Can Australia’s electricity grid cope as electric vehicle adoption grows?

With electric vehicle adoption on the rise, one important consideration for government and industry is the implication of EVs on the electricity grid.

The question of whether Australia’s electricity grid is up to the demands of growing electric vehicle adoption is a question asked of nations around the world. An unchecked and purely reactive approach would point to an obvious ‘no’, it wouldn’t cope. Fortunately, straightforward checks and balances, proactive investment and out-of-the-box thinking mean that Australia can bypass failures and supply shortfalls, and move to a system characterised by far greater and more environmentally friendly productivity.

Research conducted by Evenergi [1] as part of the Strategic Regional EV Adoption Program provides a useful and practical baseline. There are two key insights to highlight. The first – their analysis shows that current adoption rates suggest personal electric vehicles will not have significant implications on grid performance between now and 2025. The second – electric vehicles offer an opportunity to potentially improve network asset utilisation. The key for Australia is to take advantage of the next few years so we are prepared, with better infrastructure, when demand would otherwise have risked taxing the grid.

The starting point for Australia compared to most other countries is that our grid is very dispersed across a relatively small population. As such, we tend to have a less stable grid and its capacity today is certainly not ideal for actions like adding high-powered vehicle charging. If you consider a context such as a remote charging station on the Hume Highway, the grid there is very thin. If a 350kw charger was added, with extremely low utilisation – maybe one car per day in the present, and say 20 cars per day in five years’ time – it would face high demand but for a very short period in a day. The key is to have a network that is robust enough to deliver that. However, given the very high cost of installing a traditional network to support that for the volume of power drawing off it, we need unique solutions.

Three solutions that help to stabilise local grids are integration with battery storage, integration with renewables and use of solutions such as peak demand management (PDM) software.

Where a grid is not strong, creating a localised power supply with storage supports short periods of high demand and helps to stabilise the grid around that. Improved energy storage basically spreads power demand. In Switzerland, as one example, ABB has delivered an innovation for a bus fleet provider that integrates ‘buffer’ batteries at bus stops equipped with flash charging stations. The buffer batteries recharge at a low 50kW when not charging a bus, but discharge at 600kW/20 seconds. It is effectively reducing peak power demand on the local grid by more than 90%. As a concept, we are actively looking at expanding what we’ve learned in reach and application, such as high-speed charging stations for electric vehicles linked to storage solutions. It means better energy quality, power reserves and voltage support. We see this as an opportunity to create greater grid stabilisation and a better performing grid by linking charging infrastructure with battery storage to smooth demand.

Another solution that’s proving value is integrating charging with renewable energy, such as wind and solar. This is a crucial opportunity – not the least of which is removing the irony of driving an electric vehicle powered by electricity produced from coal. What makes this a compelling solution is the scalability. While renewable integration can be delivered on a large scale, it can be effective at the smallest level of a single residential house. Solar panels can be linked, today, to energy storage and residential charging, even with the potential to be fully self-sustaining.

With multiple pathways that fleet operators and even individual consumers can take to contribute to stable and reliable electricity supply, PDM software is another solution to lower the burden on the electricity grid. It can notably reduce peak energy loads and associated costs by helping to balance energy consumption, production and storage. It can optimise when an operator charges their vehicle or fleet, and where they source that energy, to meet demand while minimising costs.

At a federal level, if Australia decides to take a true leadership position in e-mobility, then investment in ongoing technological improvements in our electrical power grids and in renewable energy sources will make a significant difference. In partnership, electric vehicles then present as many opportunities to support an optimised grid as they will contribute to increased demand.

[1] https://arena.gov.au/knowledge-bank/managing-the-impacts-of-renewably-powered-electric-vehicles-on-distribution-networks/

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About the author

David Sullivan

David Sullivan is the Head of Electrification business for ABB in Australia. He leads a technology portfolio that covers the full electrical value chain from substation to the point of consumption, enabling safer and more reliable power. He also oversees ABB Australia’s Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure and is a former Board Member of the Electrical Vehicle Council of Australia. David was appointed Head of Electrification in 2016 after leading the Medium Voltage business for three years and, prior to this, managing national sales and account management for the Power divisions. David has more than 20 years’ experience, both locally and internationally, in the electrical supply industry as it relates to Utilities, Process Industries and Minerals. He holds an Electrical Engineering Degree from University of NSW and a Masters of Business Administration from Open University UK.
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