Will the all-electric future take off - where other energy innovations have failed?

Telsa has driven significant innovation and improvement in the electric car industry. (c) Norsk Elbilforening, via Flickr.
Telsa has driven significant innovation and improvement in the electric car industry. (c) Norsk Elbilforening, via Flickr.
The advancement in technology and recent UK government policy announcements both point towards the successful take over of the electric car, even where other energy innovations have failed. Dr Christian Jardine assesses the latest developments
There are clearly seismic technology shifts underway.

We have seen two major policy announcements with major impacts on the way we manage our electricity networks, generate and consume electricity, and use transport recently.

The Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy released its Smart Systems and Flexibility plan and announced £246m for battery storage innovation. Meanwhile, there was a high profile announcement banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040.  

Whilst they are both separately interesting, the true impact of these two policy announcements comes when they are considered in tandem. Together they seem to point a clear direction for our future energy system – towards a heavily electrified future, where both buildings and transport are powered electrically.

Fashionable cycles

This has been the consensus approach among energy experts for some time, as electricity has proved easier to decarbonise than transport, but it is encouraging to see this translate into firm policy.

It is worth noting that the ‘big energy solution’ seems to go through fashionable cycles. In the early 2000s, the big idea was the solar/hydrogen economy, and we have seen waves of support for micro-wind turbines (remember them?), combined heat and power, and carbon capture and storage come and go, as well as the constant promise of nuclear fusion.  

There are clearly seismic technology shifts underway.

So will the all-electric future take off, where these other routes have failed?  It stands a good chance now, as the solid policy direction now seems to be there, and all the key components (wind, solar, batteries, electric vehicles) already exist and are reducing their costs massively.  As an installer of these technologies, we’re already seeing the demand from early adopters for domestic battery storage, solar PV, electric vehicles and charging infrastructure; and, in many cases, all of the above.

One of the worries of electrifying transport is that we will need an increase in electricity generation capacity to meet this demand.  Chris Goodall provides some excellent analysis on the subject and it turns out we are only likely to need 20% more electricity to power all cars.  

Smart charging

The key issue is to ensure that all cars aren’t charging at the same time (e.g. when people get home from work at 6-7pm.) However, the typical car is only used for 5% of the time, so the 95% of time it sits idle should provide plenty of scope for flexible charging.  It is ironic that many criticise renewables for their low load factors (30% for wind, 10% for solar) but the load factor for a personal car is well below even that!

Technical issues from EV charging are more likely to arise locally where multiple vehicles want to charge at the same time at one property or on the same section of grid. However, ‘dynamic load-balancing’ technology already exists to schedule charging smartly between different vehicles and chargers, so they don’t over load the network. We expect this technology to be applied more extensively as EV charging demand grows.

Such smart charging will be assisted by novel electricity tariffs, encouraged as part of the battery innovation package. Payments will be made to encourage battery owners to discharge back to the grid in times of need, which may open up the battery market to people who aren’t even generators. The devil will be in the detail, however, and to be truly useful, rates must be high enough to encourage discharge back to the grid rather than hoarding for self-consumption.

There are clearly seismic technology shifts underway – including the death of coal, rapid growth of solar, electric vehicles, battery technology, and indeed driverless cars – and there has been a nagging feeling that government was behind the curve on these issues and going to be taken by surprise as the world changed rapidly around them. The recent announcements suggest that they might be both catching up and embracing the possibilities offered by a smart electric future.

This Author

Dr Christian Jardine is the Technical Director of Joju Solar and a Senior Researcher at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute. He is a technical and policy expert in solar PV, and the integration of renewables and demand side response.