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Perspectives Global 30-10-2020

Carbon-neutral society needs a better energy-mobility nexus

In this Perspective, André Burdet, Hitachi ABB Power Grids, explores how the emergence of electric mobility interconnects with sustainable energy to deliver on the promise of future cities as we journey towards a carbon-neutral society.

Transportation is integral to sustainable cities

The move towards cities of the future is an exciting journey. Despite the current global pandemic, cities will continue to be the powerhouses of economic growth. Home to big businesses, policy makers and billions of urban dwellers, cities are intense, dynamic and vibrant places. 

The rapid growth and evolution of cities presents huge opportunities and challenges for societies and the communities who live, work and relax in them – ideally, in harmony. UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 sets out its Members’ commitment to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. As part of a green economic recovery, the world’s governments are in the process of planning stimulus projects. Sustainable infrastructure investments will help to serve as a springboard for human progress. 

Transportation is integral to the success of any city. Sustainable urban development requires the efficient transportation and movement of people and goods – to, inside and between cities – a pre-requisite for societies to thrive and prosper. For example, the creation of the London’s Metropolitan Railway in 1863 made the City, the UK and its people an early entry into the Second Industrial Revolution. Interestingly, this was not only enabled by the Railway itself, but also by the implementation of the supporting infrastructure, from coal mining to tracks construction. The later scale-up of the Metropolitan definitely changed the face of the urban environment of the UK and created whole new socio-economic sectors. 

Our expectations of living and working in urban environments will continue to increase, stretching far beyond what the Second Industrial Revolution could ultimately deliver.

Across the world, city dwellers expect an even greater standard and quality of life – cleaner, safer, more convenient, more reliable, more flexible, more accessible and more mobile living.

Electric mobility epitomizes these expectations: intelligent cars, lorries, buses, trams and trains that run on net zero-emission energy will move life everywhere and more sustainably.

Powering the future of green mobility 

A phenomenal number of electric cars – more than 100 million – are forecast to be on our roads by 2030. This is a phenomenal 30-fold increase from today. Similarly, more than one million electric buses are expected to transport people in cities across the world’s five continents. And for sustainable society to keep flowing, these electric vehicles (EV’s) will need to be charged from renewable sources of energy. 

By 2030, more than 500 TWh of electricity will be required to power these EV’s – resulting in a potential saving of several Gt of CO2 emissions. To give a sense of scale, France’s annual consumption of electricity in 2019 was in the same range. And 2030 is just a first step along the path. By 2040, electricity demand for EV’s will be near to ten percent of global electricity demand. The rate of EV adoption will only continue to rise – and so too will global demand for flexible, reliable, sustainable and affordable electricity. 

To fulfill the vision of sustainable cities and transportation, the world’s energy systems need to be evolved to accommodate this rapid pace of change.

Moving towards carbon-neutral society takes more than filling our cities with electric vehicles. To succeed, we must also install energy systems that act as the backbone for powering future cities and the transportation network, whilst keeping the lights on at an affordable cost.

The new energy-mobility nexus 

Electricity networks are the glue that will enable a truly sustainable electric mobility system and are integral to our future smart cities. Two building blocks are essential: 

  1. Energy-mobility connection point: an intelligent and convenient charging infrastructure spread across cities and national geographies alike that will work for cars and lorries driven by individuals, as well as public transport like buses, trains and trams.   
  2. At the power network level: an adapted and digitally-enhanced grid infrastructure that can host large volumes of renewable power and bring it reliably to an extended spectrum of consumers.  

Both pose essential challenges to the realization of the electric transportation vision. 

However, they can be technically managed and consequently, tremendous opportunities result from taking a holistic new ‘energy-mobility nexus’ – ultimately, making the connection between a better quality of life and economic development.

It’s time to team up!

One of the major challenges for the new energy-mobility nexus is to bring several industrial sectors together.

Specifically, as electric mobility ramps up, energy and mobility stakeholders need to converge to a common set of systems and the way they interface. This is not only about technology, but also relates to business models, regulations and policies.

For example, when a public transport operator switches from internal combustion to electric propulsion, it is reliant on new sources of energy and new alternatives will be offered to integrate its network within the urban environment. Conversely, electricity providers will suddenly need to support new forms of ‘take-out’ from their network. 

At present, the process of stakeholder cooperation is not yet laid down. As such, the risk is that not only the vehicle and the supporting energy infrastructure are not optimized, but also that they do not work together as one cohesive system. Without closer collaboration, the likely result is expensive retrofits at a later stage, which is not sustainable. 

