TWO EXPERTS: ONE BELIEVER - ONE SCEPTIC
The X files:
Will we all soon be driving electric-only vehicles?
The Future Energy Scenarios 2018 report makes projections for how many electric vehicles (EVs) will be on UK roads in the coming years. In all scenarios, this number is expected to surpass 18 million by 2038 and could even be as high as 32 million.
It’s no secret that this will present challenges – mostly in terms of electricity demand – but they are challenges I believe will be overcome. National Grid predicts that, by 2038, EVs will represent between 10 percent and 15 percent of the peak-time usage. However, the good news is, the magnitude of this could be lessened by consumer engagement with smart or managed charging, which would take demand away from peak times.
The current charging infrastructure for EVs varies by location and application. At the moment, the fastest 50kW chargers are confined to motorway service stations and other locations where rapid charging is necessary.
In homes, single-phase chargers with up to a 7kW output are most typical, but even these can significantly increase the peak demand of a residential development. This is why the rollout of smart charging technology is so vital – by managing the times at which we would all charge our EVs, this demand would be more evenly spread. Added to this, there is the potential to not only manage when our electric vehicles would draw power, but to also use the cars themselves as distributed battery storage to actually improve the resilience of the grid.
Research suggests that, between 2023 and 2035, the cost of purchasing and using an EV will become lower than an equivalent new car with an internal combustion engine. This is likely to mean that, in 20 years’ time, none of us will be buying a new car with an internal combustion engine. It’s a prediction roughly in line with the government target for the majority of new cars and vans to be electric by 2030 – and it’s one that I believe we can handle with the right approach to smart-charging infrastructure.
While most projections indicate that the market will shift to EVs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles actually present an attractive alternative. These vehicles combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, and the by-product of this reaction is water.
Hydrogen used in fuel cells has an energy-to-weight ratio that’s 10 times greater than lithium-ion batteries. Consequently, it offers much greater range while being lighter and occupying smaller volumes. It can also be recharged in a few minutes similar to conventional gasoline vehicles. However, it’s worth noting they are considerably more expensive than even battery EVs and there are currently fewer than 10 active hydrogen filling stations in the UK.
Unfortunately, the latest technology for producing sustainable hydrogen fuel, such as electrolysis and proton-exchange membrane (PEM), has huge losses in efficiency. Japan, the biggest supporter for hydrogen fuel technology, is obtaining its supply of hydrogen from Australia, where high volumes of hydrogen are produced via steam reforming.
In truth, looking at current trajectories and considering the existing obstacles to adoption, battery EVs do seem set to eclipse these hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. However, I remain quietly sceptical… we have to remember that these are industries that are prone to disruption, and the future of the sector is highly sensitive to any technological advancements in both battery and fuel cell technology.
In light of this, I believe it’s impossible to make truly firm predictions of which technology will dominate the future private vehicle sector. The likelihood is that a combination of hydrogen and electric technologies will emerge to suit society’s requirements.