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The University of Southampton

Leading the charge

Preparing electricity infrastructure for a boom in electric vehicles

Published: 13 July 2016

Worldwide numbers of electric cars and trucks are set to rise from 1.7 million to 5.3 million by 2020. In the UK, the anticipated pressure that charging these vehicles will cause to the National Grid’s energy supply is a vital challenge that needs to be overcome. University of Southampton computer scientists have designed a new pricing system based on online auction platforms, to make charging electric vehicles more effective.

Five things you might not know about green electrics:

  • The UK government want nearly every vehicle in the country to be zero emission by 2050
  • On average it costs £2-£3 to fully charge an electric car, giving a typical range of 80 miles
  • There are 57,567 charging points in Britain, roughly double the number of electric cars registered on the road
  • A consortium including Land Rover and Nissan are exploring the use of F1 technology to make plug-in cars drive 25% further
  • Highways England have spent £200,000 investigating electric motorways, which can charge electric cars as they drive on them

Optimised charging

The researchers have devised a system where electric vehicle owners use computerised agents to bid for the energy to charge their vehicles, and to organise time slots when a vehicle is available for charging.

Dr Enrico Gerding, who is one of the academics leading this research, explains: “Plug-in electric vehicles are expected to place a considerable strain on local electricity distribution networks. If many vehicles charge simultaneously, they may overload the local distribution network; so their charging needs to be carefully scheduled.”

Enrico and his colleagues have designed a system which allows users to enter their details, including at what point they will need to use their car, and how far they are planning to drive. This scheduling process not only takes pressure away from the grid by charging vehicles in a logical ‘order’, but it also saves those users money who can be more flexible with their charging allocation.

Dr Sebastian Stein, who is undertaking this research alongside Enrico says: “Users can input a time when they plan to depart, and the system can reprice their usage if they depart earlier. We want people who actually need their cars to have what they need, so it is important that people are truthful about their requirements.”

The electricity infrastructure in the UK is not currently built to support the number of electric vehicles there are expected to be in use in the UK by 2020. “The local transformers which step down high voltage to low voltage, have been built for the electricity demands of a normal household, and they are already frequently at the top of their capacity. An electric vehicle draws at least the same power again as a normal household, so it doubles the energy consumption, which could be a huge problem,” explains Enrico.

Strong incentives

The proposed system that the team are developing incentivises people to be honest and flexible about their transport requirements. For example, for people who arrive home from work and don’t plan to use their car again until the morning, the system can charge the vehicle at an off-peak time, and the user will pay less than if they need to charge their car at a peak time.

“For us, it is all about incentivising the scheduling for the user,” comments Sebastian. “The way we do this is by lowering the charging costs the more flexible you can be. What’s more, the system should be very straightforward to use. All the user needs to do is tell the system what time they need their car, and everything else will be done automatically.” The team are expanding on their idea by looking at intelligent software components for this mechanism, which can detect the usual usage levels of individual cars, and can participate in the auction process on the owner’s behalf.

Enrico and Sebastian are currently collaborating with a leading international car manufacturer to address some of the challenges of transitioning their research from theory into practice. Enrico says: “The key problem for us at the moment is establishing whether we need a complex system that offers more flexibility to the user, or a simpler system that offers fewer flexible options for their charging schedule. Our priority however, is to ensure that the day-to-day commercial and personal users of the system can understand it.” They have developed the website, which turns the charging mechanisms into a game to test how users will interact with them.

Recently, Enrico and Sebastian have also started looking at a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) setting, where electric vehicles can give back power to the grid to support it at times of high demand and users can make a profit from selling this energy.

As electric vehicles become increasingly popular, it should be possible to link their energy storage capacity to the national grid. This should help relieve the grid and even out the peaks and troughs of power generation and storage during the times in the day when they are not being used.

Suleiman Sharkh - Professor of Power Electronics Machines and Drives

Storing power

Professor of Power Electronics Machines and Drives, Suleiman Sharkh and Professor of Energy Technology, Andrew Cruden, have received funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for a three-year project on V2G.

Two Southampton alumni have provided the equipment needed to undertake this research. REAP systems, founded by Dr Dennis Doerffel, designed, manufactured and installed the Energy Storage Solution based on Yuasa cell technology and the bidirectional grid-connected charger is designed and built by Dr Mohammad Abusara from HiT Power.

Using this charger, Suleiman and Andrew have been able to test the feasibility of charging and discharging batteries, and model ways to make the process more energy efficient, using smart grids with internet technology to control the system. They are undertaking this work in collaboration with colleagues at the universities of Sheffield, Warwick, Liverpool and Strathclyde in the UK and Huazhong and Tsinghua in China, in addition to China Electric Power Research Institute (CEPRI).

“As electric vehicles become increasingly popular, it should be possible to link their energy storage capacity to the national grid,” Suleiman explains. “This should help relieve the grid and even out the peaks and troughs of power generation and storage during the times in the day when they are not being used.”

Feasible solution

“We need to understand more about the practicalities of using car batteries in this way, whether the process would wear out the battery too quickly or cause too much inconvenience for the driver,” explains Suleiman. “Like us, our university partners are also involved in cutting-edge research in this area which could transform the energy generation and transport in years to come,” he adds.

In the medium term, it is important that we are focusing resources into the development of more effective electric vehicles. “The government is paying real attention to the development of electric vehicles, as they are currently the only feasible solution to reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector,” Sebastian says. “The Committee on Climate Change, an advisory group to the government, recommends that by 2040, all new cars need to be zero-emissions vehicles. As such, we will see a huge rise in electric cars in the UK.”

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