If an environmental organisation with as large an influence and financial capability as COP26 relied on fuel-based power generation to charge its electric vehicle (EV) fleet, what does this say about the readiness of the current grid to cope with the increased electrification of public and private vehicles?
While the cabinet office stated that external generators used at the event were fuelled by hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) rather than fossil fuels, the fact remains that the number of local grid-connected chargers was not enough to meet the surge in demand. So, while the UK ranks fourth for ‘EV readiness’ globally, there is clearly much to be done to bolster infrastructure at a local level to support widespread EV uptake.
So, what needs to be done to help UK businesses and fleet operators accelerate their transition to EV fleets?
Tackling EV infrastructure challenges
According to the National Grid, the increase in EV use is likely to add between 3GW and 8GW to peak demand by 2030, increasing to between 13GW and 20GW by 2040. Currently, the grid is able to operate without difficulty at triple the average demand, which stands at around 42GW, so it’s clear the challenge to accommodating an increase in EVs doesn’t lie in overall grid capacity. Instead, the challenges arise at the local, distributed level.
With EVs currently accounting for just 0.5% of vehicles on the road, using the grid to service charging demand makes logistical and economic sense in many locations. However, the National Grid infrastructure varies across the country. While many areas will be well-equipped to accommodate a demand surge due to increased EV fleet uptake, others will not. Coventry, for example, has an older grid infrastructure that’s rated to a voltage that isn’t big enough for today’s EV requirements.
Ultimately, the major barrier to scaling EV charging infrastructure comes down to distribution rather than generation. To offer this with the grid alone requires reinforcements in areas of high demand and extensions out to locations that currently have zero capacity to support fleet electrification across the UK. However, according to the ICC, to upgrade the network nationally to handle both EV charging and the electrification of heating, the UK government will need to invest a total of £50bn (US$65.7bn) by 2035. This can translate to a cost of as high as £2m per site, depending on a postcode lottery.
Battery storage can be deployed to reduce grid upgrade costs, or even negate them for some. By offering the ability to redistribute power across a given period to smooth peaks in demand, businesses no longer need to over-spec their grid connections for short periods of high demand. What battery storage cannot do, however, is increase EV capacity. Let’s use the analogy of water in a bucket: if battery storage is the size of your bucket, your grid connection is how fast the water is coming in, and plugging in an EV is to open a tap at the bottom of your bucket. It doesn’t matter how large your bucket is. Over the course of the day, if the amount of water leaving the bucket is more than the amount coming in, it will empty, and there won’t be enough to start the process again tomorrow. In short, the maximum number of vehicles that can charge will always be limited by the grid connection.
With EVs currently accounting for just 0.5% of vehicles on the road, using the grid to service charging demand makes logistical and economic sense in many locations
For businesses aiming to scale their electrification, this will only be achievable with additional power generation, whether onsite or through expensive grid upgrades. Therefore, depending on the geographic, economic and logistical limitations of each business, this infrastructure investment could come in the form of grid connection upgrades, battery storage, on-site power generation, or a combination of these.
For sites where existing grid capacity is not enough to service fleet charging demands, the cost of upgrading local infrastructure is a prohibitive one and is stopping many from electrifying their fleets. For both private and public companies, the risks—and costs of making the shift—are currently untenable.
The trouble of energy security
Where the ambition to electrify is hindered by grid limitations, on-site power solutions are key to enabling businesses to transition to EV fleets. On-site generators can be operated on their own, or as part of a hybrid system of battery storage and grid-connected power. This allows businesses to dynamically service their EV charging demand while maximising capacity and revenues—without the need for a costly, multi-year grid upgrade process. Even at today’s inflated costs of renewables, these hybrid models cost an equitable amount to using battery storage alone alongside the grid. So, if the benefits are clear economically, why aren’t more companies electrifying their fleets?
EVs are generally more expensive than their diesel counterparts, even when government grants are taken into account. This represents a significant barrier to adoption; however, this should soon resolve itself as the initial cost of leasing or buying a fleet drops, the number of available models increases, and the government continues to commit to supporting the transition to zero-emission vehicles. Leaving that aside, the secondary barrier to EV fleet uptake is in essence energy security. Deploying onshore wind or onsite solar to supplement local power generation relies heavily on specific environmental conditions. But how many companies can choose the location of their headquarters based on whether it’s windy enough to power a turbine for their onsite energy generation? Or have a patch of land large enough for an effective solar operation? That’s before considering that energy supply from these sources is intermittent and could therefore leave businesses that rely on their fleets to deliver a service day-in, day-out, with the unacceptable risk of being unable to operate. Remember, the issue lies in the distribution, rather than generation of power.
Today, supply of biofuels and hydrogen are similarly insecure. Global hydrogen use currently sits at 115 million tons but, to meet projected demand, infrastructure needs to increase its production capacity to between 500 and 800 million tons by 2050. In principle, fuel-based onsite power generation offers the absolute security businesses need. But, today, that is only the case if using diesel or natural gas. So, how can companies take real steps towards adopting EV fleets, without risking business operations?
Bringing the power back
The answer relies on flexibility. The UK Government’s EV charging rollout strategy, for example, includes a focus on reducing perceived risk and dissuading range anxiety by installing the charging network that consumers “need to see” to encourage faster adoption of EVs. Similarly, businesses need flexible solutions that alleviate the ‘anxiety’ of not having the power required to charge their fleets if they are to start transitioning today. As such, the ability to adopt renewable energy sources when supply allows, but to fall back on more traditional fuels if green fuels are unavailable, is crucial to accelerating the transition to EV fleets.
Where the ambition to electrify is hindered by grid limitations, on-site power solutions are key to enabling businesses to transition to EV fleets
Fuel-agnostic technologies can produce onsite, dispatchable power from any renewable fuel and mitigate the current risks hindering mass EV fleet rollout. Furthermore, generating their own power gives businesses both the scope to expand their fleets in the future, and increase return on investment through revenue-stacking. This could include compensation for supporting the grid at peak times, further enhancing the capabilities offered by battery storage alone.
For the UK to reach its net-zero goals, widespread electrification of transport—and especially EV fleets —needs to be accelerated. But with the current infrastructural weaknesses, and risks associated with relying solely on one form of renewable power, many businesses are understandably unable to make the switch in the necessary time frames.
Fuel-agnostic power generation has a vital role to play in accelerating the transition. Instead of waiting for incremental change in the traditional supply and demand cycle of innovation, businesses need new solutions that empower change now. Using fuel-agnostic technology, companies can optimise their EV charging solution based on their individual geographic, economic, and logistical restrictions, addressing their unique business concerns. Furthermore, energy security enables these businesses to take advantage of renewable fuels, even when supplies remain uncertain. Only by addressing the factors currently limiting businesses’ ability to transition can we expect to drive fleet electrification at the scale needed to reach UK net-zero goals by 2050.
About the author: Toby Gill is Chief Executive of IPG