The Cautious British Example When It Comes to Electric Vehicles

Todd Royal
Todd Royal is an independent public policy consultant focusing on the geopolitical implications of energy based in Los Angeles, California.

It has become raison d’être that electric vehicles (EV) will keep increasing in use without considering serious factors that could hamper their growth. The British electrical grid example and the growth of EVs should bring pause to California consumers, investors, Governor Brown and the Legislature promoting there unconstrained usage.

According to the British National Grid, “the growing use of electric vehicles could increase electricity peak demand by 3.5 gigawatts (GW) by 2030.” This will occur since sales of EVs are expected to be more than 90% of all British car purchases by 2050 highlighted in its Future Energy Scenarios Report. The British government mandated in July that all new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by “2040 to reduce air pollution and assist cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels.” Moreover, the National Grid stated:

Peak electricity demand could even rise by as much as 8 GW by 2030 without ‘smart charging’ during off-peak hours and 18 GW by 2050 as the pace picks up to decarbonize.”

Where all interested parties should be concerned is the cost to achieve the above mandates. Britain will need billions of pounds of new investments into new power plants (either renewable or fossil fuels), transmission lines, smart grid network technology and EV charging points and stations throughout the country. Otherwise, Britain could potentially suffer power shortages when EVs overtake fossil-fueled vehicles. California’s electrical grid already can’t handle additional energy from spikes in renewable energy much less the additional stress of adding millions of EVs mandated inSB 100.

Britain like California has the technology to support millions of EVs over the next two to three decades but drivers would have to recharge their vehicles overnight or face billions in costs. This is when spare capacity on the grid is abundant and that is typical for most developed nations pursuing EV policies. Huge infrastructure costs could be kept down for British and California drivers if they can be persuaded to charge mainly at night.

The British grid operator though still faces local network issues when consumption of electricity to accompany EVs is expected to rise 15% in overall demand and 40% during peak times.                                                                                  Johannes Wetzel, energy markets analyst at Wood Mackenzie surmises the dilemma for the British and all California EV investors, consumers, governments and taxpayers when he recently said:

It will be a challenge and a lot of investment is required – in generation capacity, strengthening the distribution grid and charging infrastructure.”

EVs sales are expected to reach 20 million in Britain by 2040 whereas today they have roughly 90,000 on the road. But Britain already faces a “power supply crunch,” because older nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants are being phased off the grid by 2025. California is following similar policies. Yet no one at the National Grid, Parliament or the Prime Minister’s office has stated how this power will be replaced to support a huge surge in electricity demand caused by widespread EV adoption. California hasn’t come up with widespread EV adoption policies as well.

The British could attempt to build natural gas plants, which are cheaper, faster to build and allow grid flexibility, but that isn’t being pursued since they produce carbon emissions. Renewable energy has problems when it comes to EVs because of supply and demand problems. Solar panels for example produce energy during the day, but they don’t at night when the British and California drivers would need to recharge their EVs to avoid large infrastructure costs.

Though estimates can vary from British government figures of EV adoption, analysts surveyed by Reuters said, “Anything up to an extra 50 terawatt hours (TWh) would be needed for them (EVs) by 2040.” Again, nothing from California grid operators or policymakers has been pursued this vigorously to ascertain how much additional grid capacity would be needed to meet millions of new EVs on California roads. And since California’s economy is larger than Britain’s the costs and need for additional electricity could be significantly higher.

Off-peak grid incentives could be the solution by encouraging charging only at night, “when demand is currently only about a third of during peak periods.” The transition to EVs would then pose no significant stress to the national grid. But the British government would need to make sure off-peak grid demand is properly incentivized and enforced. California would need to do the same thing.

This can be achieved since Britain is making significant progress in energy efficiency when there overall peak power demand fell around 14% between 2005 and 2016; and the economy also grew around that same amount as well. This bodes well for British EV expansion without significant costs associated with that growth. This could also mean there is slack in the National Grid’s transmission and distribution system that could take additional stress during peak power demand. California also leads the US in energy efficiency, which bodes well for EV use.

The National Grid, which also operates the British transmission system said:

The rise in peak demand can be kept up to 5 GW if there is smart charging and time-of-use electricity tariffs.”

However, the British National Grid will need off-peak EV charging essential to keep costs down and stress on the grid to minimum levels. What happens though for the British and California economies and investors if peak demand isn’t enforced, smart grids aren’t widespread and energy storage isn’t technologically feasible on a widespread, affordable basis to support increased power usage during peak hours for EVs?

The Scottish and Southern Electricity Network tested this theory and found “uncontrolled EV charging would double the usual domestic load to 2 kilowatts (kW) when using a 3.5 kW charger.” At this time nothing of this scale has been attempted to test California’s grid.

To meet these demands Britain has opened the largest gas plant in two decades at 884 MW that came online in Manchester last year but the costs were over 700 million pounds. Unfortunately, two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built. Additionally the risk with more fossil fuel being used to meet additional EV needs could mean that Britain emits more greenhouse gases with widespread EV adoption than conventional vehicles. California would also run into the same problem and have to overcome AB 32 that set specific limits on emissions.

Nuclear is also an option to meet growing energy needs, but Britain has struggled to have nuclear projects built since they also have high costs. EDF’s 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C nuclear plant won’t open until 2025 at the earliest since these costs fall on the private sector. To address these concerns British energy regulator Ofgem has been called upon to ensure multiple power sources, infrastructure to support EVs and more interconnectors are dispersed throughout the country to offset these costs. California is vigorously pursuing closing the Diablo Nuclear Power Plant that is a source of clean, green energy without noting how they will replace this lost power.

The final reality of mass EV adoption deals with jobs and profits. In early September, China also pledged to outlaw the combustion engine though the Chinese government didn’t say when. Daimler the builder of Mercedes gave details about their EV program that should give investors; policymakers and advocates of mass zero-emission motoring stop and take notice. Daimler warned that:

Planned electric Mercedes models will initially be just half as profitable as conventional alternatives – forcing the group to find savings by outsourcing more component manufacturing, which may in turn threaten German jobs.”

Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche also recently told reporters, “In-house production is almost irrelevant to the consumer.” If German jobs are threatened then British, Chinese and California jobs could also be eliminated. The factors of job elimination, infrastructure upgrades and the tens of billions it will take to have EVs overtake the combustible engine should give constituents and elected officials grave concern. Private energy investors in particular should understand the costs and tradeoffs before investing in the British, California or other developed nations EV market. Going down the EV path should be preceded with caution.

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