How electric cars can help save the grid

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Electric vehicles could help answer the question of how much renewable energy capacity to build, and how fast.

Just think of it as a battery that can also take you to the shops. Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
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The Conversation

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Just think of it as a battery that can also take you to the shops. Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY


A key question amid the consternation over the current state of Australia’s east coast energy market has been how much renewable energy capacity to build, and how fast. The Conversation

But help could be at hand from a surprising source: electric vehicles. By electrifying our motoring, we would boost demand for renewable energy from the grid, while smoothing out some of the destabilising effects that the recent boom in household solar has had on our energy networks.

Australia’s electricity infrastructure was built largely without renewable energy in mind, and primarily to maintain reliability for when demand peaks. The high uptake of solar panels, while good for reducing carbon emissions, has reduced grid demand by 5-10% in Australia, and as a side-effect has lowered the value of network assets, raised power prices, and made the grid trickier to manage.

Electric vehicles can ease the pressure on spikes in electricity prices by adding storage capacity. They are effectively a distributed storage system – with smart meters they can feed electricity back into the grid when prices are high. These vehicles’ battery reserves can thus help with the balancing of the grid and provide energy in the peak period. Electric vehicles would also add battery storage to the grid at the same time, which can reduce the need to size the grid for demand peaks.

One way to think of electric vehicles is essentially as batteries you can drive. So before the government pursues plans such as spending A$2 billion on expanding the Snowy Hydro scheme, it should do a cost-benefit analysis comparing the returns from similar infrastructure investment in electric vehicles.

According to the Office of the Chief Economist, Australia produced 6 billion kilowatt hours of solar PV in 2015 – enough to run almost 2 million cars, equivalent to 10% of Australia’s total current passenger vehicle fleet. Increasing demand for grid-sourced electricity will put downward pressure on network prices, which typically are roughly half of the cost of a household energy tariff. At a time when demand has declined and policy settings have created lots of investor uncertainty, the increased demand will also encourage investment in new generation capacity.

Electric vehicles can also increase economic activity in Australia and improve air quality and health. Australia has nearly 20 million cars that together drive 280 billion km each year. Passenger vehicles alone consume 20 billion litres of fuel each year in Australia. At A$1.50 per litre, that is A$30 billion per year that is burned, with roughly half the revenues going to multinational oil companies and the other half going into federal coffers as fuel tax.

The health costs of pollution from vehicle emissions adds a further A$1,450 per household per year in major cities, an annual impost of some A$14.5 billion on household and government budgets – roughly the same as what the government earns in fuel tax.

If all vehicles were electric, the same distance could be driven with electricity costing less than A$15 billion, because electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines (although this is slightly offset by minor grid losses). This would thus deliver a double saving, in terms of both household fuel bills and reduced health costs.

Changing gear

Of course this won’t happen overnight, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The electricity grid will need time to adjust and add extra renewable capacity, as the cost of electric cars comes down and coal power stations get old.

Both economic analysis and recent political experience suggest that encouraging investment in renewable energy is expensive, especially if the only driving factor is the need to cut greenhouse emissions (important though that is).

Here is where electric vehicles can really help the grid. Swapping petrol or diesel cars for electric ones on a large enough scale will increase Australia’s flatlining electricity demand, making it more lucrative for energy suppliers to invest in new generation capacity. Given the increasing cost of gas, and the declining support for coal, on balance most of this demand will be met with new renewable capacity, facilitated by the addition of all these new “batteries you can drive”.

A suggested pathway to energy sustainability via electric cars. Adapted from Andrich et al. Inequality as an obstacle to sustainable energy use, Energy for Sustainable Development

Government policy should be to set some high-level national interest objectives, such as maintaining gas for domestic use, and then simply not interfere with the market as much as possible. But political leaders are struggling to keep up with the rapid changes in technology and the market. The pathway to sustainability would have been smoother and faster if governments had looked to WA for a gas reservation policy, not intervened by closing coal, and reduced the subsidies that allowed solar power to grow so disruptively fast (particularly in wealthier households).

Making more effort to promote electric cars would also have allowed a more successful transition to renewable energy and reduced the price shocks being suffered by eastern Australia in areas such as the gas market. Fortunately, it is not too late.

Hitting the road

Investing in a new car is not a decision most households take lightly. This is especially true of electric cars, which are expensive, are not marketed widely, are available in only a limited range of models, and are subject to concerns about charging and range.

Presently, electric vehicles are only affordable for higher-income households, which is ironic given the benefits they would offer lower-income households in terms of fuel budgeting and reduced exposure to urban pollution and health costs.

One-third of an electric vehicle’s cost is batteries, which are rapidly coming down in price. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2022, electric models will cost the same as their petrol counterparts. That will be the point of liftoff for sales.

Meanwhile, electric cars have an undoubted cool factor. Buying one is a powerful way to show you care about your community’s future. Pardon the pun, but just look at the way Tesla founder Elon Musk electrified the debate over South Australia’s electricity problems.

For governments, electric vehicles offer an opportunity to make significant inroads on environmental and health problems, not to mention urban planning and infrastructure. The demand for car batteries could also boost related industries, such as lithium mining, in which Australia is a world leader.

