An electrical perspective on Europe’s energy crisis

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Using electricity more efficiently is a logical response to Europe’s energy crisis. Linking the energy in electric vehicle batteries with the electricity needed by buildings is a good way of doing this. and the technology exists, so why is uptake so slow?

Most likely is the fact that EV owners are unaware of the fundamental role they could play and, even if they were, the infrastructure needed is not readily available. That’s a pity because when energy can flow back and forth between EVs and buildings, it ends up where and when it is most needed, rather than stored in batteries which will eventually discharge themselves.

It is an opportunity of considerable magnitude, too. Thousands of EVs are replacing internal combustion engine vehicles on the world’s roads each week. BloombergNEF, which carries out specialist research in the sector, has predicted that global plug-in vehicle sales will rise from 6.6 million in 2021 to 20.6 million in 2025. Europe is on that exponential growth curve.

Easing blackout fears

The structure of the power generation industry is predicated on a one-way flow of electricity from large power plants that are mostly gas, coal, or nuclear fuelled. Commercial scale renewables, like wind and solar, are changing the status quo, but not nearly enough to replace conventional supplies any time soon.

We use electricity for many hundreds of applications and that’s why European governments are so worried about the possibility of blackouts if the generating companies are unable to obtain enough gas this Winter. The economic and political fallout could be tough to handle.

Choosing whether industrial, commercial, or residential energy users should bear the brunt of potential shortages is not an equation that governments wish to contemplate, yet many are already examining options for power rationing and controlled blackouts later this year.

Making more effective use of available energy could ease the strain. By using the energy storage capacity in EV batteries, and other systems such as uninterruptible power supplies, it may be possible to lessen energy shortages and reduce carbon emissions, too.

Understanding sector coupling

The type of set-up that links EVs with buildings is known as sector coupling. It is an approach that can also incorporate renewable energy from assets such as solar panels or heat pumps integrated into the building. Renewable energy generated on-site can be used in the building, or by EV chargers linked to the building, or traded on the national grid to help balance supply and demand. A combination of all three is possible, with software optimising the energy flows.

Sector coupling is well understood in the electrical industry but known less – if at all – by energy consumers because it involves managing electricity actively. That may be another reason for the slow uptake of sector-coupling based approaches. We are familiar only with consuming energy passively.

Energy storage

A decentralised energy model (the type which will become essential to decarbonisation) involves a multiplicity of two-way energy flows. In fact, a new term has been coined – the prosumer – to describe how businesses, households and individuals will produce and consume energy and trade it with the grid.

This type of system is highly flexible and makes the most efficient use of energy. By synchronising energy flows, it makes electricity available when and where it is needed.

More energy storage capacity is needed to make decentralisation work well, whether in batteries within buildings, or in EV batteries that connect to buildings via chargers. The grid will need storage capacity to manage increasing volumes of intermittent and variable power flowing from commercial-scale wind and solar farms, as well as ‘to and from’ prosumers.

Digitalisation

Undoubtedly, these energy flows are complex. Digitalisation is the enabler. Digital technology will make it possible for even the smallest energy prosumers to participate in energy markets, provided the rules and regulations allow them to get involved.

The way we generate, store, use, manage, and pay for electricity will be driven digitally in the future which will mean the prosumer gaining more control but also taking on more risk.

How governments choose to make the return on investment in flexibility technologies attractive, and the extent to which they help prosumers manage risk, will help determine how successful the energy transition will be. Government policy could also help Europe mitigate its immediate energy supply crisis by initiating patterns of energy supply and consumption that are also suited to the longer-term decarbonisation.

The role of EVs

So how could EVs play a role right now? It all comes down to the batteries. The energy from EVs parked for any reasonable length of time could be usefully dispatched to nearby buildings for immediate use, with the vehicles recharged later when needed. EV drivers (prosumers) could levy a fee for this service.

This is potentially helpful in two ways. Firstly, it could spread demand on national grids more evenly by flattening peaks in demand from buildings. Secondly, it could help building owners construct a strong business case for installing EV chargers, renewables, and energy storage, thus becoming prosumers to trade energy with EV drivers, the grid, and probably both. In this scenario, flexibility and the multiplicity of two-way energy flows is evident, all available energy is used, and the input of renewables is maximised.

Given Europe’s current difficulties with conventional fuel supplies and its ambitions to decarbonise, digitalisation and decentralisation is a realistic, albeit complex, route to take now and in readiness for the future. It is certainly an option that governments should be considering.

Phil Kane is the Country Manager for Eaton in Ireland.