By David Hall, Vice President Energy, UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric
Electric vehicle adoption is picking up speed. Electric car and truck sales still make up only a small share of vehicles on the road – four million out of more than one billion – but adoption is accelerating every single year  . Indeed, the UK government has set out ambitious emissions targets committing to an investment of over £100 million to develop low and zero-emission vehicles in a ‘Road to Zero’ strategy.
Change moves fast, and for proof that electric vehicles are about to transform the face of UK transport you do not have to look much further than Oxford. The city plans to introduce the world’s first ‘Zero Emission Zone’ in the city centre. In London, the ultra-low emission zone will begin next year, meaning drivers will have to start paying significantly more if they are not driving an electric vehicle. Should we add anything in about the UN Climate change news from recent weeks?
Initiatives like these, which seek to improve air quality and meet climate goals, will top local agendas in the next ten years, driving significant policy changes. Electrical vehicles, which produce far fewer emissions than conventional vehicles, seem the only long-term solution for squaring transport needs with climate goals.
A challenge for network operators
However, while they are the cleaner and more environmentally-friendly alternative, electric vehicles must still find their place in the country’s rapidly evolving energy grid. The challenge is not that electric vehicles demand more energy than we can supply, it is that they disrupt how that energy is distributed and supplied on our transmission networks.
Where once energy was delivered in a linear one-way flow from power station to home, power now comes from many scattered and increasingly renewable generation resources. Problematically, this has forced grid extension at a time when electrical vehicle adoption is centralising demand towards our growing urban centres.
This heralds some big changes in energy consumption patterns. Network operators have long been familiar with the UK’s two peak time model of energy demand, but the practice of overnight electric vehicle charging could disrupt all this. At the same, the growing phenomenon of car-sharing platforms could well deliver a different scenario, one where fleets of electrical vehicles are in constant use and are consistently charged after every journey.
How the nation responds to electric vehicle adoption, of course, will not be uniform. Differing transport and environmental needs will decide both the predominant car ownership model and location of car-charging infrastructure. Charging stations are too often developed with little consideration for the impact they will have on local energy networks. For example, largescale charging stations placed near sports stadiums can place added pressure on very localised parts of the grid if they are not properly planned for. There is also usually a lack of centralised planning for domestic charging stations, with charging points installed with little consideration of how many are already in the neighbourhood.
Coupled with the unpredictable nature of renewables, widespread electric vehicle adoption could lead to imbalances in the grid and increasing network fault levels. As electric vehicles gain in popularity, the limitations of grid capacity will only increase unless a new approach is found.
A smart, integrated approach
Electric vehicles are turning today’s supply and demand models on their head. To ensure the country’s need for reliable and affordable energy, our ageing grid must evolve and adapt to this new paradigm. Fortunately, it has help.
Distribution network operators, traditionally tasked with distributing power from the grid and to consumers, are transitioning into distribution system operators (DSOs) with more responsibilities to balance their sections of the network. To achieve greater flexibility and resilience, they have started to pioneer innovative flexibility programmes and technologies.
To ensure operational efficiency and system reliability, grid loads and generation must be managed using more data-driven, real-time insights. The continuing rollout of smart meters provides operators with added insight into consumption patterns. When coupled with an enhanced network management system, it is possible for a DSO to have a complete overview of supply and demand across its local network. This insight enables the growing practice of demand-side management (DSM), which influences and alters consumer demand to compensate for grid balancing.
Effective DSM bolsters grid reliability, by shifting and flattening demand curves and redistributing consumption from peak to off-peak times through dynamic price incentives. It also addresses operational and emergency reserves, capacity, and real-time balancing to avoid blackouts or emergency load shedding.
To illustrate, DSOs can use dynamic pricing incentives to encourage electric vehicle owners to charge their vehicles at certain times of the day. Depending on local needs and changing consumption patterns, this could take place overnight or on off-peak periods during the day. In the coming years, electric vehicles will require DSM systems to help maximise supply and protect grid stability. DSM will not simply ease the transition to an electricity-focused transport infrastructure, it will be essential to its success.
While electric vehicles present new capacity challenges to DSOs, they may also provide part of the solution. Battery storage provides a valuable reservoir of backup power, which can ensure a consistent power supply when parts of the grid must be shut off or powered down. As there is an onboard battery fitted in every electric vehicle, this has exciting implications. While the battery takes from the grid when charging, it also has the potential to feed energy back into the grid when demand is there.
Technologies, such as renewables, battery storage and electric vehicles must be embraced to make ambitious environmental targets a reality. By doing, so we can create an integrated renewable energy ecosystem - charging a growing fleet of electric vehicles, while sending some of the energy stored in these electric vehicle batteries back to the grid at peak demand times. Taken together these measures will help to balance demand and supply, and dramatically reduce transport costs and emissions. Electric vehicles will soon form an essential part of power generation, transmission, distribution and consumption.
 C. McKerracher & J. Wu, Mobility Transition, In Conversation with Colin McKerracher and Justin Wu (Intercontinental Hotel, London, 1st October 2018)