Vehicle electrification is key to decarbonisation but represents a challenge for the grid. Utilities and electricity network operators should be talking to charge point operators to get ahead of the issues, says Tore Harritshøj of Spirii
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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
Grid connection capacity could be resolved with more constructive relationships between electricity network companies and charge point operators
I speak to many organisations every day about bringing vehicle electrification to the masses. I see how electric vehicle (EV) adoption is improving—and what is holding it back. Here, a common theme is emerging. While demand for EV charging grows daily the wait for grid connections keeps getting longer as well.
Ivo van Dam, from Dutch charge point operator PowerGo, is a case in point. Grid operators tell him he may not be able to connect a charging point to the electricity network for anything up to a decade from now. “Sometimes they just cannot give a time,” van Dam says. “That’s even more disturbing.”
The problem is particularly acute in the Netherlands. A glance at available Dutch grid capacity shows the electricity network is indeed maxed out across large swathes of the country (see map).
CAPACITY ON THE DUTCH GRID Yellow: limited capacity; Orange: capacity may become available with congestion management; Red: no capacity at all). Source: Netbeheer Nederland
A lack of grid connections is a growing problem across much of Europe and the consequences are serious.
In 2022, 12% of the cars sold in Europe were battery EVs, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association. To meet Europe’s climate targets, this means European grids will have to handle more than eight times the number of EVs in 2050 than they do today.
If they are already failing to cope, what hope is there of meeting the targets?
At this point, it would be easy to knock electricity network operators for failing to plan for vehicle electrification—but that is not the issue.
EXPENSIVE AND TIME-CONSUMING
Strengthening the grid is important not only to accommodate EV charging but also to handle increasing levels of distributed renewable energy. Yet grid upgrades are notoriously expensive and time-consuming, with the International Energy Agency estimating it takes an average of ten years to build an overhead transmission line in Europe or the United States.
The European distribution system operator trade body Eurelectric has already called out the need for more investment to tackle the problem, saying Europe’s grids will require €400 billion to support the energy transition.
Meanwhile, the rules regulating grid connections are far from simple. This is understandable given the need to prevent electricity system imbalances that could lead to blackouts, but it hardly improves the outlook for vehicle electrification.
There is, however, one asset that utilities and grid operators could use to their advantage while pressing ahead with infrastructure upgrades. And that asset is EV charge points.
Viewed naively, charge points are a problem for the grid because they create loads in places where the network was not designed to carry them. This simplistic view overlooks the ways in which charge points can help the grid.
The first is that modern EV charging platforms are far from passive loads. Instead, they are packed with intelligence, allowing charging points to act as a dynamic signalling platform between the electricity system and a growing constituency of power users.
Based on the state of the grid, a charge point platform could encourage EV owners to recharge at one location instead of another. The fact that EVs can move around makes them uniquely valuable as a load source.
CHARGERS AND BATTERIES
Dynamic load balancing can further ensure charging has relatively little impact on the network and time-of-use pricing can help EV owners access lower electricity tariffs at times that work best for the energy system.
Charging points can also act as a catalyst for energy storage installations that further enhance grid resilience. In the Netherlands, PowerGo is installing batteries alongside some of its charging points to make sure it can cope with peak demands that exceed the capacity of the grid connection.
This effectively allows the grid to do much more than it could previously because batteries can feed back into the electricity network as well as take from it.
Batteries and grid upgrades complement each other, both helping to improve the grid’s carrying capacity. This leads to the third and—potentially in the long term—most significant way charge points could help grids.
At present, charge points act solely as load centres, but with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capabilities they could also take some of the energy stored in EV batteries and feed it back into the system when needed.
The UK’s Energy Systems Catapult, a technology incubator, believes V2G could provide more than 50 gigawatt-hours of flexible capacity a year to the system by mid-century—more than 19 times all the battery storage installed in the UK today.
Being able to tap into this vast, intelligently-managed capacity could be revolutionary for grid operators, allowing them to absorb massive waves of renewable generation and more easily cope with localised peaks in demand. To take advantage of this major opportunity, utilities and grid companies need to start speaking to charge point operators today.
Grid planning should be done with charge point operators on board, helping to provide a solution to the problems in sight.
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