The EV revolution – driving towards an energy dilemma

Chris Evans, Deputy Manging Director of Rolton Group, examines the UK’s energy infrastructure given the growing electric vehicle trend across UK suburbs.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are rapidly becoming the must-have purchase for today’s green homeowner. The potential fuel savings, combined with government incentives and innovations from automotive manufacturers mean there are over 108,000 full electric or hybrid EVs on our roads, according to The Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders, with more than a 20-fold increase over the past three years alone. This number is only set to grow further given the latest government announcement outlawing the sale of all solely diesel and petrol cars by 2040.

This influx of EVs has major implications for the UK’s built environment in years to come. In fact, we’re already seeing changes to our energy infrastructure required to support this transformation in our personal transport. Over recent years, we’ve seen EV charging points spring up for public use across our road network, particularly in city centres and along our major highways.

However, charging points in residential areas remain less common, despite government grants for individual homeowners to install charging points for EVs. There is an opportunity for developers to meet the evolving needs of house buyers by installing home charging points or communal charging areas at new build developments. In a crowded marketplace, this would differentiate them from the competition, potentially result in a boost to house prices and increased home sales, and would also go some way towards raising their brand profile and helping them to meet sustainability targets.

While this looks to be a win-win situation for developers and consumers on the surface, unfortunately the EV revolution isn’t going to be all plain sailing. We’re already seeing our ageing National Grid come under strain as EV charging affects peaks in demand. With more homeowners charging EVs after work, the National Grid has warned that people may have to choose between boiling a kettle or charging their car. Whilst theoretically, the grid’s capacity to provide the increase in power required for EVs can be facilitated in the short term, over the long-term this poses more of a challenge. Furthermore, higher EV uptake in certain areas combined with lack of infrastructure investment has the potential to create more imminent and significant local level challenges, including the likelihood of regular brownouts if no action is taken.

One solution could be for residential developers to include decentralised energy generation on site, allowing less reliance on the UK electricity grid. Installing off-grid power supply solutions, such as energy from waste, PV or wind turbines would not only facilitate the increased power requirements for EV charging and secure future energy supply for the development, but also support the growing demand on the grid as a whole.

Pairing decentralised energy generation with energy storage solutions could further alleviate the new pressures being placed on the National Grid. In fact, there is the possibility of EV batteries being collectively used as part of an energy storage solution (Vehicle to Grid system). This could minimise network peak loads, significantly reduce overall energy demand and also provide an income stream through the resupply of energy back to the grid.

The installation of smart EV charging technology could also be a viable way forward, whereby cars could be charged to suit network demand, balancing out power consumption peaks and troughs. For example, a vehicle could still be plugged in upon the driver’s return home, but charging itself wouldn’t commence until midnight, when home appliances are all turned off. As not all cars will need charging from empty each night, it is anticipated that such a smart charging solution would effectively help alleviate strain on local energy networks. However, while there is such a variety of EV battery capacities and speed of charging facilities on the market, there is some ongoing concern over the ability of this system to charge vehicles adequately.

There are signs that forward-thinking developers and planners are starting to work towards EV solutions. The Greater London Authority (GLA), for example, has implemented policies requiring all new developments built within its jurisdiction to include 20% active EV charge points, with an additional 20% passive capacity in the infrastructure to allow for future connections. But with availability of power becoming a growing headache, this could well be simply creating a long-term problem masquerading as a short-term solution.

We’ve certainly yet to see a robust and widespread development solution that will meet our future needs. If the government doesn’t take a more holistic approach soon – effectively combining housing, infrastructure, energy and transport strategies – we’ll all be heading for a major energy dilemma. If the government wants to meet its targets for both EV uptake and new home building, it is imperative that policy makers collaborate effectively with the housing and energy industries if we are to overcome the challenges of the brave new world we’re creating.