With Volvo’s announcement that the company is turning to only electric and hybrid engines in its new models from 2019, the industry is taking stock of how the energy network could cope with an influx of electric cars.
The uptake of electric or partly electric cars is already increasing at an impressive rate. Last year the number of registered vehicles rose by more than 50%.
But that’s still only around 100,000 – out of around 30 million cars in the country.
Volvo has bet big that this will change fast.
Philip New from Energy Systems Catapult says in the short term our energy grid should cope, but there could be problems.
“The likely pace of growth is something that the system can absorb for the next few years,” he said.
“The caveat there is that if there’s clustering where too many people in one street are trying to charge their electric cars at the same time, that could cause a problem for the low voltage network and cause localised blackouts.
“In the future, if we get to penetrations of electric cars that are in the 60, 70, 80% range of take-up, that becomes part of the overall transformation of the energy system that needs looking at.”
Video: Volvo boss: Why we’re plugging into electric
Nothing is unfixable, but it will cost money. For example, putting in a thicker or entirely new cable down a cul-de-sac where a lot of residents have electric cars could cost tens of thousands of pounds. The question is who will pay for that?
Other solutions could be to install smart systems either in cars or in homes that help coordinate the charging of vehicles around peak times in the day and night.
In a statement, National Grid said: “The predicted growth of electric vehicles represents an exciting opportunity and we believe this emerging trend can play a major role in helping the UK to meet its green energy targets.
“This will require investment in electricity network infrastructure and we are already planning for the impact of mass adoption of electric vehicles.”
Some put the price of completely future-proofing the network at well over £2bn.
The Government has promised hundreds of millions of pounds but more will be needed if the commercial sector can’t foot the bill.
Image: Volvo announced this week that all its cars would be electric by 2019
Another potential block is the availability of charging pumps out on the road.
‘Range anxiety’ is often quoted as a major problem for people considering going electric.
The Government has gone for the ‘stick’ approach here, hinting in the Queen’s Speech that service stations and petrol forecourts will need to install electric pumps as standard.
Ecotricty’s Dale Vince is the founder of the largest charger network in the country.
He’s taken years to get it to the stage of having hundreds of pumps around the country – but he knows there’s far more to do and is investing millions in new super-fast chargers capable of charging the latest cars in just 15 minutes.
“We used the available grid capacity at these motorway service stations, so to put in the high powered chargers next year we’ll have to bring in a new grid connection and sub stations. And because we’re putting in bays of six to eight at a time, we’re talking a megawatt or two of power so that’s a big step up.”
Even traditional fuel suppliers like oil giant Shell are making moves in the area. Shell director John Abbott said: “We already have plans to install electric charge points at three of our stations in September and plans to roll out 10 by the end of 2017.
“We expect, by 2025, 20% of our fuels margins to come from these low carbon energy sources.”
It seems Volvo isn’t the only company convinced that going electric is not just good for the environment, but good for business too.