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Britain must modernise grids to power sustainable EV future 

power grid modernisation
Image credit: David Calvert / Shutterstock

In the face of burgeoning environmental concerns and a global push towards clean energy, the UK government has set a path towards mass electrification. All new cars are to be zero emission by 2035, and the shift is well underway, with EVs already accounting for 20% of overall car sales as of August 2023.

Despite being a positive step in the right direction, mass EV adoption comes with an unprecedented challenge: a 50% increase in demand on the national grid, a load level it was not designed nor developed to accommodate.

Such strain could lead to blackouts and significant disruption to our daily lives. Even before widespread EV adoption, our national infrastructure is struggling. Home charging providers are facing massive backlogs in accessing grid connections, delaying installation times and causing scepticism around the EV ownership experience from would-be buyers.

All indicators point towards a need for significant investment in technologies driving both the modernisation and expansion of the UK’s energy grid.

With every challenge comes an opportunity

The cultural anthropologist Gretchen Bakke noted the complex and pressing task of grid reformation in the US in her book, The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future. Bakke explained that “transitioning America away from a reliance on fossil fuels and toward more sustainable energy solutions will be possible only with a serious re-imagination of our grid.” In other words, “the more we invest in ‘green’ energy, the more fragile our grid becomes”. The same is true for the UK.

When considering the challenges ahead of us, it becomes clear that technologies that reduce the impact of modern grid demands will be instrumental in tackling the systems-level problems that exist. Whilst we can’t underestimate the aforementioned impact that EVs will have, with mass adoption comes substantial opportunity for innovation and new technologies across the energy value chain.

Take, for example, the fact that most households in the future will have access to a sizable battery as a result of EV ownership. Leveraging these new-found power sources in smart and sustainable ways could be key to a clean-energy future.

EVs can be manufactured to offer bidirectional charging, allowing them to draw power from the grid at off-peak times and transmit to external devices when demand is high. With the risk of blackouts increasing every winter, bidirectional EVs can double up as a valuable home power source for balancing supply and demand – some will have the capacity to power entire homes for a day.

On the other end of the spectrum startups like London-based ev.energy have pioneered connecting EVs to grid networks, optimising power requirements, and reducing the load during peak times.  The company takes a holistic approach to grid reformation, understanding that success and long-term impact depend on integration and alignment across the entire value chain – from energy utilities to original equipment manufacturers, charging providers and governments.

Grid modernisation needs collaboration across the chain

Government policy that supports the integration of such technologies will be critical. In his autumn statement, the UK chancellor announced plans to expand the national grid to improve clean energy access and cut access delays by 90%. This is a welcome step forward and will help relieve electricity pressures and protect UK households from volatile international energy markets.

Building out the UK’s transmission network and removing barriers for renewable power to connect to it (such as wind, solar, and battery power generation) is critical for the UK to hit its 2050 net zero target, but equally important is support from other players in the energy value chain.

National Grid recently increased its investment plans to a staggering £42bn by 2026, with a considerable chunk of this being allocated to improving grid infrastructure and removing obstacles to green energy connectivity. In fact, £19bn is to be spent on networks of new cables alone, in a bid to ‘rewire’ Britain for net zero and accommodate the growing demand for EVs.

This investment arrives against a backdrop of mounting supply chain pressures and soaring energy costs, and increasing pressure to compete with subsidies offered in the US and Europe. All being well, the fresh injection of capital will significantly contribute to national GDP and increase domestic energy security.

The journey towards a fully electrified and sustainable energy system is complex and challenging, but the need for progress in the UK’s clean energy transition becomes more pressing by the day. Upgrading our grid infrastructure to deliver these goals requires a multifaceted approach, involving technological innovation from startups and corporates, policy reforms, and substantial financial investment.

The current focus on grid modernisation coupled with the uptake in renewables represents a significant stride towards a more sustainable, secure, and economically vibrant future. Now the UK – with proper strategic planning and investment – has the opportunity to become a global leader in the clean energy transition.

Louis Fearn is principal at InMotion Ventures.

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