Transport is the UK’s biggest energy consumer – in the past year, it has accounted for 40% of the UK’s total energy consumption – and it’s set to become even bigger. The Government recently announced its aim for nearly every car and van on UK roads to be zero emission by 2050, together with a plan to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040. The plans will help the UK to meet key targets in renewables (where the UK has a statutory obligation to provide 10% of its transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020) and air quality (where the UK has failed to meet statutory nitrogen oxide limits).

Alternative fuel opportunities

It is widely accepted that the deployment of different technologies and fuels is key to meeting the renewable and air quality targets. There are a number of alternative fuel options available to diversify supply and the Government has earmarked electricity, hydrogen and battery technologies for investment.

  • Electric vehicles (EVs)

The recently published Air Quality Plan makes it clear that the Government’s favoured fuel option is electricity. The Government wants Britain to lead the world in EV technology and use. EV’s are also likely to be more popular than hydrogen or natural gas vehicles with consumers. To this end, the Government has pledged to invest £2.7 billion in clean transport measures. This will include £1 billion to invest in EVs and the UK’s charging infrastructure (with an aim for 95% of the roads network to have an EV charge point every 20 miles) and £14 million to deliver new dedicated charge points for electric taxis in selected areas.

  • Hydrogen

In addition to EVs, Hydrogen powered vehicles are also to be promoted, with a £23 million fund to accelerate their use and develop the associated infrastructure. A competition will be launched this summer which will invite proposals from public organisations, businesses and hydrogen operators to develop hydrogen infrastructure. Hydrogen has been identified as a good fuel use for public buses, and we were proud to advise Aberdeen City Council on its demonstration project for the largest fleet of hydrogen buses in Europe. The fund announcement does not specifically mention low carbon hydrogen powered vehicles or fuel cells, however, the Low Carbon Transport Innovation Strategy which sits behind it suggests that these technology options may become significant in the long term.

  • Batteries

Encouraging cooperation and innovation in business and the UK’s science base is another pertinent aspect of the plan. £270 million is to be invested through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to promote the development of innovative battery technologies. In particular, the Government will be seeking to fund development of EV batteries and boost the UK’s expertise in battery technology. The scheme will focus on kick-starting a UK-based industry in the sector.

A green revolution

Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has said the Government wants to deliver a “green revolution”. The Government’s plans looks set to deliver a substantial, green, upgrade to our transport infrastructure. However, the implications for power generation required at a national level are not clear. National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios estimates that future peak demand for EVs alone will be between 6 GW and 30 GW. To put that in perspective, the new proposed Hinkley nuclear reactors will provide around 3.2 GW. National Grid therefore needs to prepare for an increase of up to 50% on current peak demand by 2050.

Whilst a 50% increase is the highest estimate, there is no doubt that, if left unmanaged, the introduction of EVs will present a considerable challenge to our electricity system. If we assume that users will charge their cars at the time of greatest convenience then most will charge their cars when they return home from work, at what is already current peak time. If we all charge our cars at peak time, a lot more generation capacity will need to be constructed to meet the increased peak demand.

A grid revolution

There are no plans to build new power stations to meet that demand. However, a number of smart grid measures are being considered to balance demand and ensure our electricity supply remains reliable. One option, facilitated by the roll out of smart meters, is offering Time of Use Tariffs (TOUTs) to encourage users to charge during off-peak hours. TOUTs work by fluctuating the price of energy throughout the day, depending on the time of use. If electricity is charged at its actual cost at that time of the day, many users will change their behaviour and charge their EV at night – when charges would be lower – ready for use the next morning. The smart meter roll out programme may therefore have a substantial impact on regulating the amount of generation capacity the UK needs.

Other smart grid options are smart chargers and batteries. Smart chargers intelligently control when electricity is drawn from the grid, reducing or cutting off charging, to allow EV charging to take place away from peak time. Battery technology is also continuing to evolve and we can expect a time in the future when efficient, high capacity batteries will allow EVs to be charged at peak times from batteries charged during off-peak times.

National Grid have estimated that by 2050 there could be up to 26 million EVs on the road. The number is already steadily rising and we will soon start to see behavioural charging patterns which will make the implications for power generation clearer. A grid revolution will be a necessary first step on the way to the green revolution sought by Chris Grayling – if we want to hit the renewable transport and air quality targets, we first need to make sure we have enough power to keep driving.