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Image: Ryan Ozawa

National Grid not fit for electric vehicles

For individual motorists, the lure of electric vehicles (EVs) is growing by the month.  A 56 percent increase in global EV sales last year is helping to push the price down below that of equivalent petroleum vehicles.  Government grants and tax breaks are also pushing prices down in the short-term.  At the same time, the rising cost of petroleum following last year’s OPEC-Non-OPEC deal to limit world oil production leaves EVs especially competitive on fuel costs.  With towns and cities introducing controls and charges on emissions and with the UK government poised to take draconian measures against the owners of diesel vehicles, the incentive to switch to an EV has never been stronger.

Nor should we underestimate the performance of modern EVs.  Tesla’s Model S promises 0-60mph in less than three seconds – the kind of acceleration usually reserved for performance motorbikes.  And with a charging range of around 300 miles, it is good for all but the longest journeys.

There is one rather big flaw in this otherwise positive story – Grid capacity.  According to a new report from the Green Alliance, the UK’s ageing energy infrastructure simply isn’t fit for purpose any more:

“A study of EV impact on the UK’s distribution networks estimated that, as EV penetration reaches 33 per cent of households (around eight million), voltage imbalances, coupled with overloaded distribution transformers could severely impair power lines. The study assumes an even distribution of EVs across the country but, in reality, EV ownership will initially be clustered in more affluent parts of the country.

“For instance, the town of Lightwater in Surrey is one of the richest neighbourhoods in the country. With a population of 6,800, a modest penetration of 900 EVs entering the system could lead to brownouts (ie a drop in voltage of supply) where supply cannot cope with increasing demand.”

According to the report, as few as six EVs put on charge in close proximity to sensitive grid nodes at peak times would be sufficient to trigger local power cuts.  In the short-term, this is likely to result in huge additional charges at fast EV charging stations.  In the longer term, it will result in eye-watering increases to household and business energy bills:

“With the increase in electrification of heat and transport, rising domestic demand from both EVs and heat pumps at peak times could lead to a near doubling of peak demand. Unless this is actively managed, business as usual will result in network upgrade costs of up to £36 billion between 2010 and 2050.”

Given that the British economy can barely withstand today’s energy prices, without radical reform growing sales of EVs can only serve to cripple the electricity grid, leaving businesses without power and households shivering in the dark.

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