The UK Government recently announced that there will be no new cars powered solely by internal combustion engines on UK roads by 2040. The primary current alternative and chargeable electric cars represent a challenge for the UK’s electricity transmission network. This, in turn, can have implications for Brexit negotiations as the UK works with EU partners to meet electricity demand at peak times.
In July 2017, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Department for Transport published the UK Plan for Tackling Roadside Nitrogen Dioxide Concentrations.
In this plan, the Government announced its intention to “end the sale of all new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans”. The alternatives to conventional vehicles include electric and hybrid vehicles, whose widespread production and use will likely have a marked effect on the UK’s electricity transmission network.
Another kind of gridlock
The National Grid, the owner and operator of electricity transmission networks in England and Wales, assumes that electric vehicles will make up between 30% and over 90% of new car sales in the UK by 2040.
The commonly considered alternative to cars that run on fossil fuels are electric vehicles with lithium-ion batteries. These batteries are used in everyday electronical devices such as phones and laptops – and just as for phones and laptops, these batteries need charging.
Drivers of electric cars are most likely to plug their vehicles into the grid when they get home from work. National Grid estimates that this will push up energy demand by 5 to 30 GW at peak times. Since electricity cannot currently be efficiently stored on a large scale, additional electricity must be generated and transmitted instantly on demand. Following the National Grid’s report, it has been suggested that the generation capacity of up to ten nuclear power plants may be required to cater for the possibility of an additional 30 GW of peak demand.
Peak electricity demand is not actually met by “switching on” nuclear power plants. In fact, peak demand lasts for short periods of time; typically around 5.30pm on a winter’s day when households put the lights and heating on while businesses and factories have not yet closed.
Demand at peak times can be met by generating facilities that are easy and economical to switch on and not dependent on nature’s elements, like gas-powered plants. The scenario where electric vehicles add 30 GW (just under 50%) to projected peak demand is the most unlikely (albeit possible) future path analysed by National Grid, as it assumes that there would be no cars powered by diesel or petrol (including hybrid vehicles), old or new, in use in the UK by that time. The scenario that National Grid considers most likely adds 5 GW, or 8%, to projected peak demand in 2040.
Electricity supply after Brexit
While still a member of the EU, the UK is part of the European Single Market for Electricity and Gas. But as Prime Minister Theresa May stated in her Florence speech in September: “We will no longer be members of its single market or its customs union”.
The first point to consider is UK’s membership of the EU’s regulators for electricity and gas markets: Agency for Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) and European Network Transmission System Operators (ENTSO) for Gas and Energy. If the UK were to keep trading gas and electricity in the EU, it may need to consider its post-Brexit membership and influence on EU’s regulatory bodies.
Secondly, Brexit could make the UK grid more vulnerable during peak demand times. At the moment, around 7% of the UK’s electricity is imported1. Electricity can flow both ways between UK and neighbouring EU countries (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland). Depending on the price differential, if electricity from the mainland is cheaper, it can flow via interconnectors into UK’s grid and vice versa. The capacity of interconnectors between UK and EU is set to double by 2021. The UK could be more vulnerable to electricity shortages or less advantageous electricity prices if the interconnectors were operated on a basis other than price arbitrage.
To manage these vulnerabilities, it is likely that the government will have to consider whether it can and will commit to maintaining the current mechanisms of operating interconnectors. In negotiations with its European electricity trade partners, the UK may also want to consider mitigating the vulnerability to shortages by using the existing market with spare electricity capacity.
The phasing out of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is a decision that will have many knock-on effects on the UK’s electricity supply and transmission system. Is it likely that UK government will have to articulate a policy for dealing with its European partners in electricity trade to mitigate possible risks associated with widespread adoption of electric vehicles. Whatever lies on UK’s post-petrol road ahead, it will be a fine balancing exercise.
Rozalie is on Agora’s Board of Trustees. She is a land economist by training and graduated from Clare College, Cambridge in 2016. Since then, she has been training to become an insurance underwriter in the energy sector.