Feeling electric

Simple, inexpensive policies could encourage electric vehicle uptake, such as reducing registration fees and stamp duty on electric cars and allowing them to drive in bus or other priority lanes, while also hiking the tax on diesel cars that cause cancer.

Other emerging transport trends, such as car-sharing clubs and ride-sharing apps, could also hasten the uptake of electric vehicles. Sharing increases the number of kilometres driven by each individual vehicle, meaning that the upfront costs are paid back more rapidly, leaving the owner with a car that is paid off and cheaper to run than a petrol or diesel model.

These facts are not lost on the car manufacturers themselves. But given the potential co-benefits to the electricity grid and community health, we might expect power utilities and health agencies to join the push to actively promote electric vehicles – not to mention politicians who are looking to deal with our energy issues and win a few votes along they way.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. trackdaze 3 years ago

    If tesla is the example you only need to be able draw down on its battery during peak say maybe 5kwhr to assist the grid. At most other times it can charge when demand is lowest or supply is in excess.

    For the individual though. It still warrants dedicated home storage up to maybe 90% of your annual needs. You can then occassionally draw on the electric vehicle for your own peak demand. In short a electric vehicle mayassist in satisfying all your consumption and reduce the size of your home storage.

  2. Michael Dufty 3 years ago

    It’s hard to see how it would work. My EV holds about $5 worth of electricity, and you’d need to pay me several hundred dollars to accept the inconvenience of it possibly not being fully charged when I want it. Even Musk says it makes more sense to put a dedicated battery in the house than try to draw down car batteries. I think as battery costs drop it will make even more sense to have a separate battery. Admittedly if the car had a much better range (like a Tesla) the inconvenience of not being fully charged would be much less, but it still seems awfully complicated.

    • Carl Raymond S 3 years ago

      I think EV’s supporting RE is true, but not in the way pictured. What a significant percentage of EVs on the road will do is spur a battery pricing and performance war that will drive down the cost of storage (powerwalls, powerpacks etc.) to the point that coal (nor ICEVs) simply cannot compete. Already solar and wind are significantly cheaper. It’s only the cost of storage that keeps coal in the game. The game changed in January this year when the Nevada Gigafactory startup knocked the price per kWh down a whack.

    • Andy 3 years ago

      My PHEV holds around 12kWh of energy. If I’m using 2-4kWh of it every evening for my peak demand which can then be recharged over night so it’s ready in the morning. The car could be charged during the day from solar when I’m at work. The main problem is we don’t have the software and apps for it yet. So the house does not know about the car’s charging state. Neither does the car’s electronic knows about my schedule the next morning or the energy need in my house (or even my neighbours house). If all these system could work together, it would help a lot.

  3. Rod 3 years ago

    I think reality is, as with California, an increase in EVs might exacerbate the evening peak load.
    I charge my ebike battery when I go to bed but most people will come home, plug in and go in to watch MKR.
    I understand you can probably purchase a timer or some EVs might have a timer setting but unless there are $ incentives most won’t bother.

    • tom laux 3 years ago

      They all have timers and we charge off peak.Ev timers are set so the batteries are fully charged just before you take off for the day, to minimise the time the battery is fully charged. The volt even has an easy setting were you just put in the time you leave in the morning!

      • Rod 3 years ago

        Nice, I wish my BMS or charger was that clever.

      • Michael Dufty 3 years ago

        No timer on our EV, no incentive to charge off peak either (flat rates) so unless there is an opportunity to charge on solar the next day we just plug it in whatever time we get home.

  4. Cooma Doug 3 years ago

    In the kodak discussions in the 90s, even the most optimistic could not see what we have today.
    Imagine your car is your energy and travel manager. It has arrangements with other car energy managers. Im thinking all cars have the option.
    There might be 100 cars in this network. Maybe a hundred thousand. Some will be your neighbour. Some will be in the same building complex.
    Your car and the others on this network are the poles and wires to the main infrastructure grid. When plugged in at home, at the movies or the beach, the car will be charged and perform energy swaps and sales.
    Most of these trades would be virtual and implimented in the most efficient way. Your car energy manager would be coordinating with the other cars in this network when plugged in or not.

  5. MaxG 3 years ago

    All wishful thinking, and not understanding that a car leaves in the morning and comes home in the evening. Hence, it cannot be charged at home during the day, and would not provide energy to the home during the night, as it would be flat the next day and not get you home if you dare to drive to work, not being able to charge at work. Period.
    Hence, while this story can be true on occasion, it does not represent a practical and widely accepted approach / possibility /scenario.

    Also, the home battery (if it exists) needs to be pretty big to store the energy the car would need to charge… in addition to cater for self-consumption part… Red Herring.

    • Calamity_Jean 3 years ago

      I agree, not gonna happen unless many / most workplaces install charging stations for their employees.

      I can’t imagine that car companies that guarantee their batteries for X miles would be too happy with this scheme either, because batteries wear out according to how many charge — discharge cycles they’ve had, and this would give the car’s battery a lot more cycles than the mileage would indicate.

      The main use I can think of for electric cars to be to the grid is to charge slower or faster depending on what the supply of power is at that moment.

    • Andy 3 years ago

      The car can be charged during the day from solar and discharged (partly) during the night to compensate peak demand. Most cars are sitting in the carpark during the day doing nothing…

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