As petrol becomes a thing of the past the grid will need to be ready for the rapid rise of electric vehicles, writes Jeremy Chunn. There are a few things to consider before we charge ahead…

Cars are more than a mode of transport. They tell the world who you are and which direction in life you’re going. They are like the chief’s cloak or the jester’s jangly hat. When we sit in our cars we are never quite the person we otherwise are. There’s a pride that comes with driving, much of it ill-directed.

Sometimes, driving can be fun, an adventure. Many times, driving can drive you up the wall. Occasionally, driving is deadly.

As the world’s car population bloomed over the past 100 years, so too did a haze of pollution. There are now more than 1 billion of them chugging around the planet, a tenfold increase on 60 years ago. Today, cars are responsible for about half of the greenhouse gas pollution produced by the transport sector in Australia, which includes trucks, public transport, domestic flights and shipping and accounts for 18% of emissions.

If we can clean up our cars, we’ll clean up our air.

Electric cars look like an obvious solution, so long as they are charged with renewable energy. But the car craze will be hard to kick. In some markets, such as Norway and China, drivers are being lured to electric vehicles (EVs) by a mixture of financial incentives and progressive policy settings, including deadlines for banning petrol and diesel vehicles.

In Norway, sales of EVs already account for more than 50% of motor vehicle purchases, and numerous countries have targets of 100% EV sales, including China. The number of electric cars worldwide had risen to 5.6 million in early 2019, up 64% from previous year. China is in first place, with 2.6 million EVs, followed by the US with 1.1 million, according to the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg.

Australia, however, is still in the slow lane. Electric vehicles made up about 0.2% of all vehicle sales in 2017, or less than 2,300 units. As more carmakers release EVs and as more car buyers feel inclined to consider this radical new technology over the traditional liquid-fuelled friend, the early-adopters on our roads will be steadily joined by the next – and much bigger – wave of consumers.

More EVs means more demand for electricity. In Australia AEMO expects the main growth in electricity demand will come from the uptake of electric vehicles, with 19% of the light vehicle fleet forecast to be electric by 2036-37.

That’s great news for our Earth, our lungs, our great grandchildren and their great grandchildren, but the transition from petrol to electrons as road-users’ fuel of choice will require the slow removal of one supply chain and the strengthening and reengineering of another – the electricity grid.

The Canberra circuit

Canberra knows there’s a job ahead, and in January a senate select committee inquiry into electric vehicles included 17 recommendations to address national standards and regulations for charging infrastructure and grid integration. A good way to get more electric wheels on the road would be for government to set targets for passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles, busses and government fleets, the committee said in its report.

Senator Tim Storer, the independent from South Australia who chaired the Senate committee into EVs, would like to see Australia set targets of 25% light vehicle sales to EVs by 2025, along with 30% of light commercial vehicle sales (utes and vans), and 20% of metro bus sales. He also recommends half of new purchases in the Commonwealth government fleet should be EVs by 2025.

The senate report makes it clear we are heading into risky territory. The steady replacement of fossil-fuelled vehicles with cars and trucks that use generic electrons and transfer that energy onto the macadam via a tiny fraction of the moving parts of an internal combustion engine will require a massive reengineering of our energy thinking.

Key to an accelerated uptake of EVs is convenience and speed in the charging experience, much of which depends on networks. If EV owners are concentrated amid the metropolitan sprawl, a “cluster effect” has the potential to overload local parts of a network, especially feeder lines, say the authors of a study by LEK Consulting for Australian fast-charge technology company Tritium.

The consultant expects EV ownership will increase household demand by about 50%, with the result that a local area with 50% EV penetration where owners charge about the same time would push up peak demand by 30%. Electricity demand from EVs will rise from 0.3% in 2017 to 6.3% in 2030, the report says. The International Energy Agency expects the world will need 130 million chargers by 2030 to keep up, thirty times what is installed today.

Buyers will flock to EVs when prices fall. A report by Deloitte says the ownership cost of battery EVs will match petrol and diesel globally by 2022. “From this point, cost will no longer be a barrier to purchase, and owning an EV will become a realistic, viable option for new buyers,” says Deloitte UK automotive partner Michael Woodward. However, a global oversupply of 14 million vehicles is expected by 2030 as carmakers shift in investment to EV production creates an overshoot of supply.

In 2017, 21% of global EV sales were in six Chinese cities – the result of imposed restrictions on sales of petrol cars. Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects China to be the largest market for new sales until 2040, by when it expects a third of the global fleet to be electric.

Donuts and electrons

Tritium CEO and founder Dr David Finn says the challenge of integrating a surge of EVs into the grid is to defer augmentation of networks. The best way to do that, he says, is to cluster rapid-charging systems in the public space and be able to offer services that allow adopters of EV technology to not have to necessarily modify their behaviour. “The biggest thing here is to go on the offensive rather than stay back and try to be defensive about how to deal with it,” Finn says.

A site may host 20 to 50 charging stations, say, with a utility having some control over how it interacts with the grid without necessarily impacting individuals charging at the site. “You would have a lot of control over what the total site is doing,” he says. “We’ve started to see this already in very advanced countries, such as Norway.”

