Electrical failure? Electric cars pose blackout threat to German cities

The power grid isn’t prepared for the approaching electric car boom. German utilities and researchers are sounding the alarm – and so are experts in other countries.
Quelle: dpa
A dim future.
(Source: dpa)

Electric cars are the future – even Germany’s diesel-besotted auto industry is starting to realize that.

At present, purely battery-powered vehicles make up less than 1 percent of the 46 million cars on German roads but by 2035, one in three cars in Germany may be electric.

Driven by the rise of Tesla and the threat of driving bans in German cities for aging diesel cars, the country’s top automakers are finally preparing the mass rollout of electric models. Daimler, the maker of Mercedes cars, plans to offer each of its models in electric versions as soon as 2023.

The problem though, in Germany as in other countries preparing for the e-car revolution, is that the power grid isn’t equipped to cope. Utilities and researchers are warning that major investments in the networks will be needed to avoid power shortages when drivers finally start embracing e-mobility.

Charging one car requires a similar amount of power as a typical household uses in three days, so networks could be damaged even if relatively small numbers of e-cars are being charged within one neighborhood at the same time. That spike in power demand would be especially pronounced with so-called superchargers that consume large amounts of electricity to load batteries in just half an hour.

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Research shows that 80 percent of e-cars are charged at home or at work in Germany. “If everyone wants to charge up their car at the same time at 8 p.m., the grid will go bang,” warned Thomas Fritz, an energy analyst at Oliver Wyman.

Utility managers in Germany say it’s time for industry, government and society to work together to prevent problems not so far down the road.

“Even from an e-car proportion of 30 percent, there will be large-scale power outages unless countermeasures are taken,” consultancy Oliver Wyman and the Munich Technical University warned in an upcoming study. “In localized areas, there will be supply bottlenecks in the coming five to 10 years, for example, in suburban areas with a high take-up of electromobility.”

Electric cars will pose a risk of blackouts, first in affluent exurbs of cities like Munich, Frankfurt or Berlin and then later nationwide. It’s cold comfort that other countries face the same problem. Green Alliance, a British think tank, last year warned that Britain’s energy networks weren’t ready either for the surge in electric cars coming within the next few years.

It warned that if no action is taken by 2020, local clusters of the battery powered cars could lead to 1 percent of Britain suffering unplanned voltage drops, so-called “brownouts,” which can damage electronic equipment. It only takes six electric vehicles located close to one other to lead to such voltage drops.

Germany’s electricity grid is outdated in many parts of the country. Some of the lines are more than 80 years old and must be replaced. This will take time, especially in a country so notoriously bureaucratic. Projects have to be approved before streets can be torn up for thicker cables to be laid.

Governments are lagging behind industry...

“We face a mammoth task,” said Hildegard Müller, who heads the network and infrastructure division at German renewable utility Innogy, a unit of RWE. “The expansion of electric mobility is manageable but we must lay the groundwork now.”

Oliver Wyman estimates that Germany will have to invest up to €11 billion ($13.45 billion) in the next 15 years to prepare the grid for e-mobility. Innogy's Ms. Müller agreed, adding that by 2030 investments of about €1 billion per year will be neecessary.

Think tank Aurora Energy Research has said the power system would have to hold five gigawatts of power available to handle demand spikes from electric cars. That would mean "oh-so-clean" batteries would be charged with power from coal, among the dirtiest sources of energy. But there’s an alternative to costly grid expansion: flexible, deferred charging systems that would mean a car doesn’t start draining the grid the second it’s plugged in, but rather later during the night.

If 30 percent of electric car owners in the future high-density e-car districts were to use such a smart-charging system, strain on the grid could be lessened significantly, according to the study by Oliver Wyman and Munich’s Technical University. If network operators managed to get 92.5 percent or more e-car owners on board for deferred charging, the grid wouldn’t have to be expanded at all.

The problem right now is that network operators can't influence city planning, and therefore the locations of charging points. “Legislation is needed here,” said Mr. Fritz.

Governments are lagging behind industry, which has already developed technical solutions. In Britain, most of the 12,000-plus charging points in the UK are “dumb,” with smart technology largely confined to pilot projects. Green Alliance has called on the government to require all new charging points to be smart from now on.

Some 60 companies including leading European manufacturers are developing the open EEBUS standard, a world language of energy for the era of the Internet of Things allowing the smart interaction of solar panels, heatings, household appliances and e-car charging points.

It’s close to being ready for the mass market, and it will give rise to new business models. “Customers who are prepared to store excess power in the batteries of their electric cars to relieve the power grid will in the future be able to earn money or at least save money with their car,” said Gunnar Bärwaldt, Group Development Coordinator for Charging at the Volkswagen Group. “The vehicle should be able to decide itself of the battery has enough power and judge by pricing tables whether it makes economic sense to store power at a particular time or to release it into the grid.”

Germany’s leading solar power group, SMA Solar, also sees new business opportunities. “Electric cars can be used as intermediate stores for solar power from the roof of one’s house and to balance out fluctuations in the power grid,” said SMA manager Frank Blessing.

Jürgen Flauger covers the utility industry for Handelsblatt. Frank Hubik cover energy for Handelsblatt. David Crossland in Berlin adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]