Thomas Newby, Tonik Energy
A number of urban locations are already grid constrained, even before electric vehicles are thrown into the mix, says Newby

Why developers must futureproof EV infrastructure

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Thomas Newby

Humanity is on a mission to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become carbon neutral by 2050. If that challenge isn’t already sizeable enough, consider that transport, traditionally perceived as a laggard when it comes to environmental matters, is currently the UK’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, 23% according to The Climate Group. If we are to achieve the net-zero target, the transport industry will need to draw on all of its skills and experience to reduce the emissions of individual vehicles and the demand for personal transport.

According to the National Grid, the UK Government’s aim for all new cars to run on non-fossil fuel by 2040 would result in 33m electric vehicles, EVs, on UK roads as early as 2038. This aspiration is part of a wider plan to reduce air pollution, improve public health and recapture productivity loss, estimated at £2.7bn every year.

There are just over 210,000 electric vehicles on the road in the UK today, tens of millions of cars will have to be replaced in an enormous shift in cultural behaviour, as big as we have seen since combustion engines first became mainstream, to realise this ambition. It can be done, but as EVs and autonomous vehicles become the new normal, we can expect to see increasing pressure on property developers and the construction industry to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support this boom in clean, green motoring.

Tonik Energy EV Charge

Sectors sharing solutions

Thankfully, we’re seeing positive moves from both building, motoring and government sectors. In March, a new partnership of EV manufacturers, NGOs and energy trade bodies came together to form the ‘Platform on Electric Mobility’ to accelerate the rollout of EV and rail infrastructure in EU states. Transport for London is to invest around £20m in installing 300 charge points across the capital to support plans for a new fleet of plug-in taxis, whilst the Scottish government has thrown its weight behind a £7.5 million project to ramp up EV charge point installations bringing together Transport Scotland and Scotland’s two distribution network operators SP Energy Networks, SPEN, and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, SSEN.

On the build-side, it was announced earlier this year that new homes built in Britain are to be fitted with charge-points for EVs to facilitate mass adoption of the technology. The Department for Transport has also announced a public consultation on the subject to see if the changes to building regulations should be approved. If they are, then homebuilders would be forced to install charge-points to all new homes to allow easy charging of electric and hybrid cars. However, a key concern is the grid infrastructure to provide energy to this potentially vast EV fleet because converting all cars, bikes, vans, buses and lorries could roughly double electricity demand in the UK; management of peak demand is key.

The problem with infrastructure

One of the most pressing issues facing EV charging deployment at any scale is power availability. Existing electrical connections were specified to suit the building needs and use cases at the time of construction. They are simply unsuitable for significant increases in demand without potentially costly upgrades. Intelligent EV charging systems that can handle the total building load are suitable to a point, particularly where vehicles are parked for longer periods of time. However, we’ll inevitably reach a stage where there simply is not enough energy available from the supply during the period its required.

A number of urban locations are already grid constrained, even before EVs are thrown into the mix, due to increased network demand and lack of investment in the grid over decades. Adding EV capability to a development site could more than double the cost of a grid connection. According to Scottish Power, if the process if not managed in an intelligent way, then only one in eight properties, 12.5% of the market, will be able to have a single EV charge point under current network conditions.

This is why we have to consider alternative methods of power generation and distribution, particularly distributed solar and battery storage. Generating and storing energy on-site is an effective way to minimise expensive grid connection upgrades and provide the additional power on-demand. Distributed generation and storage solutions also reduce the dependency on buying energy at peak times, easing pressure on the grid.

Recent EV trials show most people plug their cars in when they return home at the end of the day but remain connected long after the battery is full. Smart charging technology enables EVs to defer charging at periods of peak demand, typically between 4pm and 6pm. By avoiding these periods, current grid infrastructure can be maximised, with vehicle charging optimised to smooth the peaks when the grid is under most pressure.

A smart transport system

As network-wide deployment of cost-effective renewable generation increases, systems with sufficient scale also have the potential to generate additional revenue supporting the grid. These ancillary services, which help balance the network, reduce the threat of brownouts, particularly as clusters of EV uptake have the potential to create significant local distribution network challenges.

The aim of reducing air pollution with a ban on fossil fuel cars is imperative but it will be essential for government to work with planners as well as both energy and development sectors to build the infrastructure that will be meet the needs of all. Distributed renewable energy uptake is critical if the reality of the UK’s smart transport system and carbon reduction ambitions are to be realised. Solar generation is proven, sustainable and durable. It’s becoming clear, both practically and fiscally, that renewable energy will be a linchpin as we navigate through this rapid time of change and the UK’s mission to achieving a clean air future.

Thomas Newby is chief operating officer of field and installation at Tonik Energy

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