Electric blues: How can we jump-start electric vehicles?

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A global shift to clean energy needs more of us to drive electric vehicles (EVs). But that is not likely to happen until we know we can rely on the seamless functioning of different parts of a complex ecosystem.

The wider aim is to better integrate electric transport into the grid and energy sector. But to stoke enthusiasm among consumers, it is critical to improve network communications, or interoperability, in charging infrastructure in order to harmonise for example identification and billing. If there is a system in which different technologies can effortlessly communicate and connect with critical interfaces such as payment, drivers will feel more comfortable about taking longer journeys.

We are not there yet. A lack of interoperability has long been one of the frustrations for EV drivers – private and commercial – and the need to improve the customer experience for public charging points is still great.

Connect to communicate

Practical solutions provided by industry such as interoperability protocols for communication between the EV, the charger and the management systems of different network operators can accelerate uptake.

In 2019, charging operators in the UK including Allego, EVBox, Engenie and Chargemap signed a letter of intent to reach a ‘roaming’ partnership that would see growing numbers of charging stations across the country become operator-agnostic, offering access to charging points from different companies through a single subscription (1).

Ready for demand

Another work in progress is balancing the fluctuation in the grid caused by increasing renewable energy generation and changing patterns of demand, which includes the ever increasing fleet of EVs. There could be 13 million EVs on roads in the European Union by 2025 – up from about 1.3 million today. That means that in five years the number of public charging points will have to increase from about 185,000 (as at the end of 2019) to 1.3 million. In 2025 alone, that will require an investment of up to €1.8 billion (2). The need is also pressing on a global scale. ING predicts that in a  “fast-forward scenario”, in which climate change is limited, nearly three in every four cars worldwide could be electric by 2040. “In such a world electricity demand from EVs increases from just 20 TWh today to almost 5,000 TWh by 2040. Grids need to adopt to that,” says Gerben Hieminga, author of ING’s Energy Transition Scenarios report.

For Inga Fechner, economist at ING, investment in EV infrastructure is going to be incentivised by mandatory carbon-emissions targets for governments and businesses. “It might be a good time to push these investments, because they’re accepted from a social point of view,” she says. “As long as the CO2 regulations stay in place, we need to reach those goals, and the only possibility is to focus on electric vehicles.”

A man charging his car

Virtual power plants

Centrica has been overseeing a rapid expansion in charging infrastructure, which has long been one of the impediments to scaling up the use of EVs.  Carl Bayliss, Vice President of Mobility and Home Energy at Centrica, expects EVs to play a wider role in the development of smart grids. Bayliss describes EVs as “a battery with wheels” – virtual power plants that can feed electricity back to the grid to flatten peaks and fill troughs. “As the number of EVs grows, their capacity as aggregate providers of electricity – with grids taking only a small amount of power from each – will grow,” he says. EVs also solve another challenge – especially in times of low electricity demand: storage. “The grid has struggled with the lack of demand over the period of Covid [lockdowns], when we had over two months of renewable energy being poured onto the grid. Where does renewable energy go to be stored rather than drop off of the grid because it can't be used? Electric vehicles, and the infrastructure that comes with them, can help manage that transition to a renewable energy system. “EVs can act as a virtual power plant that harnesses the renewable energy that's being generated, and then deploy it when it's required, rather than simply losing it.”  “We should treat renewable energy like a precious resource,” Bayliss says.

Drivers wanted

All of these initiatives require public bodies and private industry to work together, and they are beginning to collaborate on greater flexibility in the grid, standardised public charging infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. The missing piece of the puzzle is the consumer.

Brendan Wauters, Director of Business Development at ENGIE, which is currently working with FCA [Fiat] and Italian transmission system operator Terna to pilot bidirectional vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology in Italy (3), says that infrastructure is needed for consumers to start using these new technologies. “We need infrastructure such as fast charging stations for electric vehicles and hydrogen refuel stations to activate use cases,” he says. “But infrastructure only becomes economically viable if and when there are sufficient volumes of users out there.”

To avoid becoming stuck in a Catch-22 situation whereby the infrastructure needs users, but the users need infrastructure, one side will have to take a leap of faith. Investment is the answer, and top-down environmental targets will be the catalyst.

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  1. greenfleet.net
  2. transportenvironment.org
  3. engie-eps.com