Building a grid fit for electric vehicles

David Hall, VP power systems UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric explains how utilities can support the adoption of electric transport.

Encouraging more people to adopt electric vehicles is at the heart of the government’s efforts to tackle climate change. That is because transport accounts for 23 per cent of the UK’s CO2 emissions, according to calculations by the Committee on Climate Change.

Public support for EV’s is high – a recent survey found that 87 per cent of Brits said they would, or definitely would, buy an electric vehicle. But those same Brits cited their top three reasons for not buying one were: lack of charging points, expense, and anxiety about getting out of range.

It is clear then, that in a strategy to meet the 2035 ban on internal combustion engine vehicle sales by moving to electric transport, end users need to be reassured that using electric vehicles will be as convenient and cost effective as their polluting diesel or petrol predecessors. The integration of more low carbon energy and an improved electrical infrastructure to deliver it when and where it is needed must all go hand in hand.

Achieving the carbon neutral goal

The UK Government has stated that we will need ten million cars on the road in ten years’ time to achieve our carbon neutral goal; today, there are only some 265,000 EVs in the UK. Although the percentage of newly registered cars represented by EVs is growing, with our current approach we are not on track to achieve this target.

However, electric transport adoption spans more than just personal consumer use – businesses are beginning to do their part too. For example, The Climate Group has signed up 67 companies to its EV100 Initiative, in which companies including Schneider Electric have committed to launch a Green Fleet policy which aims to replace 100 per cent of its car fleet with electric vehicles by 2030. This has introduced the need for multiple EV chargers to be installed at private commercial facilities, as well as in public spaces such as motorway services and public car parks. Commuter transport is also seeing an overhaul with numerous projects in cities like Glasgow to move to all-electric buses.

With this boom in the e-mobility sector being powered by electricity, we need to turn our attention to the potential strain EV adoption could put on the UK’s power infrastructure. Utilities stakeholders need to decide how to invest in upgrading the electrical network (especially distribution) without creating upward pressure on the cost of electricity for consumers and businesses, which may weaken the appetite for electric vehicle charging.

As the adoption of electric vehicles gains pace, the UK will require a significant increase in grid capacity to solve challenges such as demand at peak times. However, it is expected that the impact on overall energy demand should be less dramatic. To target investment in EV where it will be most effective, when it will be needed, utilities must create a model to assess the needs of new infrastructure.

A key element to this is better understanding how, when, and where consumers will want to charge up – as well as other environmental factors that might impact this behaviour. By understanding what the demand profile might look like at off-peak, mid-peak and peak, it will be possible to identity where efficiencies can be made. For example, if customers embrace a smart charging model, up to 70 per cent efficiency could be gained and reduce the amount of investment required in higher voltage.


Another key element will be geography – with some charging locations and their supporting infrastructure requiring more network capacity headroom than elsewhere. At the more local level, this will mean assessing and expanding the capabilities of substations to feed data back to stakeholders in the energy supply chain, so that load can be managed effectively.

Paving the way for EV adoption in the UK is a delicate equation, but there are several improvements to our electrical infrastructure which utilities can begin work on now. Namely, to begin investing and deploying technologies that will give their operations the agility and resilience now. This will pave the way for a smooth and steady transition, reducing any bumps in the road that could be caused by a sudden demand for additional infrastructure projects.

With this approach, energy distribution stakeholders will be able to shape the future of EV charging by participating in the development of a smart connected grid which can support new mechanisms such as off-peak retail tariffs. This should ease the pressure to scale infrastructure and capacity to provide consumers with an affordable, reliable, and convenient supply of energy as new electric vehicles are connected to the grid.

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