C2I 2022: Data & Connectivity winner - Optimise Prime

A major cross-sector collaboration between fleet vehicle operators and energy companies is helping to remove some of the barriers holding back the switch to electric vehicles.

Category: Data & Connectivity - sponsored by Powerstar

Headline sponsor: Babcock International Group

Project: Optimise Prime

Partners: UK Power Networks with Hitachi, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks, Centrica, Royal Mail, Uber

The UK’s journey to Net Zero includes several laudable plans that make great headlines for politicians but can create headaches for the engineers expected to implement them.

Among them is phasing out the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030, a move that will cut noise and greenhouse gas emissions but will present new challenges to the UK’s electricity grid system.

A notable burden on the grid will come from the commercial fleets that are predicted to purchase 60 per cent of all new electric vehicles. This sales forecast might bring a degree of cheer to automotive OEMs, but one rapid 50kW charger uses roughly the same amount of electricity capacity as 25 homes, which presents significant infrastructure challenges and overhead costs.

It was this challenge that was at the forefront of UK Power Networks’ Optimise Prime project, the world’s largest commercial electric vehicle (EV) trial, a collaboration between the transport and energy sectors aiming to cut the cost of large-scale fleets switching to electric vehicles.

Collaborating with Hitachi and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), UK Power Networks joined forces with UK’s biggest depot-based fleet, largest home-based fleet, and fastest-growing private hire vehicle operator in Royal Mail, British Gas and Uber respectively.

For its part, UK Power Networks delivers power to 8.4m homes and businesses across London, the East and South East, and forecasts that by 2030 up to 4.5 million EVs will be on the roads in these areas alone.

“Optimise Prime is demonstrating the critical value of the energy and transport sectors working together to deliver lower costs and faster connections for customers and cleaner air for all,” said Florentine Roy, UK Power Networks Innovation Project Lead. “With so many EVs forecasted to connect to our network in the next decade alone, it is vital we identify and develop solutions to the barriers stopping fleets making the switch to EVs. This means focusing on reducing the up-front costs and enabling more developed charging infrastructure.”

Optimise Prime began toward the end of 2019 with a target of hitting seven deliverables, the last of which – the Final Learning Report - is due this year (2023).

“Over those three years, we’ve been creating the world’s biggest dataset of fleet vehicle charging behaviour,” said Roy. “We’re learning from the world’s largest trial fleet of 6,000 EVs using real-world data to put in place a series of practical solutions to cut costs and make it easier for fleet managers to go electric. All the data will be publicly available to ensure all knowledge and learnings are shared openly with the wider industry, opening the door to new innovation and creative ways of enabling the electric transition.”

Optimise Prime’s initial goals were to work out how fleets could electrify more quickly and more cheaply than they would do otherwise without the project; what infrastructure recommendations could be made around how to support electrification; what technology would be needed to support electrification; and what business models could be employed to make it cheaper?

The project’s first nine months were spent designing the trials. The next 12 months were spent designing and building the technology, and formal trials started in July 2021.

One of the ideas trialled by the project aimed to reassess a customers’ energy use, allowing them access to more power than they would normally be able to for a certain time of the day without a cost and - hopefully - avoiding an upgrade.




Currently, companies looking to electrify their fleet will be given a certain amount of capacity to charge vehicles, which works out the same amount of capacity for every half hour of the day. Profiled Connection allows customers to take a little bit more power than they would normally be able to for a certain time of the day, without incurring the cost or upgrading their energy supply. In the latter scenario, the Distribution Network Operator (DNO) may need to install a new substation, put in a larger transformer or put in a bigger cable to provide that power to a depot. This can take 18-to-24 months and can cost several hundred thousand pounds.

“We’ve demonstrated the value of profiled connections, where depots can draw more power at times when demand is lower, such as late at night,” said Roy. “Working with Royal Mail we designed the solution to ensure it enables their fleet to continue carrying their business operations. Project partner Hitachi also played their part, making sure the smart systems controlling the depot charging was fully aligned. We’ve worked with our Connections and Planning teams to make sure the innovative approach can rapidly be embedded in the business and offered to all our customers.”

Another innovation from Optimise Prime is flexibility, or demand side, reduction. In this scenario, the DNOs, rather than investing in building bigger cables and bigger transformers, pay people not to use charging power in depots or at home at certain times of the day, particularly between 5 and 8 pm when there is peak demand on the electricity network.

Flexibility testing, of whether fleets like British Gas and Royal Mail can deliver turn down at certain times of the day in response to a payment, is important for the DNOs to understand whether they can rely on those fleets to deliver that service. If they can’t then they know that they need to invest more in the infrastructure, but if they can then it’s a more efficient use of what’s already there.

Roy added: “We’re developing our flexibility market further, opening up new income streams for fleet managers by using their electric vehicle as an energy asset when it isn’t moving. By harnessing the power of hundreds and thousands of EVs charging in unison we can create a ‘virtual power plant’, adding capacity to the network at peak times.”

This has manifested itself with a new day ahead flexibility product that was trialled for the first time in Optimise Prime; a new intraday flexibility product, plus the automation of flexibility procurement that is now being used by UK Power networks’ Smart Grid team.
None of this, of course, could have taken place without the input and expertise of a variety of collaborators across different sectors, a situation that Roy is keen to acknowledge.

“Working with so many partners, over quite a long period of time wasn’t without it’s challenges,” she said. “Coming from different worlds, one of the biggest hurdles we unexpectedly faced, was simply understanding each other. Fleets want to transition at lowest cost, but don’t know much about energy - and as a network, we know less about transport. We had to delve into each other’s worlds, help one another understand new concepts and differing opinions. Doing this, we were able to support each other and create new solutions that work for everyone.”

James Bracegirdle, Optimise Prime programme manager, said Optimise Prime has been a great collaboration, with a good sense of bonding and raison d’etre within the team spanning different skill sets, nationalities, and locations.