Tritium CEO and founder Dr David Finn says the integration of EVs into the grid offers an opportunity to defer augmentation of networks.

A grid-interactive model, overseen to some degree by a utility, is also a good way to get return on investment for the site host, he says, where demand charge and capacity charge are incorporated into a business plan. “You want to try to get average utilisation at that site up as high as possible.”

Demand response and grid interactive capability of a site will become big issues under such a scenario. “If you get stuck on individual chargers on street corners you start to have issues with how are you going to deal with demand charge – whereas if you keep these [multi-charger] sites busy, because you have decent EV penetration, all those issues just diminish because you have sites that are pulling 5MW almost on a continuous basis,” he says.

“That’s a nice load for a utility, and it’s not hard to just change the pricing slightly if demand for the charging services starts to drop off. Just drop the price slightly and people will start to flow in.” Drivers of petrol-sloshers already seem happy to go across town for a weeny discount.

Think of a 7-Eleven completely transformed, where EVs congregate on enclosed floors that are cooled or heated, depending on the weather, and drivers exit their vehicles into clean air (no emissions) and wander away to grab a bag of nuts while the charger does its thing.

“With some economies of scale you can see how the price of energy at a site like that could rival the price of energy you get off-peak at home,” Finn says. “I think convenience stores have a lot to gain out of this. There’s a win-win there.”

That’s one side of the story. The other side is for EV owners to top-up at work, where companies who carefully plan charging schedules may be able to lower the demand charge for the whole site and be better off. However, modelling by research advisory Energeia found un-orchestrated workplace charging would likely increase network investment costs unless an offsetting amount of solar PV is connected on the same feeder.

Garage action

No-one who buys a regular petrol-chugger is expected to install a gasoline bowser at home. But it’s common for new EV owners to install a fast-charge box in the garage, depending on what brand of vehicle they buy. That way they can tap a residential solar system, and power up for free.

Dr David Mills geared up for EVs in 2014 with the purchase of a Tesla Model S. One year later a BMW i3 was added to the family fleet. As a former researcher at the Department of Applied Physics at the University of Sydney, cofounder of a solar thermal company and former president of the International Solar Energy Society, he counts as someone who has given careful consideration to an optimal home-charging regime.

Dr Mill’s family fleet includes a Tesla (sporting a rather excellent number plate) and a BMW i3.

The 7.4kW solar system on Mills’ Sydney home provides about two-thirds the energy required to run the house and the cars, and he concedes he’s let down by some shading and site orientation. “It’s not by any means an ideal solar site,” he says, “but it does show it’s quite possible to really affect the amount of energy that you use.”

The i3 is a slow-charging vehicle, which he prefers to charge at night. Fast-charging is possible but Mills doesn’t have a wall box for the car. The Tesla comes with a wall-mounted charger that would draw more than the solar can provide on most occasions. “You have to be very careful. It will start importing peak power during the daytime,” says Mills, who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2014 for services to solar energy and physics.

With a little experience and guidance using an energy monitoring system Mills can get away with charging both cars during strong solar days and be confident he isn’t importing much from the grid.

Storage at home should be used to cut reliance on the grid in the afternoon-evening peak, and it’s more important for that battery to charge than the EV, he says. “The car should be the lowest priority in the system. You want to cover all [energy-thirsty] loads before you think of charging during the day – and that includes the house battery.” The Tesla is charged about once a week and the i3 every couple of days.

Connections count

As petrol-polluters are traded in for clean EVs, the percentage of EV owners who do not have solar installed at home can be expected to rise. Buyers who have a weak grasp of the electricity tariff structure may get a fright if they make a habit of plugging in during peak times – which is highly likely, given Australians’ reliance on cars to commute.

The alternative to home-charging is a public charging station, of which there are fewer than 800 in Australia – roughly one for every six EVs. A report by Energeia for ARENA recommended Australia needs more than 28,000 DC fast-charge “hoses” between now and 2040, costing about $1.7 billion not including land. The LEK Consulting study recommended networks could avoid overload problems by designing tariffs to discourage peak charging and using smart software to orchestrate owners’ charging behaviour.

Sydney-based company Everty is working on the deployment of software to support charging infrastructure owned by businesses and large organisations, as well as owners of residential chargers. Founder Carola Jonas admits it hasn’t been easy attracting interest from owners of residential chargers. “It’s probably similar to Airbnb,” she says. “Not everyone wants to allow people access to their garage.” Most of the deployment is in the commercial sector, she says, such as Energy Queensland, NRMA and some of the larger retailers.

The software allows drivers to find chargers and pay, but also for the operator to control and monetise a network of stations. “There’s a broad scope of where charging stations are deployed, so our business is to help them with the software layer, the app, to make it accessible to drivers,” Jonas says.

As EVs take hold on our roads large commercial users may have to learn new ways to balance their energy use. Chargers are generally connected to the grid, but Jonas gives the example of a company with a load constraint and an underground carpark with chargers installed for its fleet. “You can’t install [a large amount] of charging stations and expect everyone can charge at the same time,” she says. “It really depends on the load profile in your building.”

