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Challenges and opportunities for utilities with electric cars

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Electric cars have been touted as one of the primary solutions to the world’s carbon emission challenges. China has set aggressive targets for electric vehicle sales to curb pollution and some European countries aim to be all-electric by 2040 or sooner. Even the US is pushing electric car sales, albeit for more commercial reasons.

Green concept carCar manufacturers are adding new electric models to their ranges every year, with performance improving and prices dropping as electric cars become more advanced. In South Africa, there are three fully electric vehicles available: The BMW i3 and i8, and the Nissan Leaf. There are also a number of hybrids on the market.

While the benefits of electric cars are well known, South Africa possesses a unique challenge in growing the number on them on our roads: our electricity supply. With Eskom’s many trials and tribulations, consumers have lost faith in the utility’s ability to supply power in general – never mind a niche service such as car charging stations. In addition, electric cars currently attract the highest import duties (25%) of any vehicles in the same range. Normal imported vehicles with an engine under one-litre capacity attract no duties, for example.

At the moment, there are more than 90 charging stations across Gauteng, with Cape Town fast catching up. There are also stations at some BMW and Nissan dealerships. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where thousands of public charging outlets are available, and is a problem for people who need to drive further distances, as electric cars only stay charged for a few hundred kilometres.

Electric cars not only reduce carbon emissions, but could also provide extra electricity to the country in the long term. Trials in Denmark carried out by Nissan and Italy’s biggest utility, Enel, showed that batteries inside electric cars could help balance supply and demand at times and provide a new revenue stream for those who own the vehicles.

However, technology linking vehicles to the grid marks another challenge for utilities already struggling to integrate wind and solar power into their distribution system. As the use of electric cars spreads, grid managers will have to pay closer attention when motorists draw from the system and when they can smooth variable flows.

There are only around 300 electric cars in South Africa at the moment, but that number is sure to rise. Power consumption from vehicles will grow to 1 800 terawatt-hours in 2040 from just six terawatt-hours now, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and as more people invest in cleaner, more efficient vehicles, Eskom and the government will have to make provision for this increase in power usage – as well as the potential benefits.

Image credit: Copyright: misha / 123RF Stock Photo

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