BP plugs into EV revolution with Chargemaster deal
BP has opened its chequebook to buy the UK’s biggest electric vehicle (EV) recharging operator. With a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars due to come into force by 2040, it looks like a smart move by an oil major keen to future-proof its lucrative retail business.
But it also raises important questions about the ability of the county’s power networks to cope with surges in demand from electrified personal transport.
Will Britain’s “wooden pole” electricity distribution network installed during the last century be able to cope with a full-scale EV revolution on our roads, and if so will enough power be available without causing blackout-inducing demand surges when everyone plugs in their EV at the same time after making the school run?
By 2040, BP expects there to be 12 million EVs dodging potholes on Britain’s overstretched and overcrowded roads, up from a mere 135,000 registered plug-in cars in 2017. If these numbers are correct then the company’s investment in Chargemaster looks shrewd.
Not only does Chargemaster run more than 6,500 EV plug-in points across the country, it also sells charging equipment for homes and businesses, which is where the problems could arise.
Unlike service stations, which can be plugged directly into the more robust high-voltage grid, home chargers depend on the supply of electricity through a web of rickety poles and low-voltage cables.
This network already struggles to cope when all the country’s kettles are turned on during peak hours, like when it’s half-time at the World Cup and England are playing.
The kind of EV revolution that BP envisages may cause problems without billions of pounds of investment channelled into boosting the electricity network, or radically overhauling the structure of the domestic market.
According to research from My Electric Avenue – a project supported by power and gas watchdog Ofgem – about a third of the local electricity network in the UK will require investment when between 40pc and 70pc of customers have an EV parked outside their home.
Adding to the problem, since 2007 and the credit crunch, UK electricity demand has been in decline. Britain consumed 331 terawatt hours of transmission grid-delivered power in 2008.
Last year that figure had dropped by a fifth to 265 terawatt hours. Load on networks has also eased due to advances in technology – like lowvoltage light bulbs, white goods and smart metering. Although this has deferred investment in networks, the EV revolution could be about to deliver a sizeable – and very expensive – shock to distributors and potentially consumers.
The problem is already slowing the take up of EVs by businesses. Delivery company UPS had to fall back on a battery storage system because the network in the London Borough of Camden couldn’t cope with its plan to introduce a fleet of 170 EV delivery vans to the capital.
The solution to the problem has come from a battery energy storage system, which allows the company to take the burden off the creaking local network and increase the number of 7.5 ton EV lorries it operates from 65 to 170.
Millions of homes across the country will also require rewiring to accommodate fast chargers. Anything quicker than at least several hours to fully recharge a top-of-therange EV with a 90 kilowatt-hour battery is likely to be more than most residential networks can handle.
In simple terms, plugging in an EV doubles a household’s load on the network. How to persuade drivers not to plug in and charge during the teatime peak is already giving distributors sleepless nights.
“At BP we believe that fast and convenient charging is critical to support the successful adoption of electric vehicles,” said Tufan Erginbilgic, chief executive, BP Downstream. Of course, new technology will play a big role in reducing the risks of entire streets in our cities going dark when everyone plugs in their EVs simultaneously.
Smart charging could provide a solution. The system works by adjusting charging times to the most competitive electricity prices available, helping to fine tune network demand. Domestic battery storage is another area offering flexibility, allowing households to top up an EV from own-solar energy stored through the day.
For BP the major investment into EV charging makes sense despite the risks of overburdened power networks. At the dawn of the modern motor car, BP’s forebear Anglo-Persian Oil Company drilled the Middle East’s first oil wells.
Today, world oil demand may be set to breach 100 million barrels per day for the first time in history but petroleum’s future has never looked so uncertain.
Higher prices, climate change and reducing air pollution are all encouraging governments to heavily subsidise the electrification of vehicle transport. By 2040,
300 million EVs may be on the world’s roads, compared to fewer than 3 million today.
Investing in this revolution makes sense despite Britain’s fragile electrical infrastructure.
‘New tech will play a big role in reducing the risks of entire streets in our cities going dark when everyone charges EVs’