Image: Norio Nakayama
Image: Norio Nakayama

The National Grid has warned that the rise of the electric car may be too rapid for the grid to cope during periods of peak demand. But the National Grid forgets about convergence.


The National Grid reckons that the number of electric cars silently travelling Britain’s streets or parked, could rise from 90,000 today to around nine million by 2030. It warns that this will lead to a rapid increase in demand for electricity, reversing a trend we have seen in recent years of falling demand.

It warns that if people start-charging up their cars when they get home from work, say 5pm to 6pm, peak demand could be 8GW higher than it is now.  To put that in context, the planned Hinkley Point nuclear reactors will have a capacity of around 3.5GW.

Therefore, the grid won’t be able to cope with peak demand.

That seems like a worrying warning, but there is another side to this one.

Convergence is a word used to describe what happens when different technologies, often developed for quite different purposes, come together.

And in this case convergence means the Internet of Things, AI processing data, converging with electric cars.

To explain, the big problem with renewables is that they are intermittent.   On a sunny day, solar may be creating more electricity than we need, but at night time it is not so effective.  Wind turbines are not so good when it is not windy. But what critics miss is the Internet of Things, and batteries.

With some devices, smart use, can change the equation. We put the kettle on when we need it – leading to surge in demand for electricity when certain popular TV shows finish. But other devices, for example, electric cars, storage heaters, and air conditioning units, can be charged up – or heated up, or even cooled down, at whatever time is the most efficient.  It matters not when an electric car is charged up, providing it is sufficiently charged when it is next needed.  If it is required the next day for a long drive, then it may need several hours of charging.  If it is required the next day for a quick drive to the local station – then it may only need charging for 30 minutes.

Smart technologies, making use of the Internet of Things, and from that big data, can then choose the optimal moment, or moments, to charge, taking into account usage elsewhere.

In fairness, the National Grid did take some account of the possibility of shifting charging times, and said that by doing this, peak demand may be reduced to 3.5GW higher than at present.

But it seems improbable that it took into account the mix with renewables and how big data and the Internet of Things, could be used to take into account moments when electricity generated by renewables is higher.

There is another point about electric cars and the grid.  The batteries in the cars themselves could be used as a source of back-up – feeding electricity from the cars back into the grid.

Nissan has been experimenting with this very idea, they have been testing using 100 Nissan Leafs in a grid to grid trial – feeding electricity stored in the Leafs’ batteries back onto the grid.

Now there are many reasons why such an idea may not be commercially viable at the moment – for one thing, an electric car’s battery storage is not that great, the last thing owners want at the moment is to use some of their precious storage to feed back onto the grid.  For another thing, a battery can only survive a limited number of re-charges, so if it’s used for multiple purposes then it won’t last so long – and batteries big enough to support an electric car are expensive.

Indeed, the National Grid’s head of strategy, Roisin Quinn, said that there was still debate “over whether it will become commercially viable to flow electricity from a vehicle back onto the network to provide network services.”

But the point is, this technology is advancing – battery capacity is rising, as is its longevity related to the number of re-charges.

Based on the current state of technology, a surge in use of electricity caused by a sudden jump in electric cars would indeed create too much pressure for the National Grid, but the technology that will exist in 2030 will be altogether more sophisticated.

And for entrepreneurs, there is an opportunity – the problem outlined by the National Grid has many potential fixes, no doubt, right now, many entrepreneurs are working, maybe from their garage, on a fix.