As Australia’s appetite for electric vehicles (EVs) revs up, networks will play a critical role. The commercial rollout of EVs in Australia presents a massive opportunity – not only can it make our grid more efficient, it could deliver cheaper energy for everyone. But the wrong policy direction could be a dangerous roadblock.

Energy Networks Australia is the national peak body representing Australia’s gas distribution and electricity distribution and transmission companies that deliver the electricity EVs will need to power up.

Energy Networks Australia Chief Executive Officer Andrew Dillon recently addressed the Senate Select Committee on EVs, which is inquiring into the use and manufacture of the vehicles in Australia.

Key messages for the committee included:

  • Supporting the commercial rollout of EVs will require careful planning to ensure network businesses can continue to deliver reliable, safe and affordable energy supply to all customers
  • Policy makers must involve network businesses early in the process to help inform policy development, ensure governments can maximise the benefits of increased electric vehicle uptake, and that unintended consequences are avoided.

There are two types of EVs in Australia. The commonly understood version, that is commercially available in Australia, sources electricity from the grid and stores it in a battery. The alternatives are fuel cell electric vehicles that convert hydrogen within the vehicle to electricity, to then power the engine. Hydrogen vehicles are commercially available internationally and will soon be available on the Australian market. Both models have a strategic role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and are key components of Australia’s transition to a clean energy future.

Changes in the current landscape

So what does this mean? 

Inevitably, the uptake of EVs – just like the uptake of solar and battery systems – will put additional pressure on the grid right across the national energy market.

Mr Dillon said Energy Networks Australia was collaborating with the Australian Energy Market Operator to develop a coordinated approach to improve the electricity system as it transformed to meet the changing demands placed on the grid.

“The Open Energy Networks project is about how to best integrate household solar and storage, as well as electric vehicles, into the grid, so they can work in harmony and help ensure quality and reliability of supply to accommodate two-way power flows,” he said.

“The problem lies in that Australia’s networks and their supporting regulatory frameworks were not designed for the significant uptake of EVs, and the consequential demand for charging.

“If the integration of electric vehicles into the grid is poorly orchestrated, it could exacerbate demand pressure placed on the grid, as presented above – stopping owners from drawing down and limiting the number of EV connections – or worse, causing system outages.

“If done well however, electric vehicles present an opportunity for our nation. If their rollout is managed with proper network industry consultation and consideration, a number of risks and challenges can be worked through so we can deal with these issues of peak demand charging.”

Impact of poorly orchestrated energy resources (including EVs).

Impact of poorly orchestrated energy resources (including EVs).

The two most common approaches to refuelling EVs would be through either household refuelling points, or via fast charging infrastructure, similar in function to petrol stations. Both options place different demands on networks, however it is only one aspect of a rapidly evolving power system, which requires increasingly complex orchestration of energy demand versus supply to maintain
energy quality and reliability at an affordable price.

As shown below, charging creates two immediate challenges relating to demand: the timing of when people will charge their car, and the size of the charger they use.

For example, based on the UK experience, electric vehicle charging more than doubled the demand on the electricity network at the peak time of 8pm when people return home and plug in their cars, in addition to using other energy intensive appliances as they cook dinner and put on a load of washing, for example. This doubling of demand has major implications for the design and management of the grid, and if not managed appropriately, could lead to the system breaching its current capacity during times of peak load.

Impact of charging infrastructure on peak demand

Impact of charging infrastructure on peak demand

Mr Dillon said without proper management, major investment in infrastructure would be required to meet this short-term demand.

“It’s similar to the air conditioning peak demand in Australia on hot days,” he said.

“Without a proper management framework, distributors could be forced to make costly investments in infrastructure to ensure reliability and this may push up network charges, leading to higher bills.

“Network businesses want to avoid this scenario – never has there been more pressure to reduce power prices with this issue firmly on both the public and political agenda.”

Energy Networks Australia has recommended the Committee consider the following measures when seeking to increase electric vehicle uptake:

  • “Time-of-use” type electricity billing, to encourage charging in off-peak times
  • Adopting a technology neutral approach to electric vehicles, allowing both battery and fuel cell electric vehicles to compete on their commercial merit
  • Development of nationally consistent guidelines on how to connect new fast-charging electric and hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, in conjunction with Energy Networks and AEMO
  • Monitoring systems for networks that allow visibility of electric vehicles connection points and recharging stations.

If these issues are properly considered, the rollout of electric vehicles could:

  • Reduce customers’ electricity bills
  • Support the cleaner energy transition by increasing the use of renewable generation
  • Increase overall power supply reliability
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