Smart grids and renewables can handle the EV revolution

OPINION | Ignore the scare stories – the UK's electric vehicle ambitions can be a key part of a clean, flexible power system, writes Jonathan Marshall

Last week’s announcement that the UK government will ban sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 undeniably grabbed the headlines. 

Whether it was a smokescreen by environment secretary Michael Gove to disguise apparent weaknesses in the Air Quality Plan, or whether it was part of the Conservative party’s post-election rebrand to entice younger voters by appearing progressive and forward-looking, it was certainly met by strong opinions across the board.

"A shabby rewrite of previous draft plans", Client Earth said in response to the announcement, with the environmental law firm opining that "having promised to make air quality a top priority, Michael Gove appears to have fallen at the first hurdle". 

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Others questioned whether 2040 was a necessary cut-off, given the astonishing pace of change in the automobile sector and extremely bullish forecasts of how electric vehicle (EV) sales are set to take off.

On the other side of the table, motorists’ groups, petrol-heads and media commentators began to question how the UK would cope with the extra burden that the shift to EVs would place on the power system. Referring to the most extreme scenario outlined by National Grid, those looking to pour cold water on Gove’s announcement began to introduce seemingly vast figures into the media debate.

Whether raising peak power demand by 50%, requiring 10,000 new wind turbines or costing the nation £200bn ($264bn), an increasingly gloomy picture of how the electric vehicle revolution would change the electricity sector was being painted.

In truth, these figures represent an outlook which is exceedingly unlikely to come to fruition, based on grid forecasts that assume the switch to electron-propelled transport occurs abruptly and that there is no management of the extra demand that will result. This is clearly not the case.

Just days before Michael Gove stole the headlines, his colleagues in [UK energy department] BEIS announced findings from their consultation into smarter and more flexible grids. While welcome, this announcement followed years of the energy sector being held back over fears that distributed generation, renewables and smart technologies could not be relied on to keep the lights on in British homes. 

These scare stories also discredit the extent to which EVs can be used to smooth fluctuations in the grid, with centrally-controlled charging ensuring that networks are not overwhelmed, and with the potential to arbitrage power boosting household budgets.

A full analysis of the effect of EVs on the UK has been carried out by Cambridge Econometrics, concluding that the switch would add just 10% to national power demand. This is a far cry from figures touted in the national media, and one that should be seen as an opportunity for new, disruptive businesses rather than a problem for incumbents to solve.

The electric vehicle revolution is gaining pace, and has the potential to revamp personal transport in both the UK and around the world. 

Rather than debating the worst-case scenario of being caught out by the rate of change, it would be more useful to ensure that UK plc remains a market leader in EVs, with all the economic benefits in tow.

Jonathan Marshall is energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU)

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