We caught up with Graeme Cooper, Head of Future Markets at National Grid, to find out how our energy infrastructure will handle the huge surge in people going electric.
Hi Graeme – let’s ask the big question first. Will we have enough energy for electric cars?
I’m asked this a lot, and the short answer is ‘Yes’!
As we move to net zero, we estimate we’re going to need about 20% more energy for electric cars and vans. That’s a lot, but the change will be gradual, and we’re confident we can deal with it.
The grid is constantly changing anyway. Over the last 20 years we’ve seen huge changes as we’ve moved to wind and solar power. Now clean energy makes up about half of our energy demands, and that’s increasing. The move to electric cars is just another gradual change for the grid.
What are the challenges for the grid as more people drive electric?
In the UK we can generate a maximum of about 75 gigawatts if we turn on everything: renewables, nuclear, gas, coal and the rest. Right now, at 3pm on a cloudy Tuesday, we’re generating about 40 gigawatts. That’s just over half of our maximum, so we’ve got enough capacity.
The challenge is managing demand. When everyone gets up in the morning and puts on the kettle, we’d traditionally have to ramp up gas power stations to meet that demand. The same thing happens even more at dinner time. So we turn our power-making up and down to meet demand.
"That’s tougher to do with renewables. We can’t rely on strong winds every evening, so we’ve got to change our approach. And that’s where I see electric cars actually helping the grid. "(Graeme Cooper, 2022)
Hang on – how can using more energy help the grid?
Well, if we can charge cars when we have spare generating capacity, we can smooth out the grid’s energy demands.
That’s where smart chargers come in. If your car’s plugged in, a smart charger can check the supply and charge up when we have excess energy. That’s normally when it’s sunny or windy. But on a cloudy day with no wind, or in the middle of the dinnertime energy peak, your charger might choose to leave it until later.
What makes this work is variable rate tariffs, where you pay less when there’s excess electricity. So smart chargers can help you use cheaper, cleaner energy – and spread out our energy demand at the same time.
OK – so does that mean I should buy a smart charger for my electric car?
Absolutely. It’ll cost less to charge your car, and you’ll get the cleanest energy. Later this year, all new chargers are going to have to be smart. But some chargers are smarter than others – and I recommend finding the smartest charger you can.
The simplest smart chargers are set on timers: you can set them to charge between, say, midnight and 5am.
But the smartest chargers check live statistics from the internet to work out when to buy. So at home, I set my charger to keep 100 miles on the car by breakfast time. First it looks for the cheapest energy to charge it to that level. But then I’ve set it to choose clean energy too: it looks for 90 grams of CO2 per kWh, which means my car’s not running on fossil-fuel energy.
I love this level of detail – where the energy’s coming from, how much it’s costing and when I’m using it. But if you’re not that bothered by the tech, you can just let the app do its thing and get the same results.
Graeme leads National Grid’s work on transport decarbonisation on the journey to net zero transport, as well as planning critical connections in the east of England to deliver 40GW of offshore wind power.