Tag: transport

What is net zero?

Skyscraper vertical forest in Milan

For age-old rivals Glasgow and Edinburgh, the race to the top has taken a sharp turn downwards. Instead, they’re in a race to the bottom to earn the title of the first ‘net zero’ carbon city in the UK.

While they might be battling to be the first in the UK to reach net zero, they are far from the only cities with net zero in their sights. In the wake of the growing climate emergency, cities, companies and countries around the world have all announced their own ambitions for hitting ‘net zero’.

It has become a global focus based on necessity – for the world to hit the Paris Agreement targets and limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius, it’s predicted the world must become net zero by 2070.

Yet despite its ubiquity, net zero is a term that’s not always fully understood. So, what does net zero actually mean?

Glasgow, Scotland. Host of COP26.

What does net zero mean?

‘Going net zero’ most often refers specifically to reaching net zero carbon emissions. But this doesn’t just mean cutting all emissions down to zero.

Instead, net zero describes a state where the greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted [*] and removed by a company, geographic area or facility is in balance.

In practice, this means that as well as making efforts to reduce its emissions, an entity must capture, absorb or offset an equal amount of carbon from the atmosphere to the amount it releases. The result is that the carbon it emits is the same as the amount it removes, so it does not increase carbon levels in the atmosphere. Its carbon contributions are effectively zero – or more specifically, net zero.

The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment likens the net zero target to running a bath – an ideal level of water can be achieved by either turning down the taps (the mechanism adding emissions) or draining some of the water from the bathtub (the thing removing of emissions from the atmosphere). If these two things are equally matched, the water level in the bath doesn’t change.

To reach net zero and drive a sustained effort to combat climate change, a similar overall balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere must be achieved.

But while the analogy of a bath might make it sound simple, actually reaching net zero at the scale necessary will take significant work across industries, countries and governments.

How to achieve net zero

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommends that to reach net zero all industries must be widely decarbonised, heavy good vehicles must switch to low-carbon fuel sources, and a fifth of agricultural land must change to alternative uses that bolster emission reductions, such as biomass production.

However, given the nature of many of these industries (and others considered ‘hard-to-treat’, such as aviation and manufacturing), completely eliminating emissions is often difficult or even impossible. Instead, residual emissions must be counterbalanced by natural or engineered solutions.

Natural solutions can include afforestation (planting new forests) and reforestation (replanting trees in areas that were previous forestland), which use trees’ natural ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere to offset emissions.

On the other hand, engineering solutions such as carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) can capture and permanently store carbon from industry before it’s released into the atmosphere. It is estimated this technology can capture in excess of 90% of the carbon released by fossil fuels during power generation or industrial processes such as cement production.

Negative emissions essential to achieving net zero

Click to view/download graphic. Source: Zero Carbon Humber.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) could actually take this a step further and lead to a net removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere, often referred to as negative emissions. BECCS combines the use of biomass as a fuel source with CCUS. When that biomass comes from trees grown in responsibly managed working forests that absorb carbon, it becomes a low carbon fuel. When this process is combined with CCUS and the carbon emissions are captured at point of the biomass’ use, the overall process removes more carbon than is released, creating ‘negative emissions’.

According to the Global CCS Institute, BECCS is quickly emerging as the best solution to decarbonise emission-heavy industries. A joint report by The Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society estimates that BECCS could help the UK to capture 50 million tonnes of carbon per year by 2050 – eliminating almost half of the emissions projected to remain in the economy.

The UK’s move to net zero

In June 2019, the UK became the first major global economy to pass a law to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It is one of a small group of countries, including France and Sweden, that have enacted this ambition into law, forcing the government to take action towards meeting net zero.

Electrical radiator

Although this is an ambitious target, the UK is making steady progress towards it. In 2018 the UK’s emissions were 44% below 1990 levels, while some of the most intensive industries are fast decarbonising – June 2019 saw the carbon content of electricity hit an all-time low, falling below 100 g/kWh for the first time. This is especially important as the shift to net zero will create a much greater demand for electricity as fossil fuel use in transport and home heating must be switched with power from the grid.

