19th May 2017

With brownouts from EV clusters still a concern following charging trials could solar power be a key solution?

It’s fascinating to learn of the various electric vehicle charging and ownership trials already in the bag, currently under way and in the pipeline here in the UK, where wannabe participants typically scramble to get their names down with Black Friday levels of determination.

Cynics might pipe up pointing out that human nature always helps freebies and discounts generate plenty of interest, but we and many other automotive voices perceive the success of such trials as a definite barometer of the UK’s growing appetite to embrace electric motoring.

In the LEAFy suburbs

The original EV-charging trial of note was ‘My Electric Avenue’ (MEA) which began in late 2013 and by 2014 had comfortably achieved its Ofgen delivery targets1 for recruiting participants for its ‘technical’ and ‘social’ trials, with 10 clusters of 10 motorists in place. In fact, MEA exceeded expectations and in one area, South Shields, a cluster of 23 residential neighbours took part, the street quite a sight with one or more Nissan LEAF electric cars outside each home2.

EMA sought to simulate anticipated EV charging patterns in the year 2030 and after the results were crunched by the University of Manchester it was found that although weekday charging is typically done at peak morning and evening times, it can be anywhere between 10am and 6pm at weekends. Around 70% of participants charged their vehicles just once per day, while two-thirds proved intent on achieving a full charge each time3. EMA’s modelling also showed that 32% of low-voltage feeders across Britain will require intervention when EV penetration reaches 40-70% of the UK’s private fleet.

Electric Nation

Launched in September 2016 at the Cenex Low Carbon Vehicle event held at Bedfordshire’s revered Millbrook Proving Ground, this is the latest and current project analysing the likely impact that localised clusters of EVs will have on electricity networks.

With all manner of EVs and PHEVs around, each with differing battery sizes and charging rates, from the Kia Soul EV and Renault ZOE to the LaFerrari and Porsche 918, the snag with MEA was its being limited to Nissan LEAF use. This is where Electric Nation steps in with clear advantages, open to all pure EVs, plug-in hybrids and range-extender vehicles providing they’re eligible for the OLEV Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) grant. Electric Nation seeks to recruit 500 to 700 motorists, which we think is a touch ambiguous, especially when a firm timescale hasn’t been shouted from the rooftops either.

The project sounds like it’s going exceedingly well in general terms, though, following the announcement4 in April 2017 that 100 people have had smart chargers installed free of charge, which they can keep for life. Electric Nation using high-tech smart chargers is a big deal because they can receive updates remotely, typically charge a vehicle more quickly and can intelligently pause and resume charging depending on various factors, compared to older ‘dumb’ chargers.

Nothing’s ever perfect, however, and the downside to Electric Nation is that it’s focussed on the Midlands, South West and South Wales only, as these are areas served by Western Power Distribution, one of the project’s main partners and funders.

The latest in London’s transport pickle

We can’t help but wonder what on earth would happen if clusters of motorists start gobbling up EVs and PHEVs in the Greater London area and its environs, on the back of diesel’s recent damnation, the Guardian5 likening it to ‘the new asbestos’. Then again, fully electric and hybrid vehicles are still comparatively expensive to buy, finance or lease, and the air pollution plan fresh off the government’s press concedes that even if old diesels were replaced by electric cars, it wouldn’t cut nearly as much NO2 compared to expanding London’s clean air zones (CAZ) from six to twenty-seven6.

Why might affluent areas be at greater risk?

Based on Panagiotis Papadopoulos’ paper “Electric vehicles’ impact on British distribution networks”7, the ‘People power’ report8 published a fortnight ago by the Green Alliance thinktank disagrees with the notion that the distribution of EVs across the UK will be even, once penetration reaches 33% of households.

Rather, they envisage clusters of such vehicles forming, primarily in affluent areas – and we see their point entirely, as EVs and PHEVs are indeed more typically spotted on driveways in well-heeled neighbourhoods. The report even specifically mentions the Surrey town of Lightwater, one of the wealthiest areas in the country, stating that as few as six vehicles charging in proximity near a sensitive note at peak times could cause repeated brown or blackouts, along with damage to distribution grid equipment.

According to Electric Nation, an EV charger commonly uses seven times a typical home’s average domestic electricity demand, akin to two kettles constantly boiling. Charging a single car takes a similar amount of electricity as an average home would consume in three entire days; a humbling thought. Multiply this by clusters of half a dozen vehicles or more and it’s clear to see where the Green Alliance is coming from.

Although we can’t argue with the science, it’s fair to say that many motorists will find it difficult adjusting to a society in which their vehicles are intelligently charged at the most efficient times, restricting someone wanting to hop in whenever they want or need to. With so many products and services available on-demand 24/7 nowadays, it’ll feel decidedly backward being unable to just stick a petrol or diesel nozzle in.

Granted, 2030 is over a decade and a half away and such talk might seem pessimistic, but the automotive scene, government legislation, public health and consumer tastes are evolving so rapidly that electricity distributors do need to work hard now to plan for any eventualities.

What are the options and is solar among them?

Electric Nation, government ministers9 and other stakeholders mainly point to smart chargers and cleverer and more considerate charging habits as the key future steps in minimising likely electricity brownouts and blackouts, with pure EV registrations10 in the UK jumping 41.6% between April 2016 and 2017.

The Green Alliance, however, also sees disruptive solar panel and domestic battery technology as potential saviours that will free the UK’s EV appetite from external strangleholds. Elon Musk’s Tesla was one of the first to the mainstream market with its Powerwall battery, but the big six energy players are now beginning to launch home batteries too, sold in packages alongside solar power. Experts reckon that in less than 10 years’ time, homes and indeed some businesses embracing this technology will be able to generate and store their own electricity for months at a time.

To prevent future hardware and systems damage, and minimise potential bottlenecks, Dustin Benton, one of the authors of the Green Alliance’s report, explains that the focus must now be on supply network design and integration to ensure that small-scale renewable and alternative energy can be merged into the National Grid smoothly without everything coming crashing down. Additionally, it’s hoped that EVs will be used to feed energy back into the grid at times of peak demand, their symbiotic relationship with solar energy giving the UK the real chance to turn away from fossil fuels and polluted cities.







1 http://myelectricavenue.info/my-electric-avenue-achieves-first-series-ofgem-delivery-targets, http://www.fleetdrive-electric.com/blog/electric-avenue-exceeds-targets-electric-car-trials/

2 http://www.charleshurstgroup.co.uk/nissan/news/example/

3 http://myelectricavenue.info/trial-results

4 http://www.electricnation.org.uk/2017/04/24/electric-nation-hits-milestone-of-100-smart-charger-installations-ahead-of-schedule/

5 https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/apr/13/death-of-diesel-wonder-fuel-new-asbestos

6 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/05/government-fails-to-commit-to-diesel-scrappage-scheme-in-uk-clean-air-plan

7 http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/56274/

8 http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/people_power_consumer_choice.php

9 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/20/electric-cars-uk-power-grids-charging-peaks-sse-demand-side-response

10 https://www.smmt.co.uk/2017/05/april-2017-ev-registrations/

11 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/apr/20/uk-unprepared-for-surge-in-electric-car-use-thinktank-warns