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12 December 2019

UK energy supplier takes step to necessary overhaul of EV charging

Centrica’s smart grid expansion continues this week, after the UK energy supplier announced a trial project with national car park operator NCP, to deploy EV charging points aimed at professional drivers that need to charge in public places. It’s a promising first step, but parking infrastructure globally will need to be overhauled to accommodate EV demands.

To this end, multi-storey carparks are excellent candidates for becoming major grid-scale assets to utilities and energy firms. If the appropriate vehicle-to-grid (V2G) infrastructure can be installed, these buildings become largescale storage batteries – able to charge and discharge as needed, to accommodate local grid conditions.

As EV charging is thought to be a looming headache for electricity providers, being able to schedule their charging is of paramount importance. Having a working population all arrive home at similar times and plug their EVs in to charge could have a crippling impact on the local grid, and so there needs to be a mechanism in place to enable charging for each vehicle – staggering the charges to maintain stability but ensure that they are all fully charged by the morning.

But parking throws another wrinkle into the equation, as the V2G potential has a much shorter window in which it can operate. There is a great mix in dwell times available, with some using car parks for less than an hour but many leaving cars there for the whole day and even overnight. This would make depleting or recharging the battery difficult, if you are not certain when the EV’s owner is coming back for it.

However, that is not such a concern if charging is not the main goal. If parking were to remain the primary motivation, then a car park operator would be able to offer free or discounted parking in exchange for the V2G capacity. A sufficiently motivated carpark operator would then be able to drum up enough battery capacity to compete in demand response (DR) events.

This is not such a mad idea as it might initially sound. Currently, it’s thought that less than 10% of EV charging is done in public places, with some thinking it is below 5%. Thankfully, parking has a somewhat captive audience, and as people need to park in public spots, anywhere they leave their cars could become a V2G asset.

There are, of course, some logistics to get past. There would need to be an easy way to plug the car into the electricity supply, which would require compatible chargers and someone there to hook it up. Wireless charging pads might solve that problem in time, but at present, this would need to be a manual process, likely done by the EV owner or a carpark attendant.

But the major drawback to this idea is that EV still need charging, and many drivers won’t have the option of charging fully at home, and then allowing their cars to be V2G participants while they are parked away from home, only to be driven home and then recharged. Most consumers are put off the idea of EVs by the logistical headache of charging them, and if the goal is to see mass EV adoption, then there needs to be sufficient public charging infrastructure. Turning such a valuable resource into an incentivized V2G platform would be a waste, to this end.

The intermediate step, before we begin trying to solve mass-market adoption questions, is to accommodate specific fleets of vehicles into EV charging and V2G. This is the main goal of the Centrica-NCP project, but other targets will include delivery fleets, business fleets, and public transport vehicles.

“While there has been a great deal of research in to how to make charging faster, little has been done to enhance convenience, so that charging can fit comfortably into our busy lives,” said Andreas Atkins, Centrica Innovations’ head of electric vehicle strategy.

Centrica says the first pilot charge park, aimed at those professional drivers, will be available in January – pretty much a year after Centrica launched its dedicated electric-mobility division. In this year, Centrica also launched a combined solar-plus-storage-plus charging offering, aimed EV fleets, signed a charging deal with Ford, and announced that its own fleet of vehicles would be electrified in the near future. It is also involved in the Optimize Prime project, in the UK, where UKPN, Royal Mail, Uber, and SSEN are investigating how to lessen the impact of EV fleets on the wider grid.