Is the UK government’s ‘Road to Zero’ strategy ambitious enough? It sets out a goal to become a world leader in zero emission vehicle technology, with targets for 50% of new cars to be ultra low emission by 2030 and “effectively zero emission” by 2040. However, it has been criticised for cuts to subsidies, a lack of charging points and “vague and unambitious” plans in a recent report by Parliament’s business select committee. MPs are now calling for a ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars to be brought forward to 2032, 8 years earlier than currently planned.
The transition to an all-electric future will require sizeable investments in R&D, the acceleration of vehicle charging infrastructure and potential legislation for the installation of charge points in new homes. But this transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is gaining momentum. Whilst electric cars and lorries may account for a tiny percentage of vehicles on the road today (4 million electric vehicles versus over one billion petrol and diesel cars), adoption is accelerating, fast. It took over 20 years to sell the first million electric cars. Now, a million electric vehicles are sold in just four to five months.
Policy is moving fast too. Oxford 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 pay more if they don’t drive an electric vehicle. Around the world EV sales have been fuelled by such perks like instant vehicle registration.
In the UK, behavioural scientists believe that special green number plates for ultra-low emission cars could further boost awareness and increase the use of environmentally “clean” driving. Pilot projects have been successfully running in Norway, Canada and China on green vehicles including electric and hydrogen cars, making them both distinct and visible to other road users.
With a number of car manufacturers such as Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will stop launching new models powered by internal combustion engines from 2020, it doesn’t look like the adoption of low emission vehicles is likely to be a problem.
Powering the future
Although a cleaner and more environmentally-friendly alternative, EVs pose several infrastructure challenges beyond ensuring charging points are plentiful.
- In the UK, and most other countries, our energy grids (transmission and distribution networks) will be severely stretched to satisfy the growing adoption of electrical vehicles on the road (growth in EV use will require a potential demand of 8GW power generation). Innovative load balancing techniques will be needed to ensure this demand is met.
- To ensure that electric or hybrid vehicles are actually low-emission, the energy grid needs to be powered by a much higher percentage of renewables and a reduction in carbon fuels.
- Currently, energy is largely created and used on demand. Renewable energy sources are unpredictable.
- As the world becomes increasingly electrified, energy demand is becoming less predictable and the energy grid less stable.
- As the battery size of EVs increases and the sales sky-rocket, many of the existing energy management charging systems installed in new developments will struggle to meet demand in just three years.
- The race is on to solve storage challenges and develop new battery technology. But can the answer be found soon enough?
Electric vehicles – a readily-available energy source
As more and more households invest in electric vehicles, more and more homes will effectively have a large electricity storage device (capable of powering the average home for several days) in their garage.
It’s not too difficult to envision a future in which consumers become prosumers by storing and reselling energy back to the grid, using the batteries in their electric cars as a distributed, mobile energy storage system.
The battery will take from the grid when charging (and energy is cheap and plentiful), but potentially feed energy back into the grid when demand is there.
Similarly, in larger residential developments smart building management technology can be used to divert ‘un-used’ power from buildings when there is less need (daytime weekdays and late at night) and feed it to electric vehicle charging points. This reduces the power to charging points at peak times (early evening) redirecting it to other buildings where power is needed.
In short, electric vehicles have the potential to turn today’s supply and demand models on their head.
Where once energy was delivered in a linear, one-way flow from power station to home, power will increasingly come from many scattered and renewable generation resources, including micro producers and even prosumers.
So, what do we need to lay the road to zero when it comes to energy supply?
Recognise the speed of adoption, deploy truly smart meters and legislate.
If micro generation and electric vehicles, or any home battery storage technology is to provide the solution to future energy supply, there needs to be a way for energy companies and consumers to charge for the energy they supply to the grid, in the same way they currently pay for energy used.
Smart meters currently provide operators with insight into consumer consumption of energy. Second generation smart meters are available now which have the ability to measure energy usage and energy generation, plus provide visibility of pricing movements. However, there is currently no plan in the UK to roll these out.
In the future smart meters could understand how much energy each household is likely to need for the day ahead (and at what time), ensure that energy is available when needed (bought at off-peak, cheaper times of the day) and sell excess, battery stored energy back to the grid at peak times.
To enable and encourage the continued development of smart meter technology, micro-power generation and a bi-directional grid, the investment we need from governments is to develop regulations and legislation that incentivises consumer behaviour, quickly.
Currently metering of EV charge points and battery storage on commercial, public and private land is not included in the smart meter rollout. Whilst in theory, there is nothing to stop a private company (or individual) from buying their own second generation smart meter, there are currently no domestic government incentives on the horizon to encourage ‘prosumerism’. Setting out a framework by which people can be compensated for returning energy to the grid, would seem to be the natural next step.