Electric Vehicles: How will we meet the demand?

As attention turns to opening up the economy and returning to a new post COVID normal, the environment and climate change remain high on the political agenda. The EU launched the ‘Green Recovery Alliance’ on 14th April 2020 and days after, EU environment ministers called for the European Green Deal to be placed at the centre of Europe’s post-pandemic recovery plan.

Closer to home, Business Secretary Alok Sharma, said that “while we rightly focus on fighting the immediate crisis of the coronavirus, we must not lose sight of the huge challenges of climate change”. Moreover, we cannot forget the commitment the UK has made to stop the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 in line with the Paris Agreement. 

Along with improving the countries public transport infrastructure, the increased adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) across the UK will be critical to reducing the dependency on petrol and diesel cars and upholding the UK’s commitments laid out in the Paris Agreement. There are approximately 100,000 electric vehicles in operation across the UK, which compares with a total car fleet of 31 million. This shows that there is still much to be done to convince the public and manufacturers alike that electric vehicles can provide a reliable and more sustainable alternative to traditional petrol and diesel cars.

A recent survey by Aviva showed that 81% of people had concerns regarding battery technology and range, while 64% raised concerns of high associated costs.1 As the technology required to support them improves and both the build and operating costs reduce, the switch to electric is expected to gather momentum over the next few decades.

It is estimated that by 2050 25 million pure electric vehicles (PEVs), those that are 100% electric-powered, will be on our roads across the UK. However, there is still much to be done to achieve this target.

For the transition to EVs to truly take hold, and for the UK to be able to shift away from a heavy reliance on petrol and diesel cars, a number of critical considerations need to be addressed. From understanding the impact on electricity demand, to equipping public infrastructure to be able to support mass EV adoption. From improving charging technology to increasing battery storage. These are just some of the key questions, and potential barriers, that need to be answered if the UK is to successfully transition away from fossil fuel-powered cars.

This article is the first in a series that will examine the key trends associated with the EV industry. Throughout the series we will look at what increased EV adoption means for electricity demand, what it means for our nation’s critical infrastructure, how the government and supply chain can normalise EVs, and the future role of ‘big tech’ in what is sure to be one of the fastest growing industries over the next ten years.

In this instalment we look at what more EVs mean for electricity demand and how might the industry here in the UK react to meet this challenge head on.

What will more electric vehicles do to our electricity demand?

The total energy demand for road vehicles is predicted to fall with the phasing out of diesel and petrol cars. Currently, the total energy demand for road transport is currently around 500 TWh per year and predictions expect this to fall somewhere closer to 200 TWh by 2050. The simple reason for this is because electric vehicles are far more energy efficient than fossil fuelled ones. 

However, while the overall energy demand for road transport may reduce, due to less demand for fossil fuels, the demand for electricity could increase by 46TWh.

National Grid further predict that by 2030 electric vehicles could add 3.5 gigawatts to peak demand across the UK – the equivalent to the amount of energy generated by 1,442 wind turbines.

In Q3 of 2019 fossil fuels made up 40% of the UK’s electricity generation. If we are to truly transition away from fossil fuels and meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, this 40% of generation currently attributed to fossil fuels would have to be supplemented by different sources and currently it’s unclear what source that may be. Progress is being made in the energy transition and in 2019 37% of electricity generated in the UK was by renewable sources – up from 33% in 20182 while as of 2020 Britain is reliant on coal for just 3% of its electricity output. Nevertheless, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear generation will need to be significantly increased to bridge the long-term gap left behind by fossil fuels and this requires a clear strategy that brings together government policy, regulators and the entire energy supply chain.

How are we going to meet the increase in demand?

Having recognised that switching away from fossil fuels to power our vehicles will require a significant increase in electricity demand the question posed is then, just how could this be achieved?

In a previous article, my colleagues Rachel Eyres and Edward Charlish explored how Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) are preparing for this by transitioning from the traditional DNO model to take on system operator functions such as active network management.3 This uses new technology and real time data to make interventions on the network helping to manage supply and demand on the grid during peak and quiet times. This change, recognised as the transition from DNO to DSO (Distribution System Operator), will be critical to managing the increased demand placed on the grid by EVs by allowing multi-directional flow of electricity in accordance with demand levels. It is estimated that active network management could create an additional capacity of up to 500MW across London and the South East of England alone.

If programmes like active network management can help free up capacity – what are the viable energy sources to replace fossil fuels? 

The UK has invested heavily in offshore wind generation in the last decade in an effort to cement itself as a world leader in renewable energy. This investment is only set to increase over the next 10 years with the government and industry looking to increase capacity from 8,500MW in 2019 to around 20,000MW by the mid-2020s and increase wind generation to 30% of the UK’s energy output – up from the 7% it currently provides. Wind presents a viable alternative energy source to fossil fuels; however, it is not yet a reliable enough source to replace it entirely. This places great emphasis on the UK to have a diverse portfolio of energy sources if it is to be able to meet the increased demand that electric vehicles will bring.

Nuclear power is attributed with providing 21% of the UK’s electricity each year and while many see nuclear as the most viable alternative to fossil fuels, the long-term future of the sector in the UK is unclear. Burning uranium is up to 8,000 times more efficient than burning fossil fuels which means that, although there are far less global uranium reserves when compared to fossil fuels, the potential energy source is far greater. While the greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear sources are also significantly less, draw backs clearly remain with handling and disposal of nuclear waste that could still curtail long term use in the UK. 

There are 15 nuclear reactors across the UK but almost half of this capacity is set to be retired by 2025. Whilst the government states its commitment to the growth of nuclear energy in the UK, it would be remiss to think that the sector is in a position to fill the gap left by fossil fuels and support the increased electricity demand that EVs will create in the next decade alone.

So what is the answer?

It’s clear that there is no silver bullet that will satisfy the increase in demand caused by the adoption of electric vehicles. One solution alone will not fill the gap and even multiple solutions combined would fall short. To meet the additional demand, and to meet the UK’s ambitious climate targets, the government, industry regulators and energy providers must come together under a single strategy that accelerates innovation, promotes collaboration and drives efficiency. The smart meter roll-out will also be central to this, offering greater access to real time data that can be used to not just change consumers consumption habits but support the generation plants and power networks to accurately guide electricity generation.

Innovative projects such as Optimise Prime, are doing exactly that. An Ofgem-funded project that brings together companies such as UK Power Networks, Centrica, Royal Mail, Uber, Hitachi and SSE Networks - Optimise Prime is the world’s biggest trial of commercial EVs. The project aims to understand and minimise the impact that electrification of commercial vehicles will have on our distribution networks. It will use this insight to develop both technical and commercial solutions that will save consumers money and enable faster transition to electric for commercial fleets and private hire vehicle operators.

If we stand a chance of becoming carbon neutral, more investment in initiatives like Optimise Prime and the transition from DNO to DSO are essential. The accelerated adoption of commercial EVs is expected to save 2.7m tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent to running London’s entire bus fleet for four years. As we begin to emerge from post-COVID lockdown and launch the recovery of our economy, now is the chance to kick start a green recovery.


In the next article of the series, my colleague Nick Robinson explores the critical infrastructure that needs to be in place if electric vehicles are to truly be able to replace diesel and petrol cars.



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