This article first appeared in our digital Electric Nation EV special issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published online on 03 September 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox
The UK and the world are switching to clean energy and transport, and electric charging is going to be the backbone of our clean energy system.
Today we’re still at low numbers, but seeing an electric car in the street is no longer the ‘wow’ moment it was a few years ago – particularly in cities. Looking ahead to the next few years, all projections show the electric vehicle (EV) market is about to accelerate massively.
Did you know that more electric cars were sold in the UK in 2020 than in all previous years combined, and that in 2021 we’re well ahead of schedule to more than double that?
That’s great news for our health, neighbourhoods, wellbeing and future – not to mention the raw pleasure of driving.
It’s also a pattern that’s repeating around the world; we’re at the tipping point of a global transformation in several of the world’s largest industries. This fourth industrial revolution, switching our energy and transport systems from fossil fuels to clean electricity, has some big implications for how we live our lives.
To manage such a wholesale revolution at speed, we need a complete overhaul of the way we think about our electricity infrastructure.
Contrary to common belief, the National Grid – the core of our national electricity system – is probably going to be fine. It’s made to last, with sufficient capacity and flexibility built in. At the other end of the spectrum, homeowners and tenants are increasingly having their smart energy needs accounted for at home, in an increasingly digital, connected and smart world.
The missing piece is what’s in between: the distribution network. The poles and cables you can see outside your window are the electricity grid’s roads. Many were built 50 years ago for a radically different world, with much less power.
Electrifying heat and transport on a tight deadline means there’s a growing market for new bits of hardware with high electrical loads, that can double or triple the power our homes use.
Some have estimated that, even if we wanted to and money were no issue, we wouldn’t have enough time to dig up all the streets and replace the cables if we’re serious about getting to 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030.
So if we want to keep buying EVs, we need a solution that’s smarter than digging up old cables – and that solution is software.
The key to the best advances in most modern technology is software. Think about the best mobile phones or laptops, or the best buying experience or customer service from your favourite stores and brands. Part of it is build quality and design, but the majority is software.
While the rockets come in different shapes and sizes, years of progress in data, communications and computing make the difference between Apollo 11 on the one hand and SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic on the other.
So making advanced products that users love is about software. The same applies to electric vehicles – in particular to electric vehicle charging.
There’s a huge opportunity to use smarter tech in today’s energy and transport revolution: we’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
Instead of ‘energy meters in a box’, we should be thinking about ‘computers in a box’, with a powerful cloud directing electricity to where it’s needed most.
It’s big data, real-time connectivity and intelligent control that’s going to help us accelerate the switch to clean energy and transport, making a 100% clean power grid possible while reducing the cost of energy.
We also need to radically rethink how we use our cars; the average car is parked for 23 hours of the day and, where electrified, it is effectively a battery on wheels. At a national scale we’ll have one giant storage resource to balance our clean power grid, and the charger is what will connect our energy and transport systems.
One of the exciting things about that is that it is a worldwide transformation, but one that is highly localised and personalised.
When we talk about solving problems on local grids we need local solutions. It’s intelligent control of the battery in your car that’s going to help keep the lights on in your neighbourhood, charging with a local surplus of renewable power and supporting your local energy system.
So while each charger forms part of a giant intelligent network, the result is highly local.
EVs also put control back into people’s hands. If I asked you how much you’ve spent on petrol in the last three years, or how much you used last Wednesday, would you be able to say? In the age of electrification, distribution, information and data, you can.
Intelligent software enables us to quantify how much we’re saving from going electric, visualise how much carbon we’re saving and, with smarter energy tariffs, even who and where we’re buying the power from. Software means consumer empowerment.
To create a service we can really get excited about in the clean energy transition, we need powerful platforms. Accessible and intimate customer service, just-in-time manufacturing and same-day delivery can all be powered by software.
It was just 10 years ago that I had my first ride in an electric car: a G-Wiz, one of just 5,000 sold globally.
Purple and yellow and made of plastic, you could fit in the back seat if you sat sideways, and it could drive 50 miles on one charge, at up to 50mph.
Electric cars have come a long way since and are now faster, better to drive and getting cheaper than their petrol and diesel counterparts. However, they’re just one piece of our electric future.
2021 has already been dubbed ‘the year of the electric van,’ but we’re talking about so much more than that.
The market leaders in driverless car technology are proposing ‘level 5’ autonomy from 2022 – that means driving with hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, reading a book.
Aviation and shipping are responsible for 12% and 3% of transport emissions and rising fast, but fully electric car ferries are already operational in Europe, with ‘mega chargers’ on either shore charging their batteries between legs. China is piloting fully electric container ships.
150-seater electric aircraft are touted for 2030, and Norway has banned short-haul fossil-fuelled flights from 2040.
Even more excitingly, flying pizza delivered by zero-carbon eVTOL drones for last-mile delivery services is being piloted in the United States, while in the UK supermarkets are trialling wheeled delivery robots. Our first driverless aerial taxis for public use are planned for the middle of this decade.
Air travel today is all about long distances, large jets, large airports and a guilty conscience. In future it could be a complex network of many smaller vehicles with rooftop walk-on/off services.
If it moves it can be electrified, and as the world goes electric only truly smart charging can balance a 100% clean power grid.
To keep accelerating the switch to clean power and providing products people love, we need to focus on powerful software, intelligent design and user experience – made in Britain.