A new report from think tank Green Alliance warns that the UK Government needs to help the UK’s power system catch up with the growth of electric vehicles and solar by transforming the national grid.
At present, the UK national grid is woefully prepared to meet the demand on the system by increasing solar power systems and electric vehicle takeup. The number of UK consumers choosing to buy small-scale renewable energy technologies is growing according to the new report by Green Alliance, which also warns that the consequences of not upgrading the grid urgently could be disastrous. If no action is taken, just six electric cars charging in close proximity at peak time could overload the grid and disrupt the local power supply. This in turn would provide ample ammunition for critics of renewable energy that want to see clean energy growth stopped in its tracks. At present, one in five of the UK’s local grids are unable to accept more distributed energy like rooftop solar.
However, if the Government designs a smarter power system now, electric car batteries could store enough power to keep the UK’s lights on for 7 hours at a time by 2025, virtually eliminating blackouts, and distributed energy could save customers over £1.6 billion per year.
Growth in clean energy development is moving increasingly fast. Recently Tesla surpassed General Motors to become the US automaker with the highest market value, by 2020 IKEA will be a net exporter of its own solar and wind energy, and the falling price of battery storage could soon allow UK households to operate off the grid for months at a time. The Green Alliance report predicts that the UK will reach a tipping point as soon as 2020, when government will lose the ability to control the speed of small scale energy deployment.
Similar tipping points outside the UK have seen mixed responses: In Nevada, attempts to clampdown on rooftop solar’s effect on the local power system were met with ferocious consumer backlash, ultimately leading to a reversal of new less favourable tariffs and the grid administration being sacked. This should be a warning to the UK Government, but how much notice will it actually take?
In California, smart EV charging infrastructure has been used to keep the lights on at peak times and given that 40 per cent of drivers would consider buying an EV, the UK should follow California’s lead.
The report says four main government interventions are necessary to get the benefits of small scale energy:
A new independent system designer should be employed to ensure small scale energy is well integrated.
Distribution network operators (DNOs) should be transformed into distribution system operators to actively integrate EVs and solar in a smart network.
Small scale technologies should be enabled to provide system flexibility, for instance through smart charging of EVs.
Automation and aggregators should be adopted to make more flexible ‘time of use’ tariffs attractive to customers.
“The energy transition is unstoppable and will in part be driven by customer choice, ie democratisation as well as decarbonisation of energy” said Matthew Knight, director of energy strategy and government affairs at Siemens. “The challenge for government and industry is to help customers to make good choices. And adapt markets so that the system can benefit from the flexibility new technologies can bring.”
Brian Tilley, head of policy development at E.ON, added that a new energy world is emerging, more decentralised and more flexible. E.ON has adapted its business and now believes that the way the system is governed needs to adapt also. It welcomed the report from Green Alliance and applauded it for not only asking the right questions but also coming up with answers pointing to the right direction for policy.
“Put simply, in the coming years customers will increasingly take control of their own energy generation blurring the lines between consumer, generator and supplier” said Tilley. “The benefits of this change, if handled correctly, could be huge for both customers and the country. Ultimately, the transition to a more decentralised energy system should be grasped as an opportunity, and not be placed in the too difficult to do pile.”
Dustin Benton, acting policy director at Green Alliance, was even blunter, saying that “small scale energy is growing rapidly because consumers are choosing it, regardless of government subsidy. This has already led to blackouts and billion pound losses for unprepared governments. It won’t be any different for the UK. With the right policy, EVs and solar could help keep the lights on and cut consumer bills. Political parties need to outline how the large scale energy the UK needs and the small scale energy people want can work better together.”