Hitting net zero will take more than just this consistent reduction in emissions, however. An increase in capture and removal technologies will also be required. On the whole, the CCC predict an estimated 75 to 175 million tonnes of carbon and equivalent emissions will need to be removed by CCUS solutions annually in 2050 to fully meet the UK’s net zero target.

This will need substantial financial backing. The CCC forecasts that, at present, a net zero target can be reached at an annual resource cost of up to 1-2% of GDP between now and 2050. However, there is still much debate about the role the global carbon markets need to play to facilitate a more cost-effective and efficient way for countries to work together through market mechanisms.

Industries across the UK are starting to take affirmative action to work towards the net zero target. In the energy sector, projects such as Drax Power Station’s carbon capture pilots are turning BECCS increasingly into a reality ready to be deployed at scale.

Along with these individual projects, reaching net zero also requires greater cooperation across the industrial sectors. The Zero Carbon Humber partnership between energy companies, industrial emitters and local organisations, for example, aims to deliver the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster in the Humber region by the mid-2020s.

Nonetheless, efforts from all sectors must be made to ensure that the UK stays on course to meet all its immediate and long-term emissions targets. And regardless of whether or not Edinburgh or Glasgow realise their net zero goals first, the competition demonstrates how important the idea of net zero has become and society’s drive for real change across the UK.

Drax has announced an ambition to become carbon negative by 2030 – removing more carbon from the atmosphere than produced in our operations, creating a negative carbon footprint. Track our progress at Towards Carbon Negative.

[*] In this article we’ve simplified our explanation of net zero. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG). It is also a long-lived GHG that creates warming that persists in the long term. Although the land and ocean absorb it, a significant proportion stays in the atmosphere for centuries or even millennia causing climate change. It is, therefore, the most important GHG to abate. Other long-lived GHGs include include nitrous oxide (N2O, lifetime of circa 120 years) and some F-Gasses (e.g. SF6 with a lifetime of circa 3,200 years). GHGs are often aggregated as carbon dioxide equivalent (abbreviated as CO2e or CO2eq) and it is this that net zero targets measure. In this article, ‘carbon’ is used for simplicity and as a proxy for ‘carbon dioxide’, ‘CO2‘, ‘GHGs’ or ‘CO2e’.

What is LNG and how is it cutting global shipping emissions?

Oil tanker, Gas tanker operation at oil and gas terminal.

Shipping is widely considered the most efficient form of cargo transport. As a result, it’s the transportation of choice for around 90% of world trade. But even as the most efficient, it still accounts for roughly 3% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

This may not sound like much, but it amounts to 1 billion tonnes of COand other greenhouse gases per year – more than the UK’s total emissions output. In fact, if shipping were a country, it would be the sixth largest producer of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And unless there are drastic changes, emissions related to shipping could increase from between 50% and 250% by 2050.

As well as emitting GHGs that directly contribute towards the climate emergency, big ships powered by fossil fuels such as bunker fuel (also known as heavy fuel oil) release other emissions. These include two that can have indirect impacts – sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Both impact air quality and can have human health and environmental impacts.

As a result, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) is introducing measures that will actively look to force shipping companies to reduce their emissions. In January 2020 it will bring in new rules that dictate all vessels will need to use fuels with a sulphur content of below 0.5%.

One approach ship owners are taking to meet these targets is to fit ‘scrubbers’– devices which wash exhausts with seawater, turning the sulphur oxides emitted from burning fossil fuel oils into harmless calcium sulphate. But these will only tackle the sulphur problem, and still mean that ships emit CO2.

Another approach is switching to cleaner energy alternatives such as biofuels, batteries or even sails, but the most promising of these based on existing technology is liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

What is LNG?

In its liquid form, natural gas can be used as a fuel to power ships, replacing heavy fuel oil, which is more typically used, emissions-heavy and cheaper. But first it needs to be turned into a liquid.

