By 2020, there could be as many as 1.5 million electric cars being driven on Europe’s roads. The European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA) estimates that electric vehicles could account for 3%-10% of new cars by 2020-25, which translates to 450,000 to 1.5 million cars sold in the European Economic Area.
This could transform road transport, but what would it mean for the electricity grid? The extra demand for electricity is unlikely to be enormous, but transport analysts are calling for policies to ensure that electric cars draw on the greenest power available on the grid.
“Just plugging in thousands of electric cars like kettles would leave consumers and electricity suppliers in confusion and chaos,” says Nuša Urbancic, a policy officer at Transport and Environment, an environmental campaign group.
Electric cars could increase demand for electricity in 2020 by nearly 3% compared to 2006 levels, according to a study by CE Delft, a consultancy firm, for Transport and Environment. This will not mean an overnight spike in demand, as the uptake of electric cars will be gradual. Nonetheless, there is a risk that demand for recharging electric cars could lead to burning more coal if it occurs during peak hours. Coal and nuclear power are well placed to meet surges in demand at peak times because their marginal costs are cheaper.
The CE Delft researchers concluded that without clear incentives, there are no guarantees that extra demand from electric or hybrid vehicles will be met by renewable energy.
The European Commission has acknowledged these risks. A recent policy paper on ‘clean and energy efficient vehicles’ stated that more electric vehicles could lead to “a need…to install potentially carbon-intensive generation capacity”.
The Commission says this could be avoided by adopting a strategy involving smart grids and smart meters, as well as by giving consumers the right incentives. The Commission also promised to evaluate the impact of electric and hybrid cars on the grid system.
To avoid burning more coal to power electric cars, one idea is to fit electric cars with software that allows two-way communication between the car and the electricity grid, so the car can ‘choose’ to draw upon the greenest electricity available.
An in-car smart meter would also inform drivers about their electricity use. Such intelligence would provide transparency for consumers and would help to mitigate environmental risks, according to Urbancic.
A further advantage of plugging electric vehicles into the grid system is that the cars could be used to store surplus electricity from renewable energy sources. Currently, surplus power from wind energy has to be exported or stored to avoid being wasted.
The CE Delft researchers suggest that using cars to store this energy would help the grid system balance supply against demand.
However, consumers may need incentives to convince them that turning their driveways and garages into power storage stations is a good idea. Electricity companies are already thinking of ways to do this. Gunnar Lorenz at Eurelectric says that consumers could get combined bills for domestic and driving demand.
“The consumer has to have power over his own data and it is up to the service company or retailer to convince him that they offer an interesting product,” he says.
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