It’s almost impossible to avoid comparisons between Australia and the UK. The most recent that come to mind are those around the debate on a 2050 net zero emissions target.
Australia’s proposal, headed by Independent MP Zali Steggall, was built off the UK’s climate policy. It’s a country that’s achieved far more than Australia in terms of climate action – that’s for a range of reasons, including a very pointed lack of coal and gas mining.
Great Britain’s grid operator, National Grid ESO (NG), is responsible for examining and understanding the rapidly mutating and incredibly complex transitions happening in the energy system both in the country and around the world.
This week, NG released a wonderfully dense package of future scenarios of energy in Britain. Not just electricity, but energy, including heating, transport and heavy industry. Electric vehicles feature in the future projections as far more than simple tools to get around in a zero carbon way. They become an interlocking component in a whole-of-system change, and it’s worth digging into the details.
EV-enabled flexibility is the lifeblood of decarbonisation
Two relatively simple ideas – complex in their application, of course – will provide a very significant service back to the grid, as electric vehicles grow in scale in Britain, according to the NG’s various scenarios. These two concepts are part of a bigger toolbox, in which both supply and demand side flexibility enable the energy transition:
Smart charging entails the plugging in of cars at targeted times. The price of charging will vary depending on the output of renewables and the quantity of demand, in an attempt to avoid vehicles charging all at the same time – and software can be used to automate the charging of these vehicles to minimise cost and maximise the matching of demand to renewable output. By 2050, in the best case scenario, 83% of EVs use smart charging.
‘Vehicle to grid’ (V2G) is a feature in which cars are able to both fill their batteries from the grid, but also discharge them. They become a form of energy storage on wheels, and this is really a very significant game changer for the integration of renewable energy. It’s already being trialled in the UK, and it means vehicles can become income-generating energy storage tools that benefit both the consumer and the grid operator. NG estimates up to 38 gigawatts of flexible storage capacity could be provided by V2G, from 45% of vehicles. For comparison, that’s more than half of Australia’s National Electricity Market.
Together, smart charging and V2G technologies play an increasing role in the green columns below – the most optimistic ‘leading the way’ scenario, with the lowest emissions, for both 2030 and 2050:
It’s important to note that while there is a high degree of confidence in the growth of smart charging. But “there is a wide range of outcomes for [V2G] technology across our scenarios as this is an area with a high level of uncertainty”, say NG. Regardless, the growth – or lack thereof- for these two flexibility options have a very significant impact on the generation and consumption profile of an electric vehicle fleet, as they model in the following chart series:
Lower demand transport means more wriggle room for power generation
This may be familiar to readers of The Driven, but it is always worth reiterating. The total energy consumed in a fleet of electric vehicles is far, far lower than a fleet of fossil fueled vehicles. This is due to the inherent efficiencies in electrified transport. That means while electrical demand increases, total energy goes down, which lowers the bar that must be met by the machines that generate electricity (in these scenarios, it’s mainly new wind and solar, paired with grid integration technologies).
This isn’t a revelation, but it’s often missed, and it’s good news worth knowing.
Autonomy and ownership impact the growth of EVs
The report uses four scenarios, ranging from good emissions outcomes (‘Leading the way’) to bad (‘Steady progression’). Fascinatingly, in the best-case scenarios, the number of EVs actually begins to decrease around 2040. This is because increasingly autonomous vehicles are shared as on-demand services, replacing private ownership. They become a de-facto form of public transport, of various sizes and scales on a spectrum. This, paired with greater adoption of active transport (walking and cycling) and traditional forms of public transport (trains and buses) results in a significant decrease in the total number of vehicles – again contributing to lower demand compared to a fossil fueled world.
Ketan Joshi has been at the forefront of clean energy for eight years, starting out as a data analyst working in wind energy, and expanding that knowledge base to community engagement, climate science and new energy technology. He writes for The Driven’s parent site, RenewEconomy, and has also written for the Guardian, The Monthly, ABC News and has penned several hundred blog posts digging into climate and energy issues, building a position as a respected and analytical energy commentator in Australia. He’s spoken at the Ethics Centre IQ2 debates on the need for urgent decarbonisation, he’s served as an subject matter expert on national television, and has a wide following on social media around energy and climate.