Driving the electric future

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Renault Trezor

With the demand for electric cars rising, do we need a better plan for ‘greener’ vehicles?

There’s nothing new about electric cars now. What was once seen as a motoring phenomenon is now commonplace, with electric vehicles becoming increasingly popular.
And that may well bring problems in the future. With the demand for electric cars apparently rising, is it time for the UK to devise a better plan for so-called ‘greener’ vehicles?

This was an issue raised by the Guardian earlier this year. Off the back of figures that revealed the number of new vehicles that were registered in the UK hit a 12-year high in January, it was also disclosed that electric cars took up a record share of the market. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – the SMMT – said that alternative fuel vehicles, the majority of which are electric cars, commanded a 4.2% share of new vehicle registrations.

All of this is positive news – drivers switching on to the benefits of cars powered by electricity rather than traditional fuel. But this also poses a challenge; the more vehicles that are being recharged collectively at the same time, the higher the pressure in the UK’s power grids. A common driver habit currently sees motorists recharging their vehicles immediately after completing a journey, which typically means a real surge at similar times of the day – between 5pm and 6.30pm, for example.

The Smart EV project, run by Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), was launched at the end of 2016 to analyse how the electricity network in the UK can best prepare for the continued increase in electric car ownership.

“As more people plug their vehicles in to charge, the more electricity is needed to match the demand, SSEN’s Stewart Reid said here. “If this being done at a time when demand is already high – such as in the evening around tea-time – this could put pressure on the electricity network, which could result in power cuts or disruption in supplies.”

One potential solution could be something called demand-side response, which is where a car can’t start charging until several hours after a driver has plugged it in. This would then spread the volume of cars charging at the same time.

The UK government has also announced plans to reduce the cost of charging at the roadside for electric cars. Because electric cars can sometimes be more almost as costly to run as standard cars, this is seen as a reason for deterring future potential buyers. Meanwhile, Shell has revealed that it plans to add electric vehicle charging points to some of its filling stations in the UK.

Such schemes should only help to increase consumer confidence in electric cars – a long-standing concern has always been that the vehicle may run out of charge in the middle of a journey and with no means of recharging. To this end, motorists with RAC breakdown cover will have been reassured to know that the provider launched its first mobile electric charging system a couple of years ago. The charging unit can deliver around 15 miles of range to a ‘flat’ vehicle, getting it back on the road and en route to a charging point.

“As the electric vehicle market develops, the need for a mobile transportable energy source is becoming more important, not only to reduce ‘range anxiety’ but also to provide temporary cost-effective power for electric cars,” said RAC spokesman Tim Hartles.

Frequency of charging points is a step forward but eventually something more substantial will be required. Indeed, Volker Pickert, professor of power electronics at Newcastle University and quoted in this article by Engineering and Technology, believes that a smart grid system needs to be developed. “We need a system that predicts what the maximum charging need will be at different times of the day and delivers that,” he said.

The future for electric cars will be a fascinating one.

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