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How to power the electric car revolution

Tom Greatrex

27 July 2017

The government’s big announcement this week on plans to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040, with the dual benefit of further reducing emissions and improving air quality in our congested towns and cities. While there has been some debate about the detail available, as with other policy areas setting an ambitious target can help make change happen. For this to be achieved, there is a lot more than just the vehicles to consider.

Currently, there are more than 30 million cars on the UK’s roads. It will take time to completely replace these with electric vehicles, but National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios anticipates electric vehicle ownership could increase from one million in the early 2020s to nine million by 2030.

The same National Grid report concludes that electricity demand will increase significantly, driven largely by electric vehicles and later by heat demand. It says peak demand could be as high as 85GW in 2050 compared to 60GW today. Furthermore, it anticipates that without smart charging, electric vehicles could result in an additional 8GW of demand at peak times – that’s the equivalent output of 2.5 Hinkley Point C power stations.

This all leads to the question – how do you make sure there is enough generation capacity to meet this increased demand, and do so in a setting where the distinction between energy and electricity will continue to diminish at an accelerating rate.

Currently, as the official statistics also published earlier this week show, more than a fifth of the UK’s electricity comes from our eight nuclear power stations and the combination of variable renewables, established hydro-power and comparatively high carbon biomass provide a further quarter – wind 11%, solar 3.1%, hydro 2.5% and biofuels 8.9% – with gas providing 42% and coal and oil less than 10% each.

What is clear is, as transport and heating decarbonise, future generation will continue to move away from fossil fuels, and we will need more electricity overall as the use of low carbon sources increases.

We’ll continue to use renewable forms of generation, he government is encouraging further research and development for battery storage to help smooth demand during the day, and the Hendry Review earlier this year also made recommendations about how the UK can trial the utilisation of tidal power.

Nuclear will be vital to balancing the intermittency of renewables and ensuring power is available to the grid to meet the demand placed upon it by homes, business and public services. Providing a high-density source of electricity which complements the variability of other low carbon power sources, nuclear is incredibly reliable in generating secure, reliable and always available power to the grid.

For example, in 2016, nuclear’s output remained at above one fifth, but the output from wind, solar and hydro reduced in 2016 as the country experienced less wind, rain and sunny conditions than in 2015. Generation from hydro sources fell by 14%, and onshore and offshore wind generation fell by 8.4% and 5.8% respectively, according to the latest data from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department.

This means, to meet the increase in demand envisaged by National Grid, a greater amount of generation capacity will need to be built compared to demand to balance the intermittency of renewables.

And with 65% of generation capacity closing between 2010 and 2030, it further highlights the vital importance of the new nuclear build programme which could see up to 18GW of nuclear power added to the grid.

No energy technology is the silver bullet solution but all these data sources highlight the importance of having low carbon technologies that work together, especially as coal’s contribution continues to fall – from 40% a few years ago to under 10% now, and due to be off the grid completely within 8 years.

The UK’s electricity challenge is enormous and meeting it will require the use of a range of power sources. New nuclear power stations, beginning with Hinkley Point C, are an important part of meeting that challenge.

There is no one single ideal solution for all our power problems, which is why it makes sense to have a mix of energy sources. Each technology has its advantages, but their limitations can only be mitigated as part of a balanced mix.