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Electric vehicles: Engineering possibilities vs practical implementation

A key focus of Europe’s energy transition must be taking pollution off the roads as well as out of power plants. Key players from the electricity industry took part in a round table debate in which they considered the role a responsive and robust smart grid will have on any successful rollout of electric vehicles


David Porter, Senior Advisor to the Global Energy team, Navigant

Simon Hobday, Energy Partner,

Osborne Clarke

Jacob Klimstra, Energy and Engine Consultant, Jacob Klimstra Consultancy

Ulla Pettersson, Managing Consultant and Founder, E for Energy Management


1. Given that the smart grid itself is more an evolution than a transition, what key elements of the smart grid need to be in place before electric vehicle penetration can gain significant momentum?

Simon Hobday: There are several practical challenges for electric vehicles, but they’re not particularly smart grid-related. Firstly, battery technology needs to provide the necessary longevity and a common standard time for fast charging that can keep up with consumer demand. Secondly, adaptors must be standardized, and thirdly, the number of charging points must increase sufficiently to rival the current number of petrol stations in order to make electric vehicles a viable option for transportation.

David Porter: People sometimes underestimate the scale of the challenges involved in the transition to electric vehicles: not only providing a robust grid, but the customer-related issues. Cars are the most popular mode of transportation, especially in rural areas where people depend on them. In order for the transition to happen, electric vehicles must be within people’s budgets (at the moment they are expensive) and support their mobility needs (currently, they cannot match petrol and diesel vehicles).

Policymakers are faced with a huge ‘chicken and egg’ question. It looks as though new distribution and charging systems must come first ” otherwise people will not buy electric vehicles ” but building new infrastructure cannot be justified until they are confident about electric vehicle technology and the ability of customers to pay.

There are financial implications for government too. For example, in the UK the government receives approximately à‚£27 billion per annum (€37 billion) in fuel duty. However, once electric vehicles overtake conventional ones, where is that à‚£27 billion going to come from?

Jacob Klimstra: If a free market for providing energy to vehicles existed, a tariff system connected to the real-time price of electricity would be key because vehicles could then play a niche role of balancing the grid’s usage.

Ulla Pettersson: The demand for electric vehicles is not currently that big, and I believe we can have many more electric vehicles online before problems occur. As long as all the vehicles aren’t charging at the same time, I think that electric vehicles could work without adapting the grid. But the smart grid could be used in a smarter way by utilizing wind power and other intermittent renewable sources to support the cost. Especially when it comes to generation types with a high percentage of carbon emission, consumers would be more likely to switch over if they knew that it came from renewables. However, we need more charging points to enable a regional switch, but this is a catch-22: people will only buy an electric vehicle if there are enough charging points for it to be a viable alternative to a motor car, but more charging points will only be installed if pressure from electric vehicles demands it.

Electric vehicle charging station

Credit: Nissan


The Roadster25

Credit: Tesla Motors

2. What timescales do you envisage for wider commercial rollouts of electric vehicles, and which of Europe’s nations do you see taking a lead and why?

Ulla Pettersson: Widespread rollout of electric vehicles will occur in Europe, but the speed of implementation is dependent on the currently unstable oil price. If the price is low, then people won’t invest in electric vehicles because it’s not the cheapest option. However, I predict that in five years’ time, approximately 20 per cent of small private cars will be electric.

Jacob Klimstra: Progress is dependent on battery costs. As the primary component, when the cost is reduced by a factor of three a huge growth in electric vehicles will occur.

3. What are the implications (both pros and cons) for utilities and grid operators of an increasing adoption of EVs across Europe?

David Porter: Implementing this scheme is a big challenge ” bigger than rolling out smart meters, for example. Electric vehicle electricity consumption will have a big effect on the distribution network. This type of transport will create new demand patterns that the grid must be robust enough to cope with, but electric vehicles will also offer storage and other local opportunities. It can all be done, but it will not happen without a high level of confidence in the timing of the transition from petrol and diesel cars to electric vehicles.