To do this, raw natural gas is purified to separate out all impurities and liquids. This leaves a mixture of mostly methane and some ethane, which is passed through giant refrigerators that cool it to -162oC, in turn shrinking its volume by 600 times.

The end product is a colourless, transparent, non-toxic liquid that’s much easier to store and transport, and can be used to power specially constructed LNG-ready ships, or by ships retrofitted to run on LNG. As well as being versatile, it has the potential to reduce sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides by 90 to 95%, while emitting 10 to 20% less COthan heavier fuel alternatives.

The cost of operating a vessel on LNG is around half that of ultra-low sulphur marine diesel (an alternative fuel option for ships aiming to lower their sulphur output), and it’s also future-proofed in a way that other low-sulphur options are not. As emissions standards become stricter in the coming years, vessels using natural gas would still fall below any threshold.

The industry is starting to take notice. Last year 78 vessels were fitted to run on LNG, the highest annual number to date.

One company that has already embraced the switch to LNG is Estonia’s Graanul Invest. Europe’s largest wood pellet producer and a supplier to Drax Power Station, Graanul is preparing to introduce custom-built vessels that run on LNG by 2020.

The new ships will have the capacity to transport around 9,000 tonnes of compressed wood pellets and Graanul estimates that switching to LNG has the potential to lower its COemissions by 25%, to cut NOx emissions by 85%, and to almost completely eliminate SOand particulate matter pollution.  

Is LNG shipping’s only viable option?

LNG might be leading the charge towards cleaner shipping, but it’s not the only solution on the table. Another potential is using advanced sail technology to harness wind, which helps power large cargo ships. More than just an innovative way to upscale a centuries-old method of navigating the seas, it is one that could potentially be retrofitted to cargo ships and significantly reduce emissions.

Drax is currently taking part in a study with the Smart Green Shipping Alliance, Danish dry bulk cargo transporter Ultrabulk and Humphreys Yacht Design, to assess the possibility of retrofitting innovative sail technology onto one of its ships for importing biomass.

Manufacturers are also looking at battery power as a route to lowering emissions. Last year, boats using battery-fitted technology similar to that used by plug-in cars were developed for use in Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands, while Dutch company Port-Liner are currently building two giant all-electric barges – dubbed ‘Tesla ships’ – that will be powered by battery packs and can carry up to 280 containers.

Then there are projects exploring the use of ammonia (which can be produced from air and water using renewable electricity), and hydrogen fuel cell technology. In short, there are many options on the table, but few that can be implemented quickly, and at scale – two things which are needed by the industry. Judged by these criteria, LNG remains the frontrunner.

There are currently just 125 ships worldwide using LNG, but these numbers are expected to increase by between 400 and 600 by 2020. Given that the world fleet boasts more than 60,000 commercial ships, this remains a drop in the ocean, but with the right support it could be the start of a large scale move towards cleaner waterways.

What is a fuel cell and how will they help power the future?

A model fuel cell car

NASA Museum, Houston, Texas

How do you get a drink in space? That was one of the challenges for NASA in the 1960s and 70s when its Gemini and Apollo programmes were first preparing to take humans into space.

The answer, it turned out, surprisingly lay in the electricity source of the capsules’ control modules. Primitive by today’s standard, these panels were powered by what are known as fuel cells, which combined hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity. The by-product of this reaction is heat but also water – pure enough for astronauts to drink.

Fuel cells offered NASA a much better option than the clunky batteries and inefficient solar arrays of the 1960s, and today they still remain on the forefront of energy technology, presenting the opportunity to clean up roads, power buildings and even help to reduce and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from power stations.

Power through reaction

At its most basic, a fuel cell is a device that uses a fuel source to generate electricity through a series of chemical reactions.

All fuel cells consist of three segments, two catalytic electrodes – a negatively charged anode on one side and a positively charged cathode on the other, and an electrolyte separating them. In a simple fuel cell, hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, is pumped to one electrode and oxygen to the other. Two different reactions then occur at the interfaces between the segments which generates electricity and water.

