The UK Government plans to ban the sale of conventionally powered cars by 2035, and attention is now turning to the infrastructure that will power the electric revolution.

The National Grid has constantly evolved to keep up with our demands, and while our technologies have become more efficient, the mass adoption of electric vehicles (“EVs”) will provide an enormous challenge for network operators. The UK network was not designed to accommodate the load of electric vehicle chargers, and operators need to find a means of balancing network reliability while effectively supporting low carbon technologies. 

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 (“AEVA 2018”) gave the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy the power to specify the minimum specification of EV chargers sold in the UK (including the ability to stipulate their ‘smart’ credentials).  Energy suppliers and network operators are required by their operating licence to subscribe to the Smart Energy Code (“SEC”) which regulates in this area. They have proposed amendments to the SEC that would allow network operators to control demand by switching off electric vehicle charging points in our own homes, and these have been in development for over 18 months.

These proposals have been strongly supported by the Distribution Connection and Use of System Agreement (“DCUSA”).  Established in 2006, this is an independent multi-party contract between distributors, suppliers, and generators of electricity in the UK. DCUSA have also brought forward changes to their governing agreement in line with the proposed amendments to the SEC, and the two bodies are now working together on the issue.

EV charging points already installed in our homes are unlikely to contain the technology required for external control, and the proposed system would require customer consent. It is likely that regulations under the AEVA 2018 will ensure charging points installed in the near future are capable of external control even if the feature is not immediately utilised.  If the requirement for consent is dropped in the future, or if consent becomes a requirement under electricity supply contracts, the hardware will already be in place to allow external control. 

The issue is peak demand rather than total consumption, and the proposals derive from a need to protect physical assets from the risk of overload. Unsurprisingly, existing data suggests that peak demand for electric vehicle charging coincides with the traditional demand peak between 5pm and 7pm on weekdays. It is during this time that control mechanisms may be required to protect the network from damage and consumers from power outages.  Despite this, the proposals stress that control mechanisms would only be used in a situation of last resort. It is possible that EV owners on variable price electricity tariffs could benefit from the system. In a similar manner to a night storage heater, the system may allow owners to easily manage when their vehicles are charged and accordingly, could utilise more off-peak power.

Network operators are particularly concerned about ‘the last mile’ of the network. The low voltage lines that connect our homes to the larger network are not designed to cope with multiple high load devices being connected simultaneously. It may be some months before the proposed regulations are in force, and it may be several years before the critical mass of EV charging points on individual parts of the network is reached. Regardless of this, if pockets of EV chargers on the same ‘last mile’ emerge without a means of managing their demand, our new era of technology might leave us in the dark.