EV-world is revving up to electrically unite our homes, vehicles and workplaces

On My Watts: Murray Hogarth

You can feel the emergence of electric vehicles in Australia starting to rev up, though you can’t hear it because the dang things are so powerfully quiet.

I know the electric vehicle revolution has been long heralded and persistently elusive, but this time a number of EV ducks are lining up in a well-parked row (even if the Australian Government isn’t helping, which is hardly a novel scenario when it comes to energy-related innovation).

As the next big thing in everyday independent mobility, traditionally a lot of the discussion around EVs focuses on the transport infrastructure and wider policy implications; including a tax revenue shortfall as fuel excise fades out, counterbalanced in macro economic terms by improving trade terms as national reliance on petrol/diesel imports declines.

But a recent story in RenewEconomy’s new EV-focused sister publication, The Driven, reminded us that EVs have broad-based, sometimes micro-specific energy system implications as well. (See New Australia-New Zealand wiring rules to increase cost of EV charger installations)

Further down, this post explores some of the practical issues that Wattwatchers already is encountering through its exposure to international markets where EVs are more advanced than in Australia, which let’s face it is just about everywhere in the OECD countries, but in our case the UK and New Zealand are most apparent. Especially in regard to issues revolving around the charging of electric vehicles at work, in the wider community, and at home.

Before that, however, I want to flag some commonalities between the prospect of EVs on the rise and what we already know. In particular, the experience we’ve already had with the still accelerating uptake of rooftop solar PV; and the climate change meta-challenge of our times that cries out for more integrated thinking and solutions for how we organise energy in all of its manifestations across transport systems, land use planning and the built environment.

‘EVs will interconnect our homes, our vehicles and our workplaces’

I venture this: nothing in the internal combustion engine dominated, fossil-fuelled history of motor vehicles has prepared us for how EVs will interconnect our homes, our vehicles and our workplaces, or other common destinations, as part of a vast distributed common infrastructure.

Furthermore, this will be a transport infrastructure that both relies on and augments the electricity grid, which itself is undergoing a dramatic transition to its own digital, distributed, demand-driven and much cleaner energy future.

So what could possibly go wrong?

Solar history lights a new road

The obvious pitfall for the rise of the EV era is that we don’t prepare for it, including the phases it will move through – ultra niche, as it is now; then early uptake takes off, yet EVs still remain very much in the minority; further down the track, a tipping point when mass uptake accelerates; and finally market domination.

It’s only a decade ago that solar PV started to proliferate on the rooftops of Australian homes, in a largely unplanned and ad hoc way, and there’s a lot that we can learn from that experience to do a better job with the inevitable mass-scale rollout of EVs.

Firstly, don’t underestimate the collective impact of millions of individual decisions on traditional infrastructure such as electricity grids. That mistake was made with rooftop solar PV. Initially dismissed as ‘too niche’ and ‘green dreaming’ by the power sector’s powers that be, these distributed renewable energy resources are now one of the rising transition challenges for electricity networks and market operators, because their effective integration to grids is critical. There’s nothing insurmountable about such challenges – they go with the territory of making transitions, and change always requires adjustments to the old order (if not its total displacement) – but it’s better to have eyes wide open from the outset.

Secondly, don’t imagine you can run a highly-distributed, integrated transport and electricity system without the right digital tools, including real-time data, remote control, cloud analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence (maybe throw in a bit of blockchain too if you want to be techno-trendy, though the crypto-currency and ICO bubble has been somewhat burst through 2018).

Let’s go under the hood

Now to some EV-meets-grid-in-transformation practicalities:

  • Locating EV chargers, and a lot of them – the rule of thumb is between two and three chargers being required for every vehicle. So a million EVs is two to three million charging points, and they need to be located where the vehicles will spend their extensive not-being-driven downtime.
  • Home charging reimbursement – early uptake of EVs is likely to be driven in significant part by government and corporate fleet buying, so how do employees get reimbursed when they charge vehicles at home overnight or at the weekend? The word we hear is that while there are smarter charging systems that can provide this capability, they tend to be expensive. Circuit-level real-time home energy monitoring can provide this service, making dumb chargers smart while supporting other energy-related services as well.
  • Active demand charge management – with a lot of EV charging needing to be hosted in commercial buildings, it will impact on peak loads and demand charging for businesses across the whole site (an EV charger is not an island).
  • Holiday rentals/AirBNBs – energy use by tenants can be tax deductible for landlords, but they need to be able to measure and report it reliably.
  • Network integrity – in NZ, particularly Auckland, unusually thin electrical wiring used in the distribution networks means that whole grids are vulnerable to burn out if EV charging aggravates the duck curve phenomenon and concentrates evening peak demand even further. That’s just one scenario, but it’s clear that the integration, coordination and large-fleet orchestration of EV charging will be a crucial factor for balancing Grid 2.0.
  • Time of use – mechanisms for maximising EV charging in the daytime when high levels of solar generation will be available, and minimising it during early-evening peaks when grids are already under stress.
  • EV-ready buildings – free-standing homes, apartment complexes and commercial buildings will all need to be rethought in significant ways to be EV-ready, and data will help.

Our team at Wattwatchers doesn’t have all the answers, by any means, and in fact we (and I’m talking about everyone here) don’t even have all of the issues on the table yet. But we sure do want to be in the conversation and we’re pursuing it wherever we can.

*Murray Hogarth is Director of Communications and Community Networks for Wattwatchers.