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Electric dreams

Atkins | 15 Jun 2011 | Comments

The electric car market is entering a new phase of global mass production as popular attention focuses on the use of carbon-efficient modes of transport. A significant shift to electric vehicles could compromise energy supplies, so what solutions will pave the way for the next generation of transport?

The car may always rank below riding a bicycle or walking as an environmentally friendly transport choice but this gap is closing. It’s a forced evolution as regional bodies everywhere legislate to bring vehicle emissions down in line with their climate change ambitions. Still, there are barriers to ultimate success as the cleanest vehicles can work only if there is the infrastructure to support them.

Considering that road vehicles account for about one-fifth of CO2 emissions globally, this issue is pressing. The big challenge for transport planners, especially those working in cities, is how to embed an electric power network into the existing transport system and make the solution economical and sustainable. It will require a major engineering effort, with transport planning experts working alongside vehicle manufacturers, urban realm designers and utility companies to plan the changes in a seamless way.

Keith McCabe, chair of the carbon working group at Intelligence Transport Systems (ITS) UK and principal consultant on electric vehicles at Atkins, says that in seeking solutions, planners are discovering new efficiencies by integrating vehicles, distribution and energy supply. There is no “one size fits all” approach, however.

“Take Denmark, where they have an excess of wind energy. They’ve chosen to prioritise ‘battery swap’ technology. Rather than having the bulk of vehicles charging over night, ‘swap-out batteries’ are charged by utilities over night in large numbers using wind power and then swapped over during the day,” McCabe says.

In Japan, meanwhile, renewable energy company Better Place has been testing a refuelling system that allows a robotic mechanism to swap the empty battery in an electric car for a fully charged one. This means electric cars can be “refilled” in minutes, rather than several hours.

In Europe, Project Merge has drawn together leading thinkers and engineers to begin building a power network for electric vehicles. The focus there is on analysing the impact of introducing electric cars on current and future electricity distribution networks.

“There are pilot programmes around the world looking at the practicalities. In the UK, the CABLED project’s interim results, for example, found that a large percentage of electric car drivers are using them as they would use a normal car, which is encouraging,” says Paul J Taylor, head of technology for air quality and greenhouse gas management at Atkins. “The statistics show that most of the journeys were below five miles, while the average daily mileage is about 20 to 25 miles, which is well within the operating range of the electric vehicles used in the pilots. They have a range of about 80 miles a day.”

The new breed

These findings strengthen the argument that electric vehicles can become commonplace. It is expected that all of the big vehicle companies will have some mainstream production models of electric vehicles in circulation in the next two years.

While the cars themselves are improving, the real challenge is to equip urban and suburban areas with a fully functional electric transport network. The UK is taking a firm grasp of this. In London, for example, plans to realise the mayor’s ambition to make the city the electric vehicle capital of Europe are well under way. At least 1,300 charging points will be installed in public locations by the end of 2013 and local government body Transport for London (TfL) has finalised a contract that will see Siemens manage the operation of the network and registration of drivers.

The UK is also supporting the Plugged in Places programme, with Manchester becoming one of the successful bidding cities. The programme provides a glimpse of how cities will need to adopt an integrated approach in order to construct a viable electric transport network.

The principal benefit that greater electric car use will bring to communities is clearly a significant reduction in carbon emissions. David Hytch of Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive believes the second big benefit is the ability to at last “develop a really comprehensive smarter transport offering that is going to appeal to a much wider range of people and start to get into the bulk of people who’ve either been very resistant or haven’t really bothered to think about it too much”.

Hytch believes “park and ride” will become the more attractive option as electric cars begin to appear. Instead of driving all the way into the centre of Manchester, people will be more inclined to use the mixed network provided, including the city’s extended Metrolink tram system and an improved bus service.

Planners following Manchester’s lead will need to address a number of issues the pilot has identified. Top of the list is “range anxiety”: the fear among drivers that electric car batteries will unexpectedly run out of charge, leaving them stranded. It’s something that Hytch’s team has factored into its plans: “We’re learning that range anxiety can go away as people begin to trust that there is a network they can rely on. On the issue of charge time, people don’t like to go much below half of full charge before they plug in and get going again. It’s those sorts of things that matter, as well as quite a few lessons about the back office and how people like to pay.”

Julian Weber, head of innovation projects for e-mobility at BMW Project i, says that quick-charging stations, such as those already established in Japan, are not necessarily needed for routine daily use, but still provide an important function.

