Last reviewed 5 September 2017

Could electric vehicles (EVs) help to solve many different problems over the next 25 years? With installed solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity growing at an exponential rate and lithium-ion battery costs at a record low level, could you soon be driving one small part of a giant national storage battery?

It’s all about how best to make, store, buy, sell and distribute negawatts. Imminent changes in the pipeline affecting energy could also create an important new role for millions of future EVs that are able to use advanced vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. In the foreseeable future, EVs might become part of a flexible, efficient and very convenient national renewable energy-based solution that has significant export potential.

In fact, EVs could become a central link between three important developments.

  1. A complete revision of microgeneration energy buying and selling rules recently announced by the Government.

  2. Opportunities to cash in on a dramatic expansion of solar PV power.

  3. A long-term strategy to end air quality problems — all in one go.

Maximising these benefits could pivot around the ability of future EVs to both store low-cost, off-peak green energy for long, clean, low-carbon journeys, and simultaneously make it available for modern smart grids to iron out demand troughs and peaks.

Evolving strategy

The Government has fired the starting pistol by making it clear that the old way of managing UK energy is obsolete. Changing the rules for households and small businesses, it hopes, will encourage more people to generate their own solar power, storing and selling any access profitably to the National Grid.

As a strategy, this is cheaper than building standby power stations. Consumers should also gain from efficiency saving of £17 billion to £40 billion by 2050, according to the Energy regulator Ofgem.

Until now, households or businesses selling their own energy to the grid have been hit by a tariff. That will change with the introduction of smart grids that can make micro-second decisions to save and repackage billions of small amounts of energy — known as negative watts, or negawatts.

While they are waiting to be traded profitably for their domestic or business owners, these could be stored within individual EVs as part of what has been described as a giant national storage battery.

EVs and the grid

Early in July, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) committed £20 million to help develop V2G systems that allow EVs to return electricity to the grid. This could generate opportunities to benefit from the UK’s rapidly rising number of local and very cost-effective micro-solar power resources. V2G systems are already reported to be performing successfully on test in a number of US cities.

In deciding to improve long-term air quality by ending the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles from 2040, ministers have made it even more important to put massive numbers of EVs onto UK roads.

However, time is tight. With only 23 years to go, the required EV transformation has been likened to the original switch from horse and carriage to the internal combustion engine. At present, there are only 105,000 electric cars and 4500 electric vans in the UK’s 32 million vehicles road fleet. Tooling up to meet the changes throws up enormous challenges.

Energy policy — all change

The Government feels the time has come to grab the volts and amperes by the horns. Its new strategy includes a “battery institute” and a £246 investment fund to promote battery technology.

National Grid Executive Director, Nicola Shaw, explained recently that between 30% and 50% of grid fluctuations can be negated by a smart grid. Instead of grid managers bringing extra power stations on line to cope with cold winter mornings, a simpler answer could lie within your EV.

However, the shift is contingent on a series of developments. The first is that millions of individual households and businesses will become mini 24/7/365 powerhouses, importing and exporting energy on a smart algorithm-driven best-price basis.

Smart grids will also ask homes and businesses to make momentary energy savings when demand peaks — using the internet to turn on washing machines when the sun shines, switch off freezers for a few minutes and turn down air-conditioning.

There is also an end to the urban myth that renewable energy infrastructure can’t grow fast enough to replace fossil-fuels, and that weather-dependant intermittency will always be a barrier.

The sun shines for solar

The biggest winner appears to be solar power as our cheapest sustainable energy source. International Environment Agency (IEA) figures show from c.2009 onwards an exponential rise in solar PV capacity that has dramatically exceeded even IEA’s own forecasts up to 2007.

Despite claims that it was nearly extinguished by a Government withdrawal of subsidies, solar PV is fighting back. The Solar Trade Association says there are now 12.1 gigawatts (GW) of solar in the UK with a production capacity equal to eight new-generation nuclear reactors — enough to power 3.8 million homes.

In parallel, data on lithium-ion battery costs show a swift fall from 2010 to 2015 — the point where the Tesla Energy 10kWh home battery was introduced — that has flatlined at a very low level.

Costs for offshore wind energy have also dropped dramatically some four years ahead of schedule. Capacity is rising too. As one example, a potential expansion of the East Anglia ONE wind farm to a total generation capacity of 2.4GW could be roughly equal to c.75% of the proposed new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.

Time to change the batteries

If cheap solar energy is readily available, why duplicate a home battery system and an advanced EV V2G-enabled power-pack that you may need to own anyway?

V2G is also seen as an opportunity to showcase UK R&D expertise to the world. Climate Change and Industry Minister, Claire Perry, explained recently that the technology is central to the Government’s Industrial Strategy to unlock significant economic benefits, create jobs and reduce emissions.

Data reported from the US has found that EVs are driven on average for 50km daily on 10kWh’s worth of electricity. Even with a 50% margin, 75% of a 60kWh battery’s capacity is left available. Without even touching the 15kWh daily commuting reserves, enough power is said to be available to keep the nation running until sunrise and beyond at competitive prices.

Pros and cons

While large numbers of EVs may offer multi-solutions, many practical barriers remain. There are manufacturing concerns about how quickly the production of EV components can be scaled up commercially.

Lithium-ion batteries also have environmental impacts. They don’t last for ever and their production and disposal has sustainable costs.

An effective EV transport system must also match the performance of the UK’s existing 8500 filling stations where motorists routinely put enough fuel into their tanks in minutes to drive 400 miles. There are presently 13,000 charging points along across the UK, although the Government plans for many more along major routes. Charging times are constantly decreasing while driving ranges increase. The aim is for EVs to be able to get an 80% power top up within 15 minutes.

EV costs are said to be falling by some 30% a year and should be on a par with their fossil-fuelled equivalents by 2020. Thereafter, they are expected to be increasingly cheaper.

Hydrogen fuel-cells technology is also waiting in the wings. Many see this as another sustainable answer if the hydrogen used is produced with green energy. Hydrogen is not an energy source but an efficient energy-carrier that can produce electricity with water as the only by-product. There are acute forecourt challenges, but fuel-cell vehicles could be one more part of the mix to even out grid peaks and troughs.