To face environmental changes head-on and meet greenhouse gas targets by 2030, three-fifths of our vehicles must be electric.
Happily, as part of the transition to Smart City living and improving automotive technology, we are witnessing a dramatic increase in demand for electric vehicles in the UK, with registrations of plug-in cars increasing from 3500 in 2013 to over 150,000 in May 2018.
The government has recently announced plans to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, which led to a number of local authorities building on this platform and pledging more ambitious targets; Oxford aims for zero emissions by 2020.
For the first time, in 2016, transport overtook energy supply to be crowned the most emitting sector of the economy, accounting for 25 per cent of greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions. In order to make cities less polluted, more pleasant to live in, but also to reduce energy consumption, the electric vehicle, as a clean car, plays an increasingly important role.
Fantastic progress is being made but there is one critical factor that has the potential to throttle these trends – an established and wide reaching EV charging infrastructure.
So, why is the UK’s infrastructure lagging, and what are the solutions to these issues?
One reason can be attributed to a lack of co-ordinated planning by the various stakeholders. Although we recently saw the government launch its ‘Road to Zero’ strategy, which aims to modify existing infrastructure to better accommodate and support EV use, this is just the first step. In order to meet legislative, consumer and business demands, charging points must be situated in parking areas which are both publicly and privately owned. For example, people will want to plug in their cars while they are at work, or on a day trip, as well as when they are at home.
There is, however, ambiguity around who should be responsible for putting these charging points in place, and the appropriate pricing structure. As with any emerging technology, evolution will be fast paced but could also be obsolete in a few years as new technology comes to market, therefore reticence to own hardware which will likely depreciate rapidly is understandable. Nevertheless, government, local planning authorities and businesses must come together. We need to see councils, businesses and other stakeholders working together, investing to develop comprehensive infrastructure across the length and breadth of the country.
The requirement for charging stations for buses, ambulances, fire engines etc. also must be factored into the planning stage; electrification of transportation is not just limited to cars. Bus stops, taxi ranks and hospitals must all be incorporated into any infrastructure forecasting, so that the emergence of charging ‘black spots’, or the building-up of vehicle queues waiting to use charging points, is avoided.
The challenge extends beyond hardware and infrastructure, software is also an area for development. With such an array of existing and prospective market entrants software consolidation is both necessary and inevitable. Customers quite simply will not tolerate having to download a new app for every software provider/administrator on each occasion signing up to a new payment plan or administrator. There is as yet no clear market leader in the UK, however software may indeed be the key to the honeypot and this may not come from the hardware supplier. Airbnb is not a landlord, Uber doesn’t own any taxis and JustEat doesn’t employ any chefs, but they are the primary beneficiaries in the evolution of their industries.
As the software question is answered, useful data will emerge and EV drivers will become the next focus of targeted advertising, especially whilst dwell times for en-route charging remain sufficiently high; or possibly are encouraged to remain so. Thus, the answer to the infrastructure problem may in fact rest in finding a route to commercialisation with true longevity.
Powering the future
Moving on to the question of energy, where is all this extra required power going to come from?
Instead of locally generated power, by each car’s engine, this energy now must be supplied from the grid to every vehicle. As a result, demand from the grid will vastly increase. New sustainable ways of generating energy for electric automobiles must be fostered; a continued use of fossil fuels to serve this demand would result in this whole conversion being substitutive rather than necessarily greener; with the added challenge of battery disposal.
However, it is not all doom and gloom. We could actually see EVs help to smooth overall electricity demand as many may choose to charge their vehicles at night; when traditionally there is less demand and tariffs are lower to encourage use.
The change to alternative powered vehicles is just a small part of the energy transition that we will witness in our generation; the advancement of battery technology is also helping to breathe fresh life into renewables. Advancements in renewables, may lead solar panelling to become ubiquitous in our Smart Cities, as a primary building fabric rather than a component affixed to it.
Or, if transparent solar cells become a reality, and every window in every building helps feed additional energy into a Smart City’s grid infrastructure then truly we will be contributing to a greener economy. Indeed, installing solar power generation technology within charging stations themselves could contribute to some of the extra power required.
Energy aggregators have benefitted from demand peaks and troughs, offering a solution, however EVs as a by-product may present another. EV charging should not be considered a one-way street, two-way electric charging technologies that treat the grid as an energy transport network allow for the most efficient use of energy. Vehicle to grid technology (V2G), essentially allows users to charge their vehicles but also return energy to the grid and effectively smooth demand, and hence reduce frequency anomalies if and when required.
What’s in it for the battery owner?
It is not clear whether the mass market will favour owning a battery over leasing one; both options are available to prospective EV owners. Battery capacity has been a major factor of slow progression in the EV arena, but battery life is now improving day-by-day, with new market entrants investing heavily in research and development. This century has and will continue to see dramatic technological evolution of batteries and EVs. Advanced charging techniques, and the new generations of electric battery, will allow the advancement of transportation in ways that cannot yet be imagined by most.
Again, the route to commercialisation is key here and the key players are yet to emerge. Energy aggregators currently communicate with the power grid to sell demand response services, they do this by turning on and off assets, owned or leased, as required and dictated by the grid; at times this can be wasteful. In theory, demand response services could be aggregated and provided through an ever enlarging network of EV batteries, controlled by essentially a software company by type, or possibly a former energy aggregator already operating in this space.
At any given time, a vast proportion of vehicles are parked, thus the vehicle batteries could be used to store energy and discharged as required; for a fee. The stumbling block is that, current batteries have finite charging cycles, and shelf life, and thus such usage would have a negative impact on battery capacity. This is of course less of an issue to drivers if they lease battery performance, rather than owning the battery.
A major consideration is whether the money invested by the government into the ‘Road to Zero’ strategy will be enough to support the entire country’s charging needs, or at least lead the change. At this early stage it is very difficult to know if private investment has been accelerating.
Vehicle manufacturers, driven to increase sales of their own EVs, have been investing heavily in both their own offering, and charging infrastructure. Intent in securing market share, Tesla, Porche, BMW and Volvo have all installed their own charging points at flagship stores and are making plans to extend their associated charging networks in one capacity or another. We have also just seen BP buy the UK’s biggest electric car charging network, showing that oil producers are addressing the threat that low-carbon vehicles pose to their industry too.
Alternatively, we may start seeing independent contractors install charging points and then lease them out as a cost to local councils. This way, local authorities would not have to bear the initial overhead costs of installation, providing a more affordable option for them. Overall, it seems that funding will soon be available from a wide range of stakeholders.
There are lessons to be learned from our French peers – the country is streaks ahead in terms of the sheer number of charging points installed across the country, establishing almost 12,000 points last year alone. In fact, France has provided one-third more plugs than any other country in the world. The UK, meanwhile, installed 2833 new charging points last year, putting it on a par with Switzerland in third place on the Electric Car Index. We are moving in the right direction but need to put the pedal to the metal to make sure we get enough charging stations in place quickly to support the transition to EVs.
It’s evident that the government and various organisations are striving to get the UK’s EV charging infrastructure in place before it’s too late. The wheels are in motion in terms of planning and technological advances which is extremely promising. But, even when a complete EV infrastructure is finally realised the work doesn’t stop there. The next step will be to make sure that the correct organisations are engaged to service and maintain the infrastructure, to ensure longevity, and an environmentally friendly transport solution adept to reliably serve Britain’s communities for the foreseeable future.
Sabina Astarita is General Manager of SPIE UK, a smart engineering and technology-driven solutions provider for the built environment.