FEATURE: Electrifying transport: how the UK’s net-zero ambitions will affect the grid

The British government has given £37m of funding to electrify the nation’s transport network as part of its ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. But is the distribution and supply side also preparing for the increase in demand? We investigate.

Last year, the UK became one of the first major economies to write into law its commitment to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. To put the country on a pathway to achieving this ambition, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and COP26 President, Alok Sharma announced a £36.7m investment injection into research and development for technologies to electrify transport earlier in March 2020.

The sector is Britain’s biggest emitter and it has shown little improvement in recent years. To bring its emissions down, the government has said it wants all new cars and vans to be zero emission by 2040.

The new fund should help do this by providing £30m for four new, cutting-edge centres of development excellence, while the remaining £6.7m will go to 14 winning projects for the UK Government’s ‘Driving the Electric Revolution’ challenge.

However, electrifying transport will inevitably increase demand pressure on the grid and energy supply. BloombergNEF estimates that overall demand from electric vehicles (EVs) by terawatt hours could be about 7% of the global total by 2040. In the UK it’s estimates are as high as 16% of overall demand, most of this coming from passenger EVs.

Accommodating extra demand

UK Power Networks estimates that 1.9 to 4.1 million EVs will be on its three networks by 2030. Charging an electric vehicle can cost and use as much energy in a month as an entire home. How this impacts the energy system and infrastructure will depend upon how this extra demand manifests itself.

If EV adoption happens incrementally, Patrick Erwin, director of policy and markets at Northern Powergrid, an electrical distribution company based in Newcastle Upon Tyne, says it can be easily managed.

“The network is based on supply and demand and is designed to cope with peak demand power every day, but this only happens a couple of times a year, so there is already spare capacity in the network,” Erwin explains.

“Therefore, we can support the adoption of EVs with marginal investment, though there will likely be some hotspots,” he adds.

Ryan Fisher, associate for electric vehicles at BloombergNEF, says in countries with larger EV adoption, hotspots are already emerging.

“There are already areas where there are many EVs in one place, these are typically in richer postcodes. For example, in California, EVs accounted for 25% of sales. This clustering of demand can cause problems to occur more quickly,” he explains.

There have been studies in London looking at this problem from a black cab perspective, where the congestion zone is pushing EV adoption. They highlight, says Fisher, that the transmission network is built with extra capacity to ensure reliability, whereas there is less spare capacity on the lower level lines around houses and consumers, where the impact of EVs all charging at once could be a problem.

“A key concern is getting the power lines to the right point, like service stations on motorways. The electrical infrastructure costs to connect are prohibitively expensive for charging operators, but the government has a new £500m fund that is trying to cover some of these costs,” says Fisher, “The other concern is if many companies suddenly want to add public EV chargers and the distribution and transmission networks can’t deliver the projects in a timely fashion.”

Most of the extra demand could be managed through smart charging, but some areas will need upgrades. Networks are adding more sensing equipment on transformers, such as where cab drivers are active, to know when they need upgrading and when they don’t, says Fisher.

Erwin adds that Northern Powergrid is waiting to see what and where investment will be needed.

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