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The Road to Zero or the Road to Roadworks?

July 11, 2018

By Scott Witchalls

How close are we to universal home charging for electric vehicles?

The Department for Transport (DfT) published its strategy paper on cleaner road transport on 9 July setting out its long term ambitions to have a zero emissions transport infrastructure. Now the rhetoric is on NO2 not CO2, rationalising the investment on public health grounds rather than climate change. A battle ground slightly easier to win on.

The document sets out 46 ambitions, most which are open ended enough to be a step forward. But there is an enormous gap between some of the DfT’s ambitions and reality of where the UK currently is in delivering them. In particular, one noticeable missing ambition is for our regional electrical distribution systems to be ready for rechargeable battery powered transport.

The Independent Transport Commission recently held its Annual Lecture entitled ‘Transport and our energy infrastructure: what does our future hold?’. In the lecture, Nicola Shaw, CEO of National Grid, tentatively explored what our national transmission owner is doing to close the gap between electricity, electric vehicles (EV) and our road networks.

She acknowledged that National Grid are aware that a major barrier to the uptake of EV’s is range anxiety, the idea that a car owner won’t find somewhere to ‘fill up’ before running out of electricity on a journey. Their answer: 50 rapid charging hubs distributed along the UK’s motorway network. The premise being that ‘if’ everyone charges their EV at home people can top up in a service station making long journeys possible.

This immediately made me think of a speech that Al Gore once gave at a Scottish Energy Conference where he described these ‘if onlys’ as a bit like wanting ham and eggs without having the ingredients. “If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs… if we had eggs,” he said in a statement that continues to resonate with what I hear from the energy and transport sectors.

According to Ms Shaw, if we had 50 rapid charging hubs, this would eliminate range anxiety, ‘if’ everyone is able to charge at home.

Qu'ils mangent de la brioche — let them have charging points then?

Yes, it would appear the DfT’s ambitions and National Grid’s assumptions are that everyone will get access to a charging point at home or on the street.

The problem with home charging is bigger than an individual’s access to a plug socket. The more one scratches at the surface of this current ideology the more obvious it becomes that there is a disconnect between the DfT and those who own and run the energy infrastructure.

An obvious example of this disconnect is where the DfT have decreed all new homes will be EV ready. The unintended consequence of such an ambition could be billions of pounds of offsite infrastructure costs on new development to provide enough juice for the chargers. We know this because we are already receiving the network reinforcement quotes for our clients who are installing EV charging in their developments.

There are so many disconnects in the DfT position on EVs that I’ve narrowed down my ‘Top five obvious facts why universal home charging won’t happen in the next 10 years.’

The number of charge points needed to provide a socially equitable charging infrastructure that is accessible to all road users for ‘charging at home/on the street’ has not be planned for by the DNO’s, local authorities or highway authorities. A £40million fund given to local authorities to dig up the streets of Britain is not going to resolve this, and lamp posts were not designed to do this either.

The distribution network is not designed to take multiple instantaneous loads of this nature. A recent study by OFGEM showed that only a 40% uptake in EV’s within any part of a distribution network could trigger major reinforcements. Who pays for this and when?

Smart meters do not control power usage, they’re not that smart. One of the responses to our distribution network not being ready is the use of smart meters to shift EV demand away from likely peak hours (5pm to 7pm and 6am to 10am). Smart meters can’t do this.

We would require the roll out of power demand management controls with each charging point, plus a regulatory amendment to our Electrical Licensing Order that allows a third party to dictate and control personal energy consumption. It would appear the DfT missed an ambition to change our Electricity Act 1989.

There are always unintended consequences when adding more technology to fix technology. In the same vein as smart meters, we often hear that the leftover energy in a parked car battery could be used to fill the power gaps in a network through technology called ‘Vehicle to Grid Charging.’

This is eminently achievable, subject to changing our electrical licensing regulations.

This will shorten the charge back time of an EV to the non-peak periods. The unintended consequence being the need to increase the charging units power rating i.e. a more powerful charging unit to charge faster over a shorter period. This will generate an even bigger new peak demand than the existing one. A problem created by trying to fix a problem.

And my favourite, a charging cable, dangling openly across a street, has £100 worth of copper in it.

I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Actually there are no problems just value here.

Why do we always try to overcomplicate things—we’ve all got used to the idea of going to a filling station and paying the same as everybody else for our fuel. It’s a model that we might complain about but it actually works. We’re not expected to store diesel and petrol in our homes to fill up our cars before we travel, so why not use the emerging technology to develop a practical filling station solution for EV’s?

We’ve been working through the problems surrounding the deployment of universal home charging points at PBA. We believe that the UK does not actually need a highly disruptive and expensive domestic or work place EV charging strategy, nor do we need to dig up our cities and streets to lay new power cables. DfT, save your £400 million!

We have undertaken a market analysis of the UK’s road and power infrastructure networks using a range of retail and socio-economic drivers to define a land bank of Electric Vehicle Filling Stations that can service all our EV needs.

This portfolio looks to generate high value out of the retail and meanwhile uses which will allow the facilities to offset the cost of power to consumers. This, married with ‘time of day pricing’ for the purchase of power, allows the filling station to potentially offer power cheaper than domestic tariffs and therefore provides social equity for those that cannot reap the benefit of a home charging point.

We believe that solutions of this nature offer great potential for the future of EV’s. We are very excited about the portfolio and its capacity to become a game changer in the electric vehicle charging market.

Originally published by PBA, now Stantec.

  • Scott Witchalls

    Working on projects in both the UK and overseas, Scott develops and delivers transportation plans for major sustainable and regeneration programs.

    Contact Scott
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