The electric vehicle (EV) revolution is finally upon us. EVs are now a common sight on our roads and this is reflected in the sales figures, with around 15 per cent of new cars now being electric.
The shift can’t come soon enough. Transport is the most polluting sector in the UK, accounting for 27 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions and hampering our ability to meet our net zero target in 2050.
With the government banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, sceptics have long warned of the impact this could have on the electricity grid, as drivers plug in their cars to charge at home and on the road.
At Piclo, however, we’ve found an alternative route – that the significant increase in EVs can actually support the grid by providing the essential flexibility to match the peaks and troughs of renewable energy supply.
The role of flexibility
‘Energy flexibility’ enables us to adapt to the fluctuating needs of the grid, ensuring security of supply and keeping the lights on.
As our energy system becomes greener and we shift away from fossil generation, the role of flexibility becomes more significant, as we will become more reliant on the variable levels of solar and wind generation.
According to some estimates, EVs have huge potential to offer the flexibility required to enable this transition, potentially able to provide over 11GW of flexible capacity to the UK’s energy system by 2030.
We need to shift perceptions to view EVs as an opportunity to ensure a cost effective transition by providing the flexibility needed to alleviate the strains on our energy grids.
Enabling energy flexibility with EVs
Smart charging is crucial to enable us to utilise EVs for flexibility, as they ensure that EVs are only drawing from the grid at times when there is low demand or surplus generation. In turn, this means EVs aren’t putting strain on the grid by charging during times of low generation or high demand.
By doing this, EVs can assist regional network operators with real-time balancing challenges and support growing levels of clean-technologies connecting to the grid.
Piclo Flex is an independent marketplace for trading energy flexibility online. UKPN’s most recent tender awarded contracts for flexibility via Piclo Flex worth £30m to innovators in the energy sector, and more than two thirds of the new capacity – 248MW – will come from smart charging electric vehicles.
In order to ensure the continued rise of clean transport on our roads and clean-tech flexibility on our energy grids, barriers to participating in flexibility markets need to be removed.
These include removing the restrictions on the ability to stack revenues across flexibility markets and continuing industry efforts to standardise participation across DSO flexibility markets. Making these small changes will help to support the flexibility revolution that we have already started in the UK.
The future of the flex market
The UK’s flexibility market has shown incredible growth so far in 2021, as 1.6GW of flexibility has been contracted by DSOs to date. This is great news for net zero.
Recent growth has been driven in part by the fact that some flexibility contracts are assigned in advance and subsequently once awarded, can last up to seven years. This has meant that planned EV fleets can incorporate revenues from flexibility into their long term business models, particularly targeting areas where network constraints are present.
There is significant optimism in the UK that this growth can continue, following the government’s recently released Smart Systems and Flexibility plan that indicated that 13GW of flexibility could be provided to the system by 2030. 
To make this a reality, it is important to introduce greater standardisation for procuring flexibility to simplify the process, improve access to participation and support real innovation in renewable energy and clean technologies. Given that the market is still fairly young, the industry should combine that standardisation with the ‘learning by doing’ approach that has contributed to the recent growth in flexibility markets.
For example, combining EV smart charging with flexibility markets can provide DSOs with more options for effective grid management, optimising the safe delivery of power to EVs without compromising on delivering electricity to offices and homes.
Jumpstart the flexibility revolution
EVs have the potential to play an important role in the future of our power systems: helping to balance the electricity network by absorbing energy during periods of oversupply and to reduce demand during periods of undersupply. So the growth in smart-charging electric vehicles could be transformative for our energy grid.
Removing barriers for EV flexibility providers to participate in the industry is vital, and will play a major role in supporting the UK in its aim to reach net zero by 2050.
The impact of that will be a more flexible energy grid, able to support the continued growth in renewable energy, and a cleaner car fleet to reduce air pollution in our cities. It truly is a win-win.
James Johnston is CEO of Piclo