What allows this reaction to generate electricity is the electrolyte, which selectively transports charged particles from one electrode to the other. These charged molecules link the two reactions at the cathode and anode together and allow the overall reaction to occur. When the chemicals fed into the cell react at the electrodes, it creates an electrical current that can be harnessed as a power source.

Many different kinds of chemicals can be used in a fuel cell, such as natural gas or propane instead of hydrogen. A fuel cell is usually named based on the electrolyte used. Different electrolytes selectively transport different molecules across. The catalysts at either side are specialised to ensure that the correct reactions can occur at a fast enough rate.

For the Apollo missions, for example, NASA used alkaline fuel cells with potassium hydroxide electrolytes, but other types such as phosphoric acids, molten carbonates, or even solid ceramic electrolytes also exist.

The by-products to come out of a fuel cell all depend on what goes into it, however, their ability to generate electricity while creating few emissions, means they could have a key role to play in decarbonisation.

Fuel cells as a battery alternative

Fuel cells, like batteries, can store potential energy (in the form of chemicals), and then quickly produce an electrical current when needed. Their key difference, however, is that while batteries will eventually run out of power and need to be recharged, fuel cells will continue to function and produce electricity so long as there is fuel being fed in.

One of the most promising uses for fuel cells as an alternative to batteries is in electric vehicles.

Rachel Grima, a Research and Innovation Engineer at Drax, explains:

“Because it’s so light, hydrogen has a lot of potential when it comes to larger vehicles, like trucks and boats. Whereas battery-powered trucks are more difficult to design because they’re so heavy.”

These vehicles can pull in oxygen from the surrounding air to react with the stored hydrogen, producing only heat and water vapour as waste products. Which – coupled with an expanding network of hydrogen fuelling stations around the UK, Europe and US – makes them a transport fuel with a potentially big future.

Fuel cells, in conjunction with electrolysers, can also operate as large-scale storage option. Electrolysers operate in reverse to fuel cells, using excess electricity from the grid to produce hydrogen from water and storing it until it’s needed. When there is demand for electricity, the hydrogen is released and electricity generation begins in the fuel cell.

A project on the islands of Orkney is using the excess electricity generated by local, community-owned wind turbines to power a electrolyser and store hydrogen, that can be transported to fuel cells around the archipelago.

Fuel cells’ ability to take chemicals and generate electricity is also leading to experiments at Drax for one of the most important areas in energy today: carbon capture.

Turning COto power

Drax is already piloting bioenergy carbon capture and storage technologies, but fuel cells offer the unique ability to capture and use carbon while also adding another form of electricity generation to Drax Power Station.

“We’re looking at using a molten carbonate fuel cell that operates on natural gas, oxygen and CO2,” says Grima. “It’s basic chemistry that we can exploit to do carbon capture.”

The molten carbonate, a 600 degrees Celsius liquid made up of either lithium potassium or lithiumsodium carbonate sits in a ceramic matrix and functions as the electrolyte in the fuel cell. Natural gas and steam enter on one side and pass through a reformer that converts them into hydrogen and CO2.

On the other side, flue gas – the emissions (including biogenic CO2) which normally enter the atmosphere from Drax’s biomass units – is captured and fed into the cell alongside air from the atmosphere. The CO2and oxygen (O2) pass over the electrode where they form carbonate (CO32-) which is transported across the electrolyte to then react with the hydrogen (H2), creating an electrical charge.

“It’s like combining an open cycle gas turbine (OCGT) with carbon capture,” says Grima. “It has the electrical efficiency of an OCGT. But the difference is it captures COfrom our biomass units as well as its own CO2.”

Along with capturing and using CO2, the fuel cell also reduces nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions from the flue gas, some of which are destroyed when the O2and CO2 react at the electrode.

From the side of the cell where flue gas enters a CO2-depleted gas is released. On the other side of the cell the by-products are water and CO2.

