In 2035, the UK government plans to sell only electric cars and vans. How clean will that energy be, and can the electrical grid handle it?
How much carbon does the UK grid emit?
A battery-powered vehicle is only as clean as the energy it uses, and UK grid electricity is rapidly becoming carbon neutral. As part of its zero-carbon commitment, National Grid ESO, which moves electricity across the country, plans to meet peak demand with a completely zero-carbon supply by 2025.
The increasing share of renewable energy in electric vehicles will reduce their carbon footprint throughout a three or four-year lease.
Assessing the carbon intensity of the UK grid
Compared with 2013 average emissions of 529g/km, carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2020 reached a new record low of 181g/kWh - a reduction of 65.8%. In 2020, 3.5 miles per kilowatt-hour would equate to 32 g/km CO2 emissions for a typical mid-size electric car, with only 1.6% of its energy from coal use.
But the carbon intensity of the UK grid can be an order of magnitude lower. Including energy production and distribution, the grid recorded a record low carbon intensity of 39g/kWh in April 2021, equivalent to 6.9g/km for the same vehicle. It's significantly less than the tank-to-wheel figure for a petrol or diesel car.
Is the UK grid capable of supporting electric cars?
The effect of electric vehicles charging early in the evening, when demand is already at its peak, is a concern for drivers returning home. However, peak demand has been falling for the past 20 years.
It does offer some headroom for the 10% increase forecast by National Grid Group, assuming that every UK household switches to a driving electric car. That's in part because of more intelligent charging for EVs.
A greener future based on solid foundations
Preparations have already begun. Grant funds for home and workplace chargers require that the devices exchange anonymous usage data and adjust charging rates to reduce peak demand.
Under Britain's 'Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution', announced by Boris Johnson, the Government will also invest in storage facilities for excess renewable energy. They will be released when demand is most significant so that Britain can reuse the energy. By doing so, fossil fuels will no longer be needed as a backup, which they currently are.
As electric vehicles become more prevalent in this ecosystem, higher generation capacity won't be required. The National Grid ESO estimates that by 2050, 80% of households will smart charge their electric vehicles, automatically pausing the charging process to stabilise demand.
In addition, the report indicates that by the same date, 45% of cars and vans (5.5m units) will be able to access vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. By doing so, it would be possible to provide additional capacity from their batteries to the grid when necessary.
Trials of the vehicle-to-grid technology
V2G trials will begin shortly for OVO Energy, Octopus and DriveElectric, while EDF Energy offers a solution for fleets already. It is important to note, however, that not all vehicles are compatible.
Many V2G services require CHAdeMO-capable vehicles, such as the Nissan LEAF and Nissan e-NV200. Unfortunately, the CCS connector used in the majority of new electric cars in Europe does not support the V2G communication protocol just yet.
What can I do to reduce the carbon footprint of my electric vehicle?
Even small changes to your behaviour can add up to significant reductions in CO2 emissions from your electric vehicle, and you could save a lot of money at the same time.
Here are a few simple steps:
1. Install a smart meter
By 2025, the UK government wants to upgrade the smart meters in every household in England, Scotland and Wales. This is because smart meters play an essential role in building a more straightforward, cleaner energy system.
Users can view energy consumption in real-time with smart meters, which automate billing and generate data helpful in integrating renewable energy into the grid. Your energy bills already include installation costs for upgrades.
2. Keep an eye on the grid
Depending on the time of day and where the grid is located, UK grid carbon intensity varies. High demand places a heavy burden on non-renewable energy resources.
The National Grid ESO has developed a live calculator to guide consumers through those fluctuations, tracking CO2 emissions and recommending the best times to connect. You can download the app for free from Apple and Google devices, as well as from carbonintensity.org.uk.
3. Choose a different tariff
It is also possible to find less expensive electricity with low carbon emissions. For example, by switching to a Dual Rate tariff, unit costs (per kWh) for charging are dramatically reduced overnight, or when generation and demand on the grid are at their lowest. In addition, some utility companies offer specific rates for renewable energy.
4. Make a charging plan
Plug-in hybrids and electric cars usually come with features that allow charging to be scheduled during off-peak rates or periods when grid carbon intensity is lowest. As a result, demand spikes could be mitigated, and organising your charging times could reduce operating costs for drivers.
By using public charging networks, you can plan your charging when travelling.