As EVs very slowly replace petrol-powered cars, networks, consumers, infrastructure companies and policymakers must very quickly adapt their thinking and services.

Electric vehicles will replace petrol-powered cars. Most drivers out there don’t know it yet, and some will kick up a fuss, but it’s going to happen. The impact of a transition to EVs goes well beyond the driving experience, however. Electricity distribution networks and retailers have to plan for an unknown shift in demand that, in some parts of the country, could badly stress the grid. Consumers will have to adapt.

On the plus side there is the potential for EVs to bring a vast volume of much-needed storage capacity to the grid, said Dr Bjorn Sturmberg, research leader at the Australian National University’s Battery Storage and Grid Integration program and moderator of the All-Energy 2020 panel on EVs and their potential to provide storage capacity to the grid.

Unmanaged charging could add a third to peak demand, the panel heard, but EVs also hold the key to creating a second grid. “EVs are another option of transporting electricity from A to B, instead of the networks,” said Jet Charge and Chargefox founder Tim Washington.

Speaking for EV-maker Nissan, national manager electrification and mobility Ben Warren said the Leaf model’s CHAdeMO charging protocol – which can charge both ways, unlike any other car-maker’s EV offerings so far – was adopted as the national standard by a Japanese government keen to pick solutions that could support the grid. “The Japanese government was very proactive and adamant in this space around energy security,” Warren said. “They saw electric vehicles as a really big opportunity.” Warren expects other EV-makers will offer vehicle-to-grid capability “as standards and technology improve”.

Vehicle-to-grid chargers, as yet uncertified in Australia, are expensive technology and – even as prices inevitably fall – will always be more expensive that residential inverters because they include a plug, Washington said. Anyone weighing the benefits of an EV will have to look beyond the simple economics. For a start, a petrol car is probably only used 5% of the time, whereas an EV will not only get you around but also become an integral part of your home energy system.

Washington speculated wireless bidirectional charging technology is about 18-24 months away. “Bidirectional wireless charging is going to be absolutely key in unlocking automated energy management for your vehicle,” he said, pointing to the technology already using the CHAdeMO interface standard. Drivers will park over a charging pad and a smart home energy system will decide whether to charge or discharge depending on price signals. “And we can manufacturer those onshore, for sure.”

Going even further, Washington said driverless autonomous vehicles will be able to provide grid services where they are needed and provide cheapest electricity. “It will drive around looking for the cheapest electricity to power your house.”

Nissan Leafs, ready to serve the grid.

Timing, equity and tax

As for the prospect of EV owners being included in sharing the cost of road maintenance via some means other than an excise on fuel, NSW Government director climate resilience and net zero emissions Stephen Bygrave probably surprised no-one in the webinar audience when he failed to declare NSW wouldn’t follow South Australia down that route.

“I knew this question would come,” Bygrave said, only one day after South Australia’s Liberal government proposed a road-user charge for EV owners. “Obviously, governments around the world are concerned as the world transitions to electric vehicles about the loss of tax revenue.” No-one would want a charge to slow the transition to EVs, he acknowledged, and governments need to balance incentives and disincentives. “The key is timing and equity,” he said, “but in principle, a road user charge does make sense.”

Bygrave said NSW is supporting a five-year program to encourage EV fleets, doubling public charging units from the current 153 and promoting the shift to make buildings EV-ready. More than 2GW of storage capacity will be added to the grid, he said, when the state’s 8,000 buses are electrified. The state’s EV fleets initiative could also be expected to lead a second-hand market that would bring the cost of EVs down in years ahead.

Washington at Jet Charge vented a couple of views on behalf of anyone eager to bid good riddance to the internal combustion engine and petrol in general. For a start, revenue raised from road user charges does not land in a road maintenance fund. Second, let’s not forget the stamp duty raised from the sale of EVs. “This idea that electric vehicles do not contribute to the maintenance of roads is an absolute furphy,” Washington said, before acknowledging a sustainable road-user mechanism is needed – as are incentives to encourage the uptake of EVs.

Frequency on wheels

Working in South Australia, SA Power Networks future networks engineer Travis Kauschke oversees a part of the NEM where exports of rooftop solar around midday are pushing demand to near zero. It’s a huge concern because frequency in the system relies on large spinning generators either in the state or via the interconnector with Victoria to be manageable. “Distributed energy resources don’t set a frequency; they follow one,” he said. Electric vehicles have the potential, then, to provide much-needed load so that the system doesn’t “collapse and fall over”.

Other incentives to encourage midday demand include lower tariffs and the “solar sponge”, but Kauschke said because they are reflected in quarterly bills he considers them as slow-acting.

A faster incentive is real-time feedback to the technology, he said, so assets are aware of “flexible limits” in the network as it unfolds. The network is developing the technology for solar, he said, but the same possibilities apply to EVs should they be involved in vehicle-to-grid activities.

The average PV system installed today is about 7kW, Kauschke said, “which is about three or four electric vehicles worth of energy per customer generated, all during the middle of the day … while we can fill that trough with some electric vehicle charging in either the slow or the fast incentive ways, it’s still only a drop in the ocean compared with how big the challenge is.”

As EVs fill our roads, drivers will need to understand they won’t be able to charge at the same price at any time of the day, said Kauschke, “otherwise we will literally have to upgrade the network.”

Destination: price parity

Warren from Nissan said trials of EVs that can discharge to the grid have shown the extra work is good for life of the battery. “If you’re attached to the house, it’s not a huge draw,” he said. “It’s actually easier on the vehicle than driving it.”

There are no certified vehicle-to-grid charging stations in Australia today, Washington said, but certification for the technology is in progress and he expects six or seven charging brands will enter the local market in 2021 (to compete against his brand). “We’re excited for what that means for grid services in the future.”

Washington said any anguish over the cultural acceptance of EVs in a nation where people often claim to drive farther than they do and where V8 racing is a mainstream television pursuit will be easily dispelled. In Norway, where heavy government incentives have seen new petrol cars and EVs reach price parity, up to three in four new car sales are electric. The Scandinavian nation may be rich in oil, but they are smart enough to vote with their wallets. “We’re going to see exactly the same thing in Australia,” he said.

Motorists in the countryside who cover vast distances will stick with petrol, and that’s no problem, but the majority drive less than 400km a day. For them, there is no reason not to switch to an EV. And besides, EVs are just better to drive, he said. “All you have to do is get your butt in one of those things and you won’t look back.”