Expert Blog

How much electricity do electric cars need?

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We are used to talking about the fantastic potential of electric vehicles on this blog. However, that potential will not unlock itself. It will rely on the help of consumers, manufacturers, legislators – and, crucially, of infrastructure providers. Quite simply, electric vehicles need charge points that they can be plugged into, and those charge points need electricity.

How much electricity? When the Government’s Air Quality Plan was released, the newspapers featured some dramatic claims. ‘10 new power stations needed to cope with electric revolution’ read one headline. There were several others like it. They were all based on a report, Future Energy Scenarios, that the National Grid published back in July.

BBC Radio 4’s More or Less recently spoke to one of the authors of that report, namely Marcus Stewart – and it seems as though we may not need to build those power stations just yet. He explained that the scenario reported by the newspapers was, in the words of the show’s presenter, Tim Hartford, ‘an unlikely what-if’.

As Stewart put it:

"On top of the scenarios that we produced, we also included four high-level sensitivities to test more extreme examples, and one of those was a high electric vehicle case, which effectively accelerated the growth of electric vehicles beyond our highest scenario. Our highest scenario had 100% electric vehicles by 2050, anyhow, but if that happened in 2040 and, at the same time, people did not care what time they charged them up. What impact could that have on the peak electricity demand? Moreover, that is where the 30-gigawatt number came from. It was much more of a thought-piece rather than a pure piece of this-is-what-we-think-is-going-to-happen."

Besides, as Stewart went on to point out, we ought to look beyond power plants when it comes to the problem of electricity supply:

"So, how many power plants? Well, it is probably less than you think. Yes, we expect there to be some new nuclear plants to be built – maybe one or two. However, there will be other technologies as well, such as inter-connectors, gas-fired power plants, solar panels on peoples rooves, more electricity storage and smart tariffs."

The whole interview is worth listening to, as an excellent primer on the infrastructure challenges presented by electric cars. That difficulty should not be exaggerated, but neither should it be ignored. We will indeed be writing more about the subject in future.

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