Engineering Possibilities versus Practical Implementation: Electric Vehicles

Editorial Team
Editorial Team
Engineering Possibilities versus Practical Implementation: Electric Vehicles

Roundtable participants:

  • 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

Given 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 vehicles’ 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 standardised, 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).

Policy-makers 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 £27 billion per annum (€37 billion) in fuel duty. However, once electric vehicles overtake conventional ones, where is that £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 utilising 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 electric vehicles 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.

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: Wide-spread 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.

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 policy-makers 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 emission from transport will significantly reduce the pressure on power generation and manufacturing to reduce their carbon footprint. However, in order to rollout electric vehicles and accomplish this feat, the smart grid must first have the necessary infrastructure to cope with distribution demand.

Jacob Klimstra: The roll-out 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.

To hear more about some of the critical issues forming the heart of business and political discussion, attend the forthcoming POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe conferences in Amsterdam  on 9 -11 June. One of the themes of the conference is urban energy integration and the smart city, with a session being delivered by Ulla Pettersson on Thursday 11 June dedicated to the Rise of the Prosumer and E-Mobility.

This is the second of five roundtable discussions that will be published each Friday on Europe Outlook in the lead up to POWER-GEN Europe. Next week, David, Simon, Jacob and Ulla discuss the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

Week one: Coal and Gas-Fired Plants

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