At home, an owner’s charging regime will need to factor in many variables – solar or grid-only, time-of-use or single-rate billing – but Mills’ EV-charging habit is largely formed around his choice of retailer, where his feed-in tariff is only 0.5c/kWh lower than his off-peak rate.

“The rates being so close means that any energy you put into the grid can be withdrawn at any time in off-peak, for about the same price,” he says. “You’re only paying half a cent per kilowatt hour to store it indefinitely.”

Mills charges his cars overnight, when most high-load appliances in the house are also timed to run – clothes drier, water heater, dishwasher. “You can run a lot of your house load on that basis,” he says. “It makes running an EV very easy.”

Case for storage

California has more than 200,000 EVs and more than 10% of all vehicles on the roads of Norway are electric. Those markets are the EV innovators, says Finn at Tritium, and owners charge regularly at home. That’s not to say the next wave of EV owners will have the same habit. “I’m not convinced they’re going to behave in the same way,” Finn says.

For a start, they may not bother installing a charging system in the home (Finn charges his BMW i3 at work about once a week). And instead of topping up each night it may be good enough to charge once or twice a week and be done with it. Europe has surged ahead with public rapid charging, Finn says, probably because almost half the market doesn’t have access to charging at home. In busy California, he says it’s “surprisingly likely” that owners who live in units don’t have access to charging at home.

“It’s not going to work for everyone, this idea of plugging in overnight at home,” he says.

Because charging stations that can take multiple vehicles constitute a large feed into a solid section of the grid they should also plan to include storage, Finn says, not necessarily to time-shift the load of the site but to provide ancillary services and ride through short grid events. “All those services could be provided at a fairly minimal additional cost,” he says. “You’ve already got all the equipment there to convert the AC to DC. [Including storage] is not a lot of additional cost to get a lot of benefit.”

Brisbane-based Tritium released its first DC fast charger in 2014 and has since seen its technology installed in 26 countries. It holds around 50% of the Norwegian market and around 15% of the European market for 50kW fast chargers.

Powered by the car

It would make perfect sense for owners of residential PV systems to charge during the day, but many of them will likely drive to work and want to charge during the evening peak or at night, when there is no sun. A home battery would help, of course, but an EV has a battery of its own – so we have a bit of a dilemma. If you’re buying an EV and own solar at home, should you reconsider installing a battery at home? Why not use the one in your car?

Other than getting us from A to B cleanly, EVs can be plugged in at home and be put to task to solve the usual energy riddles. Consumers don’t need to buy peak electricity from the utility that happens to run poles and wires down their street when they could buy it more cheaply from an employer, say, who generated it on the roof. All they have to do then is drive it home.

“A car battery is a monster compared with a house battery,” says Mills, whose Tesla can hold 85kWh “nominal” (or 65kWh “in real life”, he says), and BMW i3 can store 22kWh (or 18kWh, on Mills’ estimate). The two Tesla Powerwalls on the wall of his house would each hold 6.3kWh when installed.

Not all EVs will send power both ways, of course, and the more you cycle a car battery the shorter its life. This would likely affect smaller cars more than larger ones. Still, Finn figures “it makes sense to start running your home with your vehicle.”

Tesla counts as one of the EV brands whose models can’t double as four-door home batteries. A spokesperson for Tesla told EcoGeneration its research has found 90% of charging is done at home overnight and that drivers usually connect for incremental top ups as opposed to draining the battery to a low level and recharging to 100% every time. The rest of the time owners rely on the marque’s network of destination chargers and superchargers.

Never look back

In a country so dominated by cars, the transition to EVs will be painfully hard for many. Apart from the psychological withdrawal from throbbing exhausts that will be keenly felt by young men, there is also the cult of the status marques. Will the electric wagons that slowly replace petrol models carry the same allure of virility? In a nation where what you drive is who you are, we are heading towards an existential showdown.

One way to win over the thrill-seeker side of society might be to bring a Formula-E Championship race to Australia, or at least that’s the thinking of the senate committee. Formula-E speeds are still well below the screaming petrol-powered F1 regime – 225km/h for a Formula-E racer versus 372km/h for a piston-powered McLaren-Mercedes. But EVs are catching up, with Formula-E claiming the latest model to hit the circuit should be able to reach speeds of more than 300km/h.

Formula E racers are catching up to their Formula 1 counterparts.

“When the car starts to go over 300km/h you’re talking substantial speeds,” says Brazilian driver Lucas di Grassi, winner of the 2016-17 Formula-E Drivers’ Championship. “Nobody will be able to say the car is not fast.”

Those EVs will be fun to watch but many drivers will be pained as our automotive past is slowly laid to rest, resplendent as it is with Cadillac fins and rumbling V8s. Will the future we hope for with EVs only bring on a hangover of nostalgia for motoring’s golden century?

No way, says Dr Mills. EVs are superior: the silence, the acceleration, the torque, that instant power.

“You really can’t go back to these very strange machines which are having explosions within a cast-iron block,” he says. “Never!”