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    Will electric cars become a strain on the power grid?

    Branko Miletic

    According to media reports, the UK is set to plough billions of dollars into new power plants, grid networks and electric vehicle (EV) charging points if it wants to avoid power shortages when the ban on new diesel and petrol cars begins to take affect and electric cars start taking over British roads.

    While the UKs current power grid is designed to support many millions of battery-powered vehicles at any one time, in the future, drivers will only be able to recharge their vehicles overnight - when there is spare capacity in the grid, so that any huge infrastructure costs might and should be avoided.

    This may well be a warning for the rest of the world, especially with predictions that the expected rise in UK electricity consumption from the increased use of EVs may result in power spikes as high as 40 percent at some peak times.

    “It will be a challenge and a lot of investment is required - in generation capacity, strengthening the distribution grid and charging infrastructure,” says Johannes Wetzel, energy markets analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

    The predicted number of EVs coming onto UK roads are eye watering: 20 million by 2040 from around 90,000 today, just for starters.

    Though estimates can and do vary over the rate of EV adoption, analysts surveyed by Reuters found that “up to an extra 50-terawatt hours (TWh) would be needed for them (EVs) by 2040.”

    Then there is the need for all those extra charging points.

    But even if the grid can bear the burden, increasing charging points from the current 13,000 won’t be cheap.

    And while the pain of installing extra charging points will be far more acutely felt in larger countries such as Australia, for its part, by 2040, the UK will need up to 2.5 million new charging points.

    With an average public charging point costing almost 30,000 Euros ($AUD 45,000) to install, the UK government “will need to invest 33-87 billion Euros ($AUD49 -130 million) from now until 2040,” according to Wetzel.

    While figures for Australia are much harder to come by, according to the Finkel Review, here the opposite problem might be the case - in other words, better grid utilisation and not the other way around, as in the UK. 

    Put another way, EVs could account for about 4 percent of total power consumption by 2036, while at the same time, they could transform energy usage patterns and improve grid utilisation by absorbing load during periods of high variable renewable energy output, wrote the Finkel Review. 

    Finkel’s report also predicts that EVs will be used as distributed energy storage systems, thereby releasing energy back into the grid, which will be especially useful at peak times.

    Regardless of which view is taken, much like it did a century ago, changes in transport technologies are set to modify the face and feel of our urban centres, and while the move away from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles is undoubtedly a good thing, preparing well in advance for this shift may avoid a lot of pain afterwards.

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