Scale-up is the challenge  

So why are we still waiting to see greater collaboration? Mostly because until today the electric mobility market has just been emerging. Only a tiny fraction of vehicles are electric and therefore the need for charging has been addressed by ‘just’ installing a charger – resulting in no significant impact to the existing fleet operations or the electric grid.

However, as we move forward, the scale-up of electric vehicle fleet operations is on its way to making the energy-mobility nexus very apparent.

We are moving from kW’s to MW’s – from low to high utilization.

Energy and mobility actors feel this coming, albeit, it is still unclear what will be the role and responsibilities of everyone involved. Some big questions are on the table: 

  • How should the transportation networks and power grids of tomorrow be co-designed and operated? 
  • What would be the most appropriate technologies to connect both? 
  • What would be the most efficient business models of trade between them?

In order to address these questions and deliver effective solutions, we need to first establish a dialogue and strong cooperation between the expert stakeholders – ranging from technology providers, energy suppliers and vehicle manufacturers to transport operators and urban planners. The formation of sustainable partnerships across these stakeholder groups will help break the silos along the ‘grid-plug-vehicle value-chain’, enabling a greater system-wide approach to make rapid scale-up a reality. 

Electric mobility hubs

But what about the specifics of a greater system-wide approach? 

At present, EV charging infrastructures are being developed in very disparate ways across the world. Flurries of single charging stations for cars are popping up all over urban areas and charging facilities for public transport are considered separately.

To prevent against a potentially very messy system that is difficult to maintain and somewhat redundant, electric mobility hubs are recommended.

These hubs – essentially ‘charging centers’ – offer a more efficient approach to planning in urban and sub-urban areas, and will also aid the switchover to more digital forms of mobility-energy management. For cars, hubs could be installed in existing infrastructure like car parks, or car rental centers. For public transportation vehicles, depots and terminal stations provide ideal locations. And a system of hubs within and around cities can be planned for efficient energy-mobility integration.  

The wide-scale implementation of electric mobility hubs would seamlessly integrate grid connection systems together with configurable charging ports over an area.

Whilst we may think these hubs would simply replace gas stations, they would in fact be able to do much more. They would include digital platforms for managing fleets and energy flows altogether. They would be able to operate flexibly ‘on and off’ grid, host solar panels and storage facilities, as well as other commercial activities. They would also help to maximize energy conservation and affordability locally, acting as ‘micro energy hubs’. These hubs would indeed offer the opportunity to effectively organize micro energy trading between fleet operators, energy providers and end-consumers.

In short, no matter how vehicle technology evolves and power demand grows, electric mobility hubs would enable municipalities to have greater control over how they upgrade their infrastructure as EV usage expands and leverage them to organize a better energy system in their area.

The intelligent grid

To close the loop on sustainability, we must develop the grids of the world to cope with very high shares of renewable energy sources to enable the reliable delivery of clean electricity towards carbon-neutral society.

This will mean much more dynamic power flows at all levels of the grid – we will move from broadcasting to ‘networking’ electricity.

An intelligent grid should have the ability to balance a higher variability of supply and demand, whilst being able to support of all forms of storage systems – including electric vehicles themselves. 

The good news is that the existing grids of the world can be adapted for this more elevated mission. Recent advancements in grid technologies, systems and services offer a line of sight. Some essential technologies revolve around power electronics and digital solutions and a combination of the two. Examples of multiples, such as HVDC, Statcom and Grid Edge systems can be beefed up with digital connectivity from their core to cloud platforms. These systems and many others will allow the upgrade of existing assets and the creation of new corridors of energy – more versatile than ever – through our lands and cities whilst massively reducing their visible footprint. Combined, this will empower the new nexus of electric mobility to truly deliver upon our society’s call for greater green consciousness. 

Moving forward… 

Global energy and mobility systems are at an inflection point. 

The decisions that we make in the next decade will define how people move for the next generation.

Now is the time to get this right. Delivering new transportation systems for carbon-neutral society requires the formation of cross-industry sustainable partnerships to bridge the silos. It needs a system-wide approach in the interconnection point of the energy-mobility nexus. And investment is needed to enhance the grids of the world to be future fit to accommodate the rapid adoption of electric vehicles, which are powered by renewable energy sources.  

Contact our experts 

To help progress your smart city / urban mobility plans, get in touch with André or another expert from Hitachi ABB Power Grids. Our experts bring in-depth insight from the world’s energy-mobility systems and come with a green conscious mindset.  

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