OPINION: Electric vehicles’ next big step is off-grid

Dr Peter Harrop of  IDTechEx argues that electric vehicles will only trouble the grid temporarily. Soon they will have other power sources.


Organisations fear the effect of electric vehicles on the grid – but they should not be concerned. We believe that in the end, there will no grid load from electric vehicles.

There will be an interim period during which grid load will grow, while vehicles switch to hybrid and then to pure electric vehicles. Many battery ‘gigafactories’ are being planned to cope with this, and with battery demand for other purposes like grid management. However, in the long term this underestimates the ability of engineers to ‘work around’ a problem.  For example, in the case of buses and trucks, we believe there is already increasing interest in top-up charging during  the journey -  using intermittent catenaries or gantries used when the vehicle stops. Another option –  inductive loops in the road surface – may work when the vehicle is stationary or, in more advanced form, as it moves. Together, these options can reduce the vehicle’s battery needs to a fifth of the original.

The distinction between off-grid and on-grid is starting to blur, initially with solar PV houses. Static and dynamic charging of electric vehicles is turning out to be another example of this. Although EV charging stations are normally connected to the grid, Malta is one country that runs them on solar charging stations with a grid connection only for emergency.

Those in the electricity supply chain are more relaxed about such distinctions nowadays because systems can switch back and forth between on and off-grid and their skills can be useful in both arenas. New forms of electricity generation are being trialled, such as solar roads and airborne wind energy (AWE), both very suitable for charging electric vehicles, preferably in combination.  AWE consists of flying kites or tethered drones to capture consistent wind 200-1000m high. It can prosper where ground wind is inadequate for wind power, extending it over more of the land and sea. Austin Power and EON are among the utilities that have invested in AWE, as has Shell. One Shell investment is Kite  Power Solutions, an AWE company in the UK. They hope to offer a lower cost replacement and extension of the capability of terrestrial wind turbines.

Google has recently patented its 600kW+ AWE powering chemical factories and servers in ships instead of on-shore from the grid. It patented its system making megawatts on ships to power them along. That potentially means large ships can have zero emissions – also reducing particulate, NOx and SO2 emissions. Others see AWE at the roadside charging vehicles as they travel and on farms to power robots in fields where there is no grid.

There is a further development that is not yet on the radar of the energy companies. It is a potentially disruptive transport technology currently in the “laugh at it” phase. That is energy -independent electric vehicles (EIV). These are analysed in a rcent  IDTechEx’s report, “Energy Independent Electric Vehicles EIV 2017-2027”, and a conference on the subject is taking place at the Technical University of Delft on 27-28 September.

Take the Toyota Prius Prime plug-in hybrid car. It  is a runaway success this year with its solar roof. It is not yet energy-independent but the company “dreams of cars run by the sun”. Soon Motors Germany, Lightyear Netherlands and Hanergy China promise commercially available street-legal solar cars within three years. Audi has licensed the Hanergy ultra-efficient solar bodywork technology, which unfolds when stationary to give a kilowatt or more. Toyota and IFEVS Italy patented 500W+ wind turbines that erect when the vehicle is stationary increasing the chance of energy independence even at night. Nanowinn Technologies sells an energy independent solar microbus already. Companies from Greece to the USA offer energy independent solar golf cars and three wheel taxis.

Things are getting serious and UK utilities should trial some technologies to gain experience.

The only billion dollar EIV investments envisaged over the next ten years will be in solar powered balloons and drones that will remain aloft for up to five years, for internet transmission or military surveillance and targeting. But energy-independent road vehicles, boats, ships and aircraft may be a multi-billion dollar business in the UK in 20 years.

The UK electricity industry should study them – and catch up with the future.


Further reading:

Shiny! Let’s investigate options before we all dash to hardware again

An electric vehicle charging point could be a real convenience


Government opens £20m innovation fund for vehicle-to-grid technologies

Government’s EV targets too cautious, says Baringa Partners