More electric cars on the road means that we need more electricity to charge them. Are we facing imminent electricity shortages, especially if the last nuclear power stations close in 2025? Not if we use the available energy in a smarter way. Part of the responsibility for this falls on consumers.
Opinion: Jean-François Cheyns, founder and CEO of MobilityPlus
Imagine there are 10 houses in your street and each has an available capacity of 40 amps. This doesn't mean that there is an electricity cable in the street that can carry 400 amps. Until now, a cable like this has not been necessary, as we don't all cook or use our washing machines at the same time.
But if we all start driving electric cars and plugging them in at 6 pm when we get home, we risk the lights going out on cold winter evenings. The transformation to electric cars is not happening that quickly, however – and certainly not quick enough to plunge us into darkness for the whole winter.
Nevertheless, it's important to consider how we could cope with a temporary power shortage. Firstly, we need to improve the storage of green energy, so we can use it when it's really needed. Secondly, we must spread our electricity use smartly.
In relation to the second point, the Flemish energy regulator VREG has come up with a clever solution: the capacity tariff. From 2022, consumers who cause high peaks in electricity consumption will pay extra for doing so, while those who spread their electricity consumption will pay less. And how do you influence people the most? That's right: by hitting them in the pocket.
The capacity tariff should make grid users aware that we have to use our energy more intelligently. At the same time, it shifts the responsibility for coping with rising electricity demands using the existing infrastructure to consumers.
What if it turns out that this capacity tariff doesn't work, and the grid requires a general upgrade? Then consumers will pay the price via their electricity bills – and we're talking about an investment of billions of euros.
So the message is: spread energy consumption to avoid overloading the electricity grid, to help the climate and to avoid incurring extra costs.
The digital electricity meter makes this a little easier. It's a simple device that does little more than display your energy consumption digitally, but it allows other parties to implement smart functionality, such as smart thermostats, apps to detect excessive use and smart charge points.
Smart charge points help to keep energy consumption under control when you charge your electric car. For example, instead of charging at full power for four hours – without taking into account the total consumption of your home or commercial premises – an energy controller only sends the power you can spare to your charge point(s). Charging may take a little longer, but you will flatten your peak consumption enormously.
It's even better if employees charge their cars at work as much as possible. Then, when they come home from work, they often don't need to put their cars on charge. Companies therefore play the biggest role in preventing the grid from being overwhelmed, by adding an energy controller to their charge points straight away as well as generating their own green energy – and coupling this to the energy controller.
The strange thing is that on the same cold winter's day when there is a shortage of electricity in the evening, there may be a surplus during the day, for example from solar and wind energy.
If we generate more green electricity than we need, shouldn't we able to store and then use it when it's needed? Large companies are working hard to develop gigantic batteries, but at the moment the technology is not advanced enough to do this (cost-)efficiently. In any case, they are mainly developing these for their own consumption, because batteries like this are of little interest to private individuals. With a standard home, garden and kitchen solar panel installation, you don't generate enough to power you through the winter.
One potential option for the future is neighbourhood batteries, which would mean that, for example, if one household produces too much solar energy for their own needs, this can be passed on to a neighbour who wants to turn their heating up. The legislation already allows you to resell your electricity as a private individual. But we still have a lot of things to iron out in this area. Nevertheless, it's definitely the right way to go, if you ask me.
There is more than enough power available, provided we use it intelligently and spread our consumption.
If and when the nuclear power stations close, gas-fired power stations will take their place. But even then, it remains crucial to use the available energy as efficiently as possible.
Whether those gas-fired power stations are a good idea is another matter. While nuclear energy is virtually carbon neutral, a gas-fired power station emits a lot of CO₂. If I decide to drive an electric car in order to contribute to a greener climate, I'd rather power it with low-carbon electricity…