During a government-supported front end engineering and design (FEED) study starting this spring, this COwill also be captured, then fed through a pipeline running from Drax Power Station into the greenhouse of a nearby salad grower. Here it will act to accelerate the growth of tomatoes.

The partnership between Drax, FuelCell Energy, P3P Partners and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy could provide an additional opportunity for the UK’s biggest renewable power generator to deploy bioenergy carbon capture usage and storage (BECCUS) at scale in the mid 2020s.

From powering space ships in the 70s to offering greenhouse-gas free transport, fuel cells continue to advance. As low-carbon electricity sources become more important they’re set to play a bigger role yet.

Learn more about carbon capture, usage and storage in our series:

Electricity and magnetism: the relationship that makes the modern world work

Locked in a Parisian vault and stored in a double set of bell jars is a small cylinder of metal. Made of platinum-iridium, the carefully guarded lump weighs exactly one kilogram. But more than just weighing one kilogram, it is the kilogram from which all other official kilograms are weighed.

International prototype kilogram with protective double glass bell

Known as the International Prototype Kilogram, or colloquially as Le Grand K, the weight was created in 1889 and has been carefully replicated to offer nations around the world a standardised kilogram. But over time Le Grand K and its clones have slightly deteriorated through wear and tear, despite extremely careful use. In an age of micro and nanotechnology, bits of metal aren’t quite accurate enough to dictate global weighs and so as of May this year it will no longer be the global measurement for a kilogram. An electromagnet is part of its replacement.

An electromagnet is effectively a magnet that is ‘turned on’ by running an electric current through it. Cutting the current turns it off, while increasing or decreasing the strength of the current increases and decreases the power of the magnet.

It can be used to measure a kilogram very precisely thanks to something called a Kibble Balance, which is essentially a set of scales. However, instead of using weights it uses an electromagnet to pull down one side. Because the electric current flowing through the electromagnet can be increased, decreased and measured very, very accurately, it means scientists can define any weight – in this case a kilogram – by the amount of electrical current needed to balance the scale.

This radical overhaul of how weights are defined means scientists won’t have to fly off to Paris every time they need precise kilograms. Beyond just replacing worn-out weights, however, it highlights the versatility and potential of electromagnets, from their use in electricity generation to creating hard drives and powering speakers.

The simple way to make a magnet

Magnets and electricity might at first not seem closely connected. One powers your fridge, the other attaches holiday souvenirs to it. The former certainly feels more useful. However, the relationship between magnetic and electric fields is as close as two sides of the same coin. They are both aspects of the same force: electromagnetism.

Electromagnetism is very complicated and there’re still aspects of it that are unknown today. It was thinking about electromagnetism that led Einstein to come up with his theory of special relativity. However, actually creating an electromagnet is relatively straightforward.

All matter is made up of atoms. Every neutral atom’s core is made up of static neutrons and protons, with electrons spinning around them. These electrons have a charge and a mass, giving the electrons a tiny magnetic field. In most matter all atoms are aligned in random ways and effectively all cancel each other out to render the matter non-magnetic. But if the atoms and their electrons can all be aligned in the same direction then the object becomes magnetic.

A magnet can stick to an object like a paperclip because its permanent magnetic field realigns the atoms in the paperclip to make it temporarily magnetic too – allowing the magnetic forces to line up and the materials to attract. However, once the paper clip is taken away from the magnet its atoms fall out of sync and point in random directions, cancelling out each other’s magnetic fields once again.

Whether a material can become magnetic or not relies on a similar principal as to whether it can conduct electricity. Materials like wood and glass are poor conductors because their atoms have a strong hold over their electrons. By contrast, materials like metals have a loose hold on their electrons and so are good conductors and easily magnetised. Nickle, cobalt and iron are described as ferromagnetic, because their atoms can stay in sync making them a permanent magnet. But when magnets really become useful is when electricity gets involved.

