By 2030 there could well be one and a half million electric cars driving around in Belgium. They all will need to charge, but will our power grid be able to cope? In an intensive study, VITO/EnergyVille investigated the possible challenges, but also the opportunities of the fast-growing electric fleet.

The electrification of road traffic is expected to continue at a fast rate. Where there were a hundred thousand electric cars in Belgium in early 2023, this number could already be one and a half million in 2030. And, by 2050, almost all cars are expected to be electric. Meanwhile, public transport is also switching to electric buses en masse. And light goods transport, particularly within urban areas, is electrifying fast. An important motor of the continued electrification is the much lower cost price of batteries and the increased range of charged batteries. 

Continuous new equilibria 

Yet if we are to keep charging these electric vehicles, whenever necessary, it means expanding the capacity of the electricity grid, causing a significant social impact (time, cost, nuisance). Add to that the variable production of renewable energy sources, such as sun and wind, and it becomes clear that electricity grid operators, owners of charging infrastructure, and also governments have big challenges ahead. It will constantly be necessary to find new equilibria between the energy demand and the energy supply, given the expectation that this will be in continuous fluctuation. How to avoid the power grid becoming overloaded? 

Upon request by Synergrid, the federation of the Belgian electricity grid and gas network operators, VITO/EnergyVille conducted a thorough study into the impact of electric driving on the Belgian power grid. Its experts charted the challenges but also investigated the opportunities – created by a large fleet of electric vehicles – in order to tackle them. The study was completed in July 2023. 

There are different ways to avoid overloading the power network. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Depending on the stakeholders – from grid operator to EV owner – there are also different needs. The study distinguishes between measures that can be taken relatively easily and quickly, such as a reporting obligation for EV chargers and encouragement for slower charging (the ‘low-hanging fruit’), and more complex activities, such as a market mechanism that stimulates flexibility. However, whichever methods are applied, the study also highlights how it is always necessary to consider the local context. 

Encouraging daytime charging 

The opportunities of a large electric fleet for the electricity grid (and for the many systems that are part of it and connected) lie in the potentially available battery capacity when EV's are plugged into a charger or charging station. This brings flexibility, which is greater when more EV's are plugged in and when they are connected for longer to the electricity network (ideally all the time when the cars are parked). Since most EV’s will be parked (and plugged in) at home in the evening and at night, and local electricity networks have not been designed to charge a large number of EV's, it boils down to encouraging charging in the daytime too, for example, at work. Furthermore, EV owners can also transfer renewable energy with their home network. In order to facilitate ‘two-way traffic’, however, all kinds of technical, economic and legal changes must be made. 

Yet the study shows that the ever-increasing electric fleet brings great potential for flexibility. One and a half million cars would provide no less than one gigawatt of controllable capacity. In order to use this, however, a whole list of factors must be taken into account. An important factor is the need for convenient and reliable charging infrastructure. Just as important is the willingness of EV owners or users to charge at optimal times and locations (optimal with regards to the electricity grid). The introduction of innovative technologies, users and profit models which can all contribute to distribute the impact of charging are essential to turn this willingness into effective participation. Awareness building, whether or not with stimulating or facilitating measures, is an essential part of this. But providers and operators of charging infrastructure must also be involved. After all, for commercial charging stations, the desire for slower and therefore longer charging sessions can conflict with maximising the number of sessions (and therefore customers). 

In any case, it is important that all stakeholders are involved in the discussions and work together. As such, the potential flexibility of the electric fleet can be maximised in order to expand the use of renewable energy and to avoid overloading the power grid.

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