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How will electric vehicles impact our power networks?

Electric vehicles are here and a massive uptake is certain. How fast this is approaching is still uncertain - though when it does happen, electric vehicles will have a significant impact on how we use and generate energy. In this article, Fraser Clark looks at how electric vehicles might impact our power networks - which might not be as bad as we think.

by Fraser Clark

Associate, Wellington

06 July 2018
Man charging electric vehicle

Electric vehicles are here and a massive uptake is certain. How fast this is approaching is still uncertain - though when it does happen, electric vehicles will have a significant impact on how we use and generate energy.

A major concern is the significant investment our power networks might need in order to handle the additional load of electric vehicle charging; however, it might not be as bad as we think.

Initially the uptake of electric vehicles is likely to be localised, so there’s still time for power networks to plan and adjust their engineering and pricing models to suit high rates of uptake. In doing so they should consider the potential for smart charging to mitigate the potential impacts of home charging, and the potential for workplaces, shopping centres and other vehicle ‘destinations’ to seize some of the opportunities electric vehicles bring. In doing so, a change in perspective could also see consumers helping our power networks as the technology evolves.

The initial uptake of electric vehicles is likely to be relatively localised

The uptake of electric vehicles will take many years, and won’t be evenly spread. Their upfront costs are currently higher than a conventional vehicle and their range is relatively modest. As a result, it’s likely they’ll initially cluster in neighbourhoods in urban centres where short commutes are the norm. In the near-term, this could catch out networks that are not planning appropriately for this scenario, as they typically have limited visibility on their low voltage networks. During peak periods - such as cold winter nights or hot summer days – these networks may already come close to their capacity limits even without the additional charging load.

The uptake of the vehicles is likely to rise as prices fall, range increases, and consumers become more comfortable and familiar with the technology. This will increase demand right across the network and require careful management of network operations, pricing and development.

Smart technology can help to mitigate the risk of increasing peak demand

Almost all trips by car involve a return-to-base each evening. This provides a generous period when vehicles could be recharged at home using electricity supplied from the grid, or stored electricity from a solar PV and battery combination.

A massive uptake could mean that there’s a significant electricity load in the traditional off-peak period as we all try to charge our vehicles from the grid.

A home-charging model will then have an important effect on electricity networks once penetration levels become significant. If charging commences at the time the vehicle returns to the house this will result in an increase in demand at the existing evening peak periods.

A traditional network response to this issue would be to inconvenience consumers with cheap night time or time-of-use rates that force them to start charging their vehicle at around, say, 10pm. This might be fine initially when there are just a few cars, but as more people start to purchase electric vehicles, as well as energy storage and other connected appliances, new peaks will be created, requiring networks to continue to change their cut-off times and further frustrate and inconvenience consumers.

This approach reflects an engineering, rather than consumer-centric, view of the world and doesn’t recognise the potential for existing technology to help to address this issue. Smart, automated controls can optimise the charging overnight, based on both network and energy pricing to leave the car ready in the morning with sufficient charge for a day’s driving. There’s also no reason to believe that ‘range anxiety’, where an electric vehicle owner feels they need to fully charge the vehicle every night, is an enduring phenomenon. From my experience owning an electric vehicle, you become more confident in the vehicle and are likely to make judgement calls about whether it needs charging overnight, depending on what you expect to be doing the next day, or defer to a smart agent that can manage this according to your preferences.

Home charging isn’t the only solution

We also shouldn’t conclude that everyone will default to home charging in the future. At the moment we do this because there are only two choices – at home and fast charging stations – and home is by far the most convenient.

In the future, anywhere a car sits still for an extended period could be an option for charging.

This could include people’s workplaces, shopping malls or car park buildings as employers and retailers take the opportunity to provide a perk for employees or attract shoppers.

Charging in these sorts of locations could have quite different implications for networks than home charging. Networks in commercial zones are often more robust than those in residential areas, and have inherently higher capacity. Adding charging capacity in these areas might then require less infrastructure investment, and the commercial model of the charging service provider is also more likely to support the use of control technologies that can manage the network impacts.

Looking even further ahead, this discussion could be irrelevant if autonomous vehicles and transport-as-a-service takes on faster than electric vehicles themselves. The outcome of this would be that consumers decide they don’t need to own a vehicle at all. This will shift electric vehicle charging away from the home altogether, as charging will be managed and optimised at the fleet level through designated charging infrastructure.

This is an opportunity for networks, not a risk

The modern consumer doesn’t like being controlled, nor do they like being inconvenienced for no good reason. Sooner or later, network companies will need to have a dynamic and personally-relevant conversation with consumers so they can ‘buy-in’ to the network companies’ services.

This requires networks to rethink how they currently operate and their end goal. Instead of fighting consumers and seeking to control their behaviour, networks should embrace that consumers are willing to spend a significant amount of money on new assets that can actually help them.

For example, in the United Kingdom they’re testing how much it’s worth paying consumers to occasionally discharge their vehicles batteries to support the network. In doing so, they could be putting hundreds, to a couple of thousands, of dollars in to consumers’ pockets, helping to accelerate electric vehicle uptake – cutting carbon, reducing network costs, accelerating the integration of renewable energy and creating a great, welcomed experience for everyone.

Like solar PV and battery storage, electric vehicles represent another example of a world where consumers now have a much greater opportunity to play a role in where and how they consume and generate electricity.

For networks, traditional design and pricing models that are based on the supply of bulk electricity to consumers are unlikely to be successful, and will fail to meet their own desire for increased consumer engagement. Instead, networks need to look at how this new technology could support more efficient investment and operation. This in turn will help ensure that these networks remain a critical and valued component of our energy system in the future.

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