Putting magnets to work

Running an electric current through a material with a weak hold on its electrons causes them to align, creating an electromagnetic field. Because of the relationships between electric and magnetic fields, the strength of the electromagnet can also be altered by increasing or decreasing the current, while switching the flow of the current will flip its north and south poles.

Having this much control over a magnetic field makes it very useful in everyday life, including how we generate electricity.

Find out how we rewind a generator core in a clean room at the heart of Drax Power Station

Inside each of the six generator cores at Drax Power Station, is a 120-tonne rotor. When a voltage is applied, this piece of equipment becomes a massive electromagnet. When steam powers the turbines to rotate it at 3,000 rpm the rotor’s very powerful magnetic field knocks electrons in the copper bars of the surrounding stator out of place, sending them zooming through the metal, in turn generating an electrical current that is sent out to the grid. The 660 megawatts (MW) of active power Drax’s Unit 1 can export into the national transmission system is enough to power 1.3 million homes for an hour.

Beyond just producing electricity, however, electromagnets are also used to make it useful to everyday life.  Almost anything electric that depends on moving parts, from pumping loud speakers to circuit breakers to the motors of electric cars, depend on electromagnets. As more decarbonisation efforts lead to greater electrification of areas like transport, electromagnets will remain vital to daily life into the future.

This is how you unload a wood chip truck

Truck raising and lowering

A truck arrives at an industrial facility deep in the expanding forestland of the south-eastern USA. It passes through a set of gates, over a massive scale, then onto a metal platform.

The driver steps out and pushes a button on a nearby console. Slowly, the platform beneath the truck tilts and rises. As it does, the truck’s cargo empties into a large container behind it. Two minutes later it’s empty.

This is how you unload a wood fuel truck at Drax Biomass’ compressed wood pellet plants in Louisiana and Mississippi.

What is a tipper?

“Some people call them truck dumpers, but it depends on who you talk to,” says Jim Stemple, Senior Director of Procurement at Drax Biomass. “We just call it the tipper.” Regardless of what it’s called, what the tipper does is easy to explain: it lifts trucks and uses the power of gravity to empty them quickly and efficiently.

The sight of a truck being lifted into the air might be a rare one across the Atlantic, however at industrial facilities in the United States it’s more common. “Tippers are used to unload trucks carrying cargo such as corn, grain, and gravel,” Stemple explains. “Basically anything that can be unloaded just by tipping.”

Both of Drax Biomass’ two operational pellet facilities (a third is currently idle while being upgraded) use tippers to unload the daily deliveries of bark – known in the forestry industry as hog fuel, which is used to heat the plants’ wood chip dryers – sawdust and raw wood chips, which are used to make the compressed wood pellets.

close-up of truck raising and lowering

How does it work?

The tipper uses hydraulic pistons to lift the truck platform at one end while the truck itself rests against a reinforced barrier at the other. To ensure safety, each vehicle must be reinforced at the very end (where the load is emptying from) so they can hold the weight of the truck above it as it tips.

Each tipper can lift up to 60 tonnes and can accommodate vehicles over 50 feet long. Once tipped far enough (each platform tips to a roughly 60-degree angle), the renewable fuel begins to unload and a diverter guides it to one of two places depending on what it will be used for.

“One way takes it to the chip and sawdust piles – which then goes through the pelleting process of the hammer mills, the dryer and the pellet mill,” says Stemple. “The other way takes it to the fuel pile, which goes to the furnace.”

The furnace heats the dryer which ensures wood chips have a moisture level between 11.5% and 12% before they go through the pelleting process.

“If everything goes right you can tip four to five trucks an hour,” says Stemple. From full and tipping to empty and exiting takes only a few minutes before the trucks are on the road to pick up another load.

Efficiency benefits

Using the power of gravity to unload a truck might seem a rudimentary approach, but it’s also an efficient one. Firstly, there’s the speed it allows. Multiple trucks can arrive and unload every hour. And because cargo is delivered straight into the system, there’s no time lost between unloading the wood from truck to container to system.

