Fleet of electric vehicles charging

The thin film of energy storage that will save the grid

Image credit: Scharfsinn86/Dreamstime

Electric vehicles should be viewed as part of the energy storage solution, not the problem.

Earlier this year, the Commons Transport Select Committee published a report urging the government to provide a clear framework for UK electric vehicle charging infrastructure in order to reach net-zero targets. It also spread unnecessary fear and alarm by highlighting the committee’s concerns that the rising number of EVs could cause power blackouts during peak charging times.

What the report failed to emphasise is the opportunity that EVs provide. They should be part of the energy-storage solution and not the problem. EV batteries are a positive energy-storage asset that needs to be more widely appreciated as such, not become the blackout-causing waste mountain that some anticipate.

The Climate Change Committee predicts that about 18 million battery and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030 when a ban on the sale of new internal combustion vehicles is implemented. Through a smart charging infrastructure, vehicle batteries plugged into the grid across the country will offer a degree of flexibility. When the grid experiences peak usage, they will be able to stop charging or discharge power to help manage demand, then recharge later as needed. This ‘thin film’ of energy storage means that the grid will be able to call upon large volumes of EV batteries when the need arises. For example, if five vehicles are charging and one moves over to discharge mode, the net reduction is effectively two vehicles.

The ability for this to be effectively realised relies on the UK adopting smart energy infrastructure that includes charging points and meters. When the first chargers were installed a decade ago, the infrastructure was neither interoperable nor smart, because the technical knowledge wasn’t there. At the same time, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles – now the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles – failed to police installations to ensure that the required levels of smart interoperability were met.

This first wave of infrastructure was necessary to support the initial take-up of EVs. Moving forward, the charging infrastructure will be smart because it will be driven by both policy and commercial incentives.

The commercial incentive is already being realised by fleet managers who need to manage energy consumption behind the meter. At many business premises it won’t be possible to charge a large fleet at the same time because of the site’s grid constraint. However, a smart system will allow vehicles to be charged sequentially, managing both energy consumption and costs.

Smart charging will also help mitigate the risk of blackouts. Controlling the way EVs are charged, whether uni-directional or bi-directional, having the ability to provide or withdraw power from the grid, will provide flexibility to the network.

There is another significant benefit to smart charging and infrastructure. While bi-directional charging will have an impact on degradation, smart charging can protect a battery. By employing charging cycles and ranges that best preserve its lifetime, its working life can be extended beyond that on board a vehicle.

EV batteries currently provide approximately 10 years of on-board use before their charge-holding capacity declines, reducing the vehicle’s range. By 2030, a million tonnes of EV batteries will be available for reuse and by 2035, the global requirement for stationary energy storage could be met by second-life batteries.

If batteries are simply recycled at the point where they are no longer an adequate EV power source, up to 40 per cent of their value is lost. The financial and environmental cost of disposal is also high.

I would argue that the Transport Select Committee report is somewhat short-sighted for not recognising the continuum of value of the battery as it progresses through its life. Second-life use in storage realises the inherent value an EV battery holds across its entire lifetime, beyond its use as vehicle power source and into other applications.

The simplicity and circularity of EV batteries being used to balance the grid is straightforward to understand; it’s disappointing the Committee report didn’t focus on this rather than propagating blackout fears.

In Kircheim, Germany, my company Connected Energy has installed a battery energy-storage system (BESS) that uses second-life Renault Fluence batteries and manages the grid supply for rapid-charging infrastructure at a motorway service station. This conveys a simple, positive message – electric car batteries will be part of the solution, not the problem.

Similarly, in Dundee, we’ve installed a system that stores energy from solar panels and manages the supply to a series of EV chargers provided by the council. The engineering behind these solutions is complex but as far as the consumer is concerned, the solution, and the communication is clear and simple.

We have developed technology that uses the EV batteries exactly as they are in the car but in a storage system, so that as far as the batteries are concerned they are in a car. We use a controller, capable of communicating with multiple batteries at the same time and in the same language they would in the car, which also interfaces with a bi-directional battery charger that converts the current from DC to AC and vice versa so it can connect to the grid.

The public need to be made aware that EV car batteries are a key to unlocking change and that this change is feasible, safe and profitable. We need to stop visualising the future as a mountain of problems! Nor is it just consumers and car owners who need to be told the positives. In our experience, businesses aren’t hearing the right message either. Businesses with a minimum turnover of £40m, or at least 250 employees, will be well aware of the need to take part in the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS), a mandatory energy assessment of energy use, but many are less aware of the tax relief available if they invest in green energy solutions.

Super tax deductions announced in March this year mean that for the two years spanning 1 April 2021 to 31 March 2023, companies investing in qualifying new plant and machinery assets will be able to claim a 130 per cent super-deduction capital allowance and 50 per cent first-year allowance for qualifying special=rate assets. The range of qualifying equipment includes solar panels, electric-vehicle charge points and battery storage systems.

Businesses of any size can take advantage of the deductions, making this incentive a great opportunity to support the green energy transition across the UK, yet it seems to have been completely lost as a message.

Of course, I’m aware that smaller systems – and ours are typically 360kWh capacity, supplying 300kW using 24 Renault Kangoo batteries – won’t meet the total requirements of the UK in the future. They do however have the capacity to transform the energy landscape and help mitigate grid-constraint challenges when used in the right applications. They will certainly help reduce carbon emissions and, in tandem with a smart charging infrastructure, demonstrate that EVs are part of the solution not the problem.

There is probably no country in the world more suited to pioneering local distributed-energy systems than the UK. We have a massive coastline, a temperate climate largely unaffected by the extremes of continental weather systems, a great love of cars and, in the case of energy, a relatively beneficial planning system.

Other counties such as Japan come here to learn from us and yet we fail to communicate internally about the sophisticated, joined-up, low-impact solutions and opportunities we already have.

Matthew Lumsden is CEO of Connected Energy.

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