastructure.

Part of the solution could be to diversify the production of electricity to mitigate the danger of interrupted supply, with smart management of consumption being a key part of this. This is because when there are many consumers all using power at the same time, electricity frequency goes down. 

In a situation where everyone is charging their cars in the evening, managing frequency will become a big problem. Smart management is needed to smooth out fluctuating frequency levels. For example, by having the means of switching the electricity supply on and off to machinery, depending on frequency levels, both energy and money can be saved. Large manufacturers are already using this technology to switch their machinery off when frequency is low. 

What’s more, EV charging should not be considered a one-way street. Two-way electric charging technologies, that treat the grid as an energy transport network should also be considered as it allows for the most efficient use of energy. 

By embracing Vehicle to Grid technology (V2G), or Vehicle to Home (V2H), which enables users to charge their vehicles but also return energy to the grid and/or home and effectively smooth demand, will dramatically help reduce frequency anomalies as necessary. Utilising V2G and V2H technologies may also result in EVs acting almost as a mobile battery that can store renewable energy and return it to the grid during peak times. Potentially with the EV owner being rewarded financially for doing so. 

There are also concerns about the longevity of EV batteries, and how they might be recycled when they no longer work for cars. EVs’ design currently makes use of edge batteries, however, this type of battery has a finite lifespan. Unfortunately, the fast and ultra-fast charging stations may damage the batteries and repeated re-charging puts a strain on the technology. 

However, once they are no longer fit for use in vehicles, these batteries could find a new lease of life by helping to diversify power supplies in buildings. This would be achieved by using the upcycled batteries as storage for local renewable energy generation, such as solar panels or wind turbines on buildings, instead of the energy being dispersed across the grid. In reality, we can expect to see this sort of process in the next five to 10 years. 

With concerns regarding the scarcity of Lithium, we should also question whether charging and batteries will even be required for our EVs. Hydrogen cars could be another option, or other ways of charging may become viable, such as by induction. However, as with the adoption of EVs themselves, change will be slow. 

There is a high probability that plug in charging infrastructure will become obsolete and that wireless charging will eventually supersede it. Right now, however, wireless charging technology is inefficient and results in large energy losses. Whilst there are vehicles, such as buses, operating in the UK which take advantage of wireless charging, the majority of electric vehicles in circulation to date are not compatible. In short, we are a long way off from having standardised wireless vehicle charging. 

The impact of the sharing economy might also mean that the number of vehicles on our roads will go down. The ‘shared mobility market’ has allowed people living in urban areas to completely rethink the way they move around. With so many alternatives to traditional travel, city inhabitants are shunning car ownership, especially amongst younger generations.

In fact, research from GlobalData Technology found that after 2034, it’s likely there will be a decline in sales of new passenger vehicles as ride sharing apps combined with autonomous driving technology create transport networks that reduce demand for car ownership. This will be music to the Mayor of London’s ears, who is aiming for 80% of all trips in London to be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport by 2041. This target might be much easier than first anticipated because soon we might actually have fewer cars on the road!

In order to develop a charging network that is both sustainable and efficient, and for the aforementioned strategies to become a reality, it is wise to bring together a variety of stakeholders so that a broad spectrum of aims and concerns are taken into account. A huge amount of planning and funding will be required for EVs to truly become ubiquitous and we need to make sure the correct foundations are in place, else we risk overloading the nation’s already vulnerable power supply.