“The Tokyo Electric Power Company introduced quick charging stations during fleet tests. After installation, the average trip length until recharge almost doubled, but people still didn’t use the stations. So they only had these things for their peace of mind,” he explains.

Atkins’ McCabe observes that the network will work only if it has an intuitive capability to track usage trends and the like.

“Building these networks creates both tension and opportunity in the local area, in so much that traditionally the information management on things like parking, travel movements and traffic flow has been within the sphere of the local or national authorities,” he says. “Naturally they have been quite protective of that and tried to have all of their own data collection, and all of their own information provision through their own controlled website, for example.”

In McCabe’s view, building a viable transport network based on electric vehicles will require the public and private sectors to work together to ensure the sources of information can be merged.

“There will be questions about how you get what is currently public information into private vehicles,” he says. “This will present a serious challenge for local authorities and the people who operate electric vehicle fleets.”

And it’s not only data that will need to be shared. Manchester’s scheme relies on private-sector backing and has been designed as a commercial network run for profit. At the same time, Plugged in Places has benefited from an initial £30m direct government subsidy, signalling an acceptance that the public sector clearly must play a leading role in driving the adoption of electric cars. And, given the challenges facing the global economy, the rate of investment may be problematic at best.

Crucially, part of the appeal of electric transport rests in its relatively low running cost per mile. In the future, drivers may find themselves being offered incentives to shop at certain supermarkets in order to “fill up” at a discount in their refuelling bays. Again, it’s a question of connecting the dots in order to make the network successful.

And there’s no doubt that any new electric networks will have to be run on a much more data-intensive basis. If half a country’s car fleet were to go electric, electricity demand would rise significantly – some estimates place it at upwards of 25 per cent. Managing the distribution of that power takes on greater importance. And central to that effort will be the development of a suitable technology framework to manage demand and pricing.

Live data

In a world populated by electric vehicles, reliable, real-time information becomes crucial. That’s especially important when it comes to energy costs – specifically the cost of electricity, which in future will vary at different times of the day. It is also important so that vehicle users know when and where they can recharge their cars to be sure of reaching their destinations.

“Think of a simple scenario where you’ve got five cars all in the same street that all come home from work at 6pm,” explains Giles Bridger, industrial products and electric vehicle lead at IBM Global Business Services. His work centres on designing an intelligent infrastructure that mitigates excessive demands on power distribution networks, improves usability and helps to avoid bottlenecks.

“If two of those users aren’t going to use their car for another 24 hours, whereas another one will be going out again three hours later, then with intelligence and two-way communication of information you can balance the user demand and satisfy them all. But if there’s no information and if the users just come home and plug in, then the result is an increase in full demand at peak time, which stretches the generating and distribution networks.”

In order to mitigate the problem, IBM is working with a consortium of electricity industry organisations to grapple with two issues: first, the user experience and, second, power distribution and consumption around the working day.

“That’s where intelligent infrastructure systems (IIS) come into play,” says Bridger. “They allow some control over demand for power through things such as variable pricing, building on things that the electricity industry is working on already with smart metering and smart grids.”

Under the circumstances, smart meters, which monitor the demand for power to give real insight into where, how much and why power is being used, become an important element in future networks.

According to Bridger, IIS will be instrumental in solving these everyday problems. “In particular, we’ve been looking at the electrical impacts of such a scenario and examining the potential impact of upgrading distribution networks,” he says. “Obviously there’s a potential cost on a unit basis for setting up public or private recharging posts – but what’s the potential cost of upgrading the connections to people’s homes and to what extent can you mitigate or avoid those physical costs by using smart intelligent networks?” At a national level the benefits are likely to be huge.

McCabe believes a culture change will be necessary to achieve this vision of an efficient future, as drivers will need to accept the need to be plugged into the network in terms of data as well as power.

“It is the power of the data management that can help you to achieve these breakthroughs, but it’s got to be in the interests of the individual to share that data because it makes their life easier. There also needs to be a conversation about the data protection and privacy issues involved.”

Ultimately, the emissions performance of electric vehicles will depend increasingly on the sources of electricity being used if the “sustainability argument” is going to be won. As such, it’s not only a question of convincing drivers that the future is electric. Utilities, governments, manufacturers and consumers will all need to come together in order to achieve a low-emission future for vehicles.

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