EV Charging Practices Could Create Grid Constraints

The World Economic Forum has found electric vehicles could slash travel costs and emissions in cities — but only if policymakers heed certain guidelines.

Current moves to foster EV adoption risk stressing the grid because charging infrastructure is not being deployed ahead of vehicle ownership, said the WEF in a study released this month in collaboration with Bain & Company, the management consulting firm.

Without a multi-stakeholder, market-specific approach, priority for high-use vehicles and rapid rollout of charging infrastructure, “EV charging could create local constraints and stability problems on power networks and reduce the environmental benefits of electrification,” the report states. 

Policies and EV charging business models are also being made up “based largely on current patterns of mobility and vehicle ownership,” the WEF warns.

“The uptake of privately owned EVs is encouraged, while business models for charging stations vary, as they are deployed or operated by a range of players — public agencies, car manufacturers, energy companies and pure players.”

To complicate matters, there is only limited interoperability between today’s charging infrastructures, and the level of integration of mobility with the electricity system is low, said the study.

To address these challenges, the WEF and Bain said city-based mobility programs should involve a range of stakeholders, including policymakers, regulators, urban planners and energy, transport and infrastructure companies.

The programs should also focus on electrifying high-use vehicles such as taxis, buses and fleet cars, since these account for most of the mileage seen in cities. Private vehicles are only on the road about 5 percent of the time, the study claimed.

Finally, the research called for planners to think about future EV use when deciding how to go about deploying charging infrastructure.

Today, “charging infrastructure is needed,” said the study, “especially along highways, at destination points, and close to public transport hubs.” But “some current charging locations may not be needed in the future.”

The WEF and Bain also recommended that charging infrastructure should be deployed alongside grid edge technologies such as distributed generation, storage and microgrids. 

Can self-driving EVs bring additional benefits?

Assuming policymakers and city planners take note of these points, the WEF predicts vehicle electrification could yield up to $635 billion in value for the U.S. by 2030, through new jobs and improvements in air quality.

And if the electric vehicles being deployed happen to be autonomous, too, city-based travel costs could be reduced by 40 percent and marginal carbon-dioxide emissions could drop to zero.

“The convergence of mobility and energy strategies can magnify the economic and social benefits of electric mobility in cities, and ensure increased sustainability, reliability and customer choice,” said Roberto Bocca, the WEF’s head of energy and basic industries. 

A WEF press release identified 10 cities said to be “leading the charge” in EV adoption: Berlin, Buenos Aires, Dortmund, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, London, Oslo, Paris and San Francisco.

The research comes amid a growing debate around the extent to which EVs and autonomous vehicles (AVs) can contribute to emissions reductions.

The U.S. Congress has drafted AV legislation that covers areas including safety and cybersecurity, but groups such as the Center for American Progress have noted there is no allowance for research into emissions. They argue the emissions impact of AVs won’t be fully understood until there’s a comprehensive body of work on the subject.

“Even in the early stages of AV regulatory policymaking, vehicle emissions should not be ignored or treated as an afterthought,” wrote Myriam Alexander-Kearns, an energy and environment policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, last September.

Oil and gas giant BP, at least, believes the emergence of autonomous and electric cars will drive down fuel use and, subsequently, emissions. Meanwhile, research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests EVs on their own have a net positive impact on emissions compared to internal combustion engines (ICEs).

In its "Electric Vehicle Emissions to 2040" forecast, published last August, the analyst firm said that even in markets where electricity is predominantly produced with fossil fuels, “EVs emit less CO2 than ICEs, and always will.”

Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s head of advanced transport, Colin McKerracher, said AVs might improve the picture further if they were programmed to charge at times of high renewable energy production.

“I think there are some segments where electrification will already be well suited to soaking up some of the extra renewable capacity that’s coming,” he said.

“Municipal buses, for example, are used much more heavily during commuting hours, and some of these can be charged during the middle of the day when there is a surplus of solar generation," McKerracher added. 

Autonomy could make this easier, he said, “but additional constraints on charging times or locations could also be expensive for these vehicles.” 

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