Note also that, if policymakers maintain their low-carbon agenda, in some countries such as the UK, discussion for a domestic supply switch from gas-fired to electric heating will be necessary ” another enormous challenge.

Ulla Pettersson: Reducing the carbon emissions from transport will significantly reduce the pressure on power generation and manufacturing to reduce their carbon footprint. However, in order to roll out electric vehicles and accomplish this feat, the smart grid must first have the necessary infrastructure to cope with distribution demand.

Jacob Klimstra: The rollout of electric vehicles will create a new market that has the potential to balance the peaks and troughs in demand and supply. For example, the majority of people use their cars early in the morning to drive to work or do the school run. Electric vehicles can help ease strain on the grid. However, expanding the grid nationwide and providing the same standard of service in rural areas as in cities will be difficult ” both practically, regarding access, and financially, in justifying costs when only a small number of people will use them.

Consumer priorities crucial to EV transition

Test rig at Siemens eCar headquarters in Erlangen, Germany

Credit: Siemens

Electric vehicles have the potential to revolutionize how electricity is consumed, says David Porter, but he stresses that the engineering challenges should be seen alongside the social and economic considerations

Electric vehicles are an exciting prospect. With smart grids, they may revolutionize how electricity is consumed across Europe ” not least in the volume, timing and location of demand.

However, people who are keen to see the switch to electric transport should not underestimate the scale of the other challenges that have to be addressed. Utilities are concerned with making networks robust enough to cope with new expectations and with having to manage them differently. Smarter grids go with smarter metering and data handling. All those things ” already on the agenda ” are demanding enough, but the challenges do not stop there.

Electric vehicles will be quieter and cleaner; they may even offer lower fuel costs and, if climate change targets are to be met, sooner or later a reduction in emissions from transport has to play a big part.

But electric vehicles will be judged by their users against what has served us so well for so long. We are used to being able to refuel in five minutes and to drive all day if we want to. The car and battery manufacturers are trying hard to match that by breaking through today’s knowledge barriers. But already the alternative solution of a fuelling station where, rather than recharge, we would swap a discharged battery for a charged one is being considered.

Most of today’s cars run on petrol or diesel, and we drive to petrol stations to fuel them. These stations were not built as part of a master plan, of course. They were built in response to growing demand and, in more recent times, many have closed. Even where population is dense, demand can be affected by the availability of good public transport. In rural areas, where people rely so heavily on their cars, there is intense pressure on the subsidies that maintain the already limited public transport services.

As technology makes electric vehicles more viable, the electricity supply industry will play a huge part in providing and managing the power upon which they depend. But this is not just a series of engineering challenges. The transition needs to be considered from the point of view of the new vehicles’ users.

In the UK, some have already taken the plunge. Subsidies on electric vehicles will have encouraged them, and so will measures such as zero-rated vehicle taxation and exemption from London’s congestion charge. But these users are a mainly urban minority who make only short trips and can afford to be early adopters. They are, of course, using today’s infrastructure and technology, which would be totally inadequate if the transition gathered pace.

What would induce the other 99 per cent to go electric? The new cars would have to become cheaper to buy, and more convenient to use. New infrastructure would have to be built in advance of a mass takeup.

But what would finally induce a family to change their petrol- or diesel-fuelled car for an electric one? A law banning petrol- or diesel-powered cars? Or a tax that made them too expensive to run? This would probably make those vehicles worthless, and voters would not take kindly to that. Even bigger subsidies for electric vehicles, perhaps? Government payments for scrapping older vehicles? But governments tend to be short of cash. Perhaps utilities would offer inducements to their customers ” but few utilities are awash with cash either. So, could this be the issue that will bring new names into electricity supply, perhaps investing not only in electric vehicles and their infrastructure, but also in the commodity that keeps them moving?

I have no doubt that the electricity supply industry can cope with the challenge of a transition to electric vehicles. But it will need to reassure itself that public policy is also as smart as it needs to be. Not only smart, but consistent in its application across Europe.

David Porter is Senior Advisor to Navigant Research’s Global Energy team