Billions could be saved if governments embrace ‘smart charging’

The switch to electric vehicles could save EU member states billions of euros, but only if governments make space for ‘smart charging’ and Europe embraces the potential of recycling. These are the conclusions of a report commissioned by T&E and others, and amount to the latest in a series of calls for Europe to make the most of the e-vehicle revolution or risk losing out to other parts of the world.

The need to decarbonise road transport has led to a massive potential for e-vehicles, and the take-up is growing but still very slowly. T&E has warned for several years that the environmental benefits will only come if the electricity used is non-fossil, and if enough money is invested in battery recycling facilities to maximise the use made of raw materials.

This new report Batteries on Wheels concludes that the ability to charge vehicles at times of greatest electricity supply, and the expansion of lithium-ion battery recycling facilities, are the two factors that will determine whether Europe benefits from the roll-out of sustainable electric vehicles. If smart charging can be built in, then some countries could save more than €1 billion a year, based on analysis of the national electricity grids in France, Italy, Spain and the UK.

The report – commissioned by a consortium of industry groups and T&E and carried out by the British consultancy Element Energy – recognises that increasing demand for electricity to charge e-vehicles could be a net cost or a net benefit to national grids, depending on how car charging is integrated. Using case studies of the four countries, it says an unmanaged uptake of car charging could place strains and costs on national grids, but if smart charging could be used the benefits can outweigh the costs by between €500 million and €1.3 billion per country per year by 2040, spread evenly across the different countries.

Smart charging is the ability to make use of times of peak electricity supply for charging, and to avoid times of greatest demand. In general it supported through price incentives to steer electricity use to times of low demand and high supply (for example, paying less to run a washing machine in the middle of the night). But Batteries on Wheels also looks at situations where there is excess renewable energy that the grid cannot easily integrate but EVs could absorb. This is where electric vehicles can help bring more renewables online for national governments.

T&E’s clean vehicles and e-mobility manager, Julia Poliscanova, said: ‘EVs will not crash our power grids, as some people misleadingly report. On the contrary, Batteries on Wheels shows that EVs can spare Europe’s grids from costly upgrades and allow more renewables to come online faster. But for this to happen, Europe’s governments have to set up systems for EVs to be charged at the right time of the day, for example during daytime in sunny countries.’

The study warns that Europe currently does not have enough capacity to recycle the batteries of the EVs now on its roads, and unless the EU’s new batteries directive sets ambitious targets for lithium-ion battery recycling, it will miss out on the valuable materials. Targets will provide investment certainty for Europe’s recycling industry, most of which handles lead acid batteries today but not the lithium-ion type used in electric cars.

Poliscanova added: ‘Recycling is not only a key pillar of sustainable production, it also has huge potential to keep critical metals such as cobalt and lithium in Europe, creating new green and ethical industries and jobs along the way.’