Rachel Eyres, Business Unit Lead for Energy and Utilities at Expleo, considers the impact of Electric Vehicles (EVs) on the power supply and how smart charging could solve demand issues, ensuring EVs are accessible and affordable. Original article published on Engineer Live.

With road transport accounting for around 15% of all CO2 emissions worldwide, electric vehicles (EVs) will be instrumental in the global push towards Net Zero ambitions. Interest in these greener modes of transport appears to be growing too – sales of EVs in Europe alone are set to top 1 million for the first time in 2021, and similar numbers are being sold in China too.

This increased support for the mass adoption of EVs is encouraging news for sustainability. We will all benefit from having cleaner air and quieter cities, while tens of thousands of new green jobs will be created as we build back greener. Yet, if EV uptake meets the levels hoped and expected, we risk problems with electricity supply and could run into significant infrastructure challenges.

Without careful planning, we run the risk of large numbers of EVs charging concurrently, putting a huge strain on the energy network. These ‘peak’ charging times could lead to blackouts, where areas might be left without electricity. To prevent this, we need to be mindful of the surcharge on the electricity grid that may come with the mass adoption of EVs.

In addition, to make EV’s a feasible and affordable option for people, we will need to create ‘smart’ charging systems which integrate with existing infrastructure, reducing the need for power distribution companies to implement costly infrastructure upgrades.

The future of smart charging

Smart charging will enable power companies to schedule and spread out charging so that it doesn’t all happen at the same time. It can also enable EVs to discharge the power from their batteries when the grid requires it, acting like mini virtual back-up generators. To take advantage of this new approach network companies will need to upgrade their management systems and operational processes to be able to support this new way of working and operating.

There are many technical options for the enablement of smart charging. Smart meters could form one of the foundations for this new approach. Smart meters are intelligent devices that were made to digitalise the measurement and billing of energy usage by suppliers, and to provide visibility of network outages. By connecting these meters with smart chargers, retail energy suppliers will have full visibility, connectivity and control of charging, using the highly secure smart metering communications infrastructure. This will make sure that smart charging is compatible with our existing power system and safe from cyber-attacks.

The end-to-end smart charging system will have a lot of components; vehicles, people, billing systems and a power system, and the fact that the components are owned and operated by different companies and individuals will make it difficult to implement. Quality assurance and testing will be a critical element in ensuring a successful rollout.

Coordinating an approach

Smart charging will allow power companies to reduce the need for costly network upgrades and new generation, potentially saving billions of pounds. The only way that the redesign can be successful is by implementing centrally managed targets, standards and projects. This will make sure that electric vehicles are not only available to everyone, but also affordable and compatible with our way of living.

At the moment, many companies are coming together to test smart charging technology. Some of the newer companies in the energy sector are racing ahead and trialling new business models and technology propositions for consumers to prove that they work. Interesting partnerships are being formed between power distribution networks, energy suppliers, car manufacturers and technology vendors to better understand the new standards that smart charging will create and to test out the customer products.

However, if this happens in an uncoordinated way, it could create interoperability problems later on. Re-thinking the grid is a huge IoT and security challenge that will take some time to manage and maintain. Much like the smart meter programme, this will begin as a technical and operational trial that will grow into a project of end-to-end assurance and implementation. Smart charging is still in the trialling process, so end-to-end solution assurance is a competitive advantage for those looking to make developments in the space.

Reaching global Net Zero targets requires extensive planning and though smart charging will be a complex solution, it has the potential to be a hugely effective approach to the mass adoption of EVs. So now is the time for energy players to plan, test and prepare.