Why EV charging will drive the energy transition

Digitalization & EV

Digitalization is changing the transportation sector. How will it impact fleet managers and drivers? Kicking off this insight series is Pieter van Ommeren, an expert in a topic that is invariably top of mind when talking EVs: charging.

    Digitalization is changing the transportation sector. How will it impact fleet managers and drivers?

    “When it comes to digitalization in automotive, we haven’t seen anything yet,” said Ronald van Slooten, Mobility Program Manager at Athlon International, when introducing our ‘Digitalization and EV’ blog series. To support his statement, Ronald invites colleagues and external experts to share their unique perspectives on the future of electric vehicles (EVs).

    Kicking off this insight series is Pieter van Ommeren, an expert in a topic that is invariably top of mind when talking EVs: charging. How will digitalization impact charging in the future? And how are EVs connected with the energy transition?

    Pieter van Ommeren is director of Vattenfall InCharge, the e-mobility branch of the Vattenfall energy group. InCharge’s mission is to accelerate the transition to fossil-free mobility. And they’re well on their way to achieving that goal. Providing access to over 120,000 charging points, the InCharge charging network is one of the largest in Northern Europe.

    Drawing on his experience, Pieter has an eye-opening view on EVs and their role in the energy transition: “I’ve heard it said more than once that electric road transport will hinder the energy transition, because charging an EV needs so much power.
    But there’s more to it than that, in fact EVs will help boost the transition to fossil-free energy. Instead of being the problem, they’ll be a solution.”

    The solution: EVs – in the near future

    The challenge: supply and demand disrupted

    To explain his point of view, Pieter summarizes the basics in the energy transition: “The world has to actively and rapidly replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, like wind and solar power. The shift to these alternative sources, however, completely changes the energy market as we’ve known it for the past decades. With traditional sources, it’s pretty easy to scale up your energy supply when the demand rises. But renewable sources are dependent on factors like the weather conditions. As a result, they may be unavailable at times, leading to scarcity or even power outages.

    That, in turn, will lead to heavily fluctuating energy prices. When wind speeds are favorable and the electricity demand is low, like in the middle of the night, prices will drop. While at 3 p.m. on a cold, rainy, windless working day, prices could skyrocket.”

    The solution: EVs – in the near future

    So, how can EVs help solve this challenge? Pieter: “Today, EV charging is still pretty straightforward. When EV drivers need power, they plug in their car and wait until it’s fully charged. Or rather, often they don’t really wait, but keep the car parked for an entire night or full working day, while the time needed to recharge the battery is much shorter. There’s a huge opportunity here to shift charging to hours when it’s better for the grid or when electricity is cheaper and cleaner (renewable) – depending on the driver’s preferences. Enter ‘smart charging’.

    Smart charging in practice – today and tomorrow

    Intelligent charging uses smart chargers to optimize the charging process for EVs based on various criteria, such as the time of day, weather conditions, user preferences, etc. “Some features are available already”, says Pieter: “Drivers can use a charging timer or specify their charging needs remotely via various apps, connected to either their car or charging station. For instance, they can indicate they want to charge their EV after midnight, when energy demand is low.”

    “However, that’s just the beginning. In the near future,  drivers could configure their charging preferences in their vehicle, for example, when they want their car to be charged, what minimum charge level they require or what price they’re willing to pay. The vehicle will then negotiate a charging plan with the charging station, choosing the optimal charging process. It can, for example, choose to first charge the vehicles that have to leave first. Or decide not to charge a car fully if the users indicate they’ll only travel 100 kilometers that day.”

     “Smart charging helps reduce peak load on the power system by charging vehicles during periods of low energy demand.”

    Clear benefits

    The benefits of intelligent charging are threefold. Firstly, it helps reduce peak load on the power grid, which ensures grid stability and energy efficiency. More than that, it unlocks the flexibility to use more renewables, as the smart charger can choose to charge the EV at times when there’s lots of solar or wind power. Last but not least, smart charging can optimize the cost of charging for the driver, as the charger communicates with the electricity grid and keeps track of energy prices.

    Vehicle-to-grid: the key to really smart energy storage

    And there’s more than this charging flexibility to foster the energy transition. Car batteries can also store electricity and send it back to the grid when and where it’s needed most.

    This vehicle-to-grid charging, as it’s called, will be made possible by bi-directional chargers. These can send electricity to the EVs, but also take electricity from the vehicles and send it back to the grid. Here too, an app will help drivers control the system, making sure that their EV remains charged up to a certain level, of course. In the future, the EV itself might even take care of that. The electricity from the vehicle can then either be used to power the EV owner’s home or be fed back to the grid.

    “So, system operators can use these ‘batteries on wheels’ to respond to sudden spikes in energy demand and/or supply. In this way, EVs contribute further to a more stable energy system,” says Pieter. “What’s more, this could be a great way for EV users to earn some extra money and thus reduce the total cost of ownership of their electric car. So, vehicle-to-grid has the potential to democratize EV ownership.”

    “More than benefiting the energy transition, smart charging greatly improves the charging experience and can optimize the cost of charging – all together, that could lower the barrier to EV adoption.”

    Lowering the barriers to EV adoption

    Does all this sound futuristic? “It’s not,” Pieter assures. “At Vattenfall InCharge we’re working on this, along with several car makers and hardware manufacturers. I expect (smart) charging, based on ISO15118, to become a reality in 3 to 5 years from now. More than benefiting the energy transition, smart charging will greatly improve the charging experience for EV drivers. Add to that the potential price benefits we mentioned earlier, the massive ramp-up of charging infrastructure and the optimization of navigation systems, and the barriers to EV adoption become much lower.”

    Making smart choices

    Last but not least: how feasible is electrifying other types of road transport, such as commercial vans, long-haul trucks or buses?

    “Every new public bus is already electric, and eVans are becoming increasingly popular. As more low-emission zones are established, van owners will be required to switch to electric. However, the situation is different for long-haul trucks, as driving electric is difficult when you have to crisscross Europe. Long-haul trucks simply require bigger, heavier batteries, which could mean the trucks can ship less cargo. Even so, I would not be surprised if all-electric long-haul trucks hit our roads in the future.

    Ultimately, the key to a successful energy transition is choosing the energy source that best fits your needs. When it comes to passenger cars and vans, electric is definitely the only way forward,” Pieter concludes.

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