Secondly, for the truck owners, the benefits are they don’t need to carry out costly hydraulic maintenance on their trucks. Instead, it’s just the tipper – one piece of equipment – which is maintained to keep operations on track.

However, there is one thing drivers need to be wary of: what they leave in their driver cabins. Open coffee cups, food containers – anything not firmly secured – all quickly become potential hazards once the tipper comes into play.

“I guess leaving something like that in the cab only happens once,” Stemple says. “The first time a trucker has to clean out a mess from his cab is probably the last time.”

Power and the rise of electric cars

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station. Close up of the power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

All great technological innovations need infrastructure to match. The world didn’t change from candles to lightbulbs overnight – power stations had to be built, electricity cables rolled out, and buildings fitted with wiring. The same is true of electric vehicles (EV).

Think of the number of petrol stations lining the UK roads. If EVs continue their rise in popularity, the country will need electric car-charging facilities to augment and then replace these petrol stations.

This could mean big extensions of electricity grid infrastructure, both in the building of new power generation capacity to meet demand, and in the extension of the networks themselves.

In short, it could mean a significant change in how electricity is used and supplied.

The need for better electricity infrastructure

In 2013, only 3,500 of newly registered cars in the UK were plug-in electric or hybrid EVs. In 2016, that number jumped to 63,000. Their use is rising rapidly, but the lack of infrastructure has kept a cap on the number of EVs on UK roads. That is starting to change.

As of 2019, all new and refurbished houses in the EU will have to be fitted with an electric car charging point, according to a draft directive announced by Brussels. The UK will probably no longer be an EU member by the time the directive comes into effect, but nevertheless, the UK government is pursuing its own ways to account for the rise of EVs. It has pledged more than £600 million between 2015 and 2020 to support ultra-low-emission vehicles – £38 million of this has already been earmarked for public charging points.

There are more innovative responses to EV rise, too. Nissan, in partnership with Italian energy provider Enel, has announced it will install around one hundred ‘car-to-grid’ charging points across the UK. With their innovative V2G technology, cars plugged into these sites will be able to both charge their batteries and feed stored energy back to the National Grid when necessary. So when there is a peak in demand, the Grid could access the cars’ stored energy to help meet it.

The total capacity of the 18,000 Nissan electric vehicles currently operational on UK roads comes to around 180 MW. So even today – before electric vehicles have really taken off – this could give the National Grid an additional supply roughly the size of a small power station.

Peaks in electricity demand, however, tend to occur in the late afternoon or evening as it gets dark and more lighting and heating gets switched on. This also happens to be rush hour, so under this scheme the time of day the cars are most likely to be on the roads is also when it’d be most helpful to have them plugged in. This could lead to financial incentives for people to give up the flexibility of driving their cars only when they need to.

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station.

More electric cars, more demand for electricity, more pollution?

More EVs on the road makes sound environmental sense – they enable a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions – but ultimately the energy still has to come from somewhere. That means more power stations.

The scale of this new demand shouldn’t be underestimated: if European drivers were to go 80% electric, some studies have suggested it would require 150 GW of additional on-demand capacity – the equivalent of 40 Drax-sized power stations.

But if EVs are to live up to their green potential, that additional power needs to come from innovations in storage (such as in the Nissan example) and from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. Fossil fuels would ideally be used only to plug any gaps that intermittency creates – for example by briefly firing up the small gas power stations Drax plans to build in England and Wales.

What does this mean for generators?

Drax, as operator of the UK’s largest biomass power station and with plans for new, rapid response open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs), is well placed to be at the forefront of providing reliable, affordable power in the event of a widespread rollout of electric vehicles. The OCGTs in particular, are designed for use in peak times which, in the future, could be when the nation’s electric vehicles are plugged in overnight – today this is when electricity demand is at its lowest.

A future of more electric cars is a positive one. They’re cleaner, more efficient, and they are well suited to our increasingly urban lives. But now that we have the technology, we need to ensure we can deliver the lower-carbon infrastructure they need.