Energy network ‘superhubs’ on edges of towns and cities herald sustainable and economic revolution for local authorities

By Matt Allen, CEO, Pivot Power

Climate change is making UK cities re-think how they source energy and power transport.

In Birmingham, the city council is working to deliver tens of millions of pounds worth of cycling routes, while in Bristol an ambitious MetroBus system is under construction. Meanwhile, Leeds is planning this year to trial autonomous vehicles in the city centre to ferry commuters from A to B. Cities are getting serious about tackling congestion and improving air quality.

However, the scale of sustainability does not stop at public transport. By 2020, an estimated 1m electric vehicles are predicted to be on UK roads as consumers and businesses start to prepare for the phasing out of all new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. As a result, the challenge of creating enough charging infrastructure in towns and cities will fall squarely at the feet of local authorities.

One company already thinking through the implications of this is Pivot Power. This summer, we unveiled plans to create a network of out-of-town grid-scale battery and rapid electric vehicle charging stations across the UK, the first of its kind in the world. We expect our inaugural site, planned for Southampton, to be up and running by the middle of next year, subject to planning approval, with a further nine sites completed over the next 24 months.

The placement of EV charging points at such energy ‘superhubs’ will act as the equivalent of fuel stations, with commuters and visitors ‘topping up’ their EV vehicles while leaving or entering a city.

Benefits of energy storage

The £1.6bn energy storage initiative, which aims to create 45 similar energy hubs across the UK over the next five years, is designed to cut emissions as well as create more sustainable journeys for commuters, businesses and government organisations which own or plan to operate EV vehicles in the future.

Other benefits of the network, which will store enough electricity to power 235,000 average homes for a day, include the smoothing out of the imbalances between electricity supply and demand as the UK transitions to renewables as the dominant provider of energy.

Taking advantage of advice on the right kinds of infrastructure that will work for them, local authorities will be able to enable drivers, businesses and public services to switch to EVs with the peace of mind they will be able to find cost-effective and efficient ‘energy on the go’.

Additionally, by placing EV fleet depots or Park & Rides with significant charging capabilities at strategic transport locations, councils will also be able to specify that only electric-powered buses or taxis can be used in the space. In doing so, councils will be at the cutting edge of sustainable transport policy, not just in the UK, but globally.

In meeting the anticipated demand for more EV charging points for the future, local authorities will also have the satisfaction of knowing their plans for the EV-switchover are meeting present, but also future transport needs.

For example, in Southampton a hub on the outskirts of the city needs to account for the fact it is home to two universities, a port, an airport, and receives just over 41,000 commuters to the city each day, fifty-per cent of which travel in by car or van.

Space constraints

The reason edge-of-town EV charging stations work for UK cities is down to current geography and technology. The UK is currently not set up to make it possible for every household to have an EV point because each street typically has enough spare power for just a handful of domestic EV chargers, while an office may only have room for five to 10. The amount of energy required per authority area will be the equivalent of powering a small town. Many local authorities have the appetite or resources to effectively become an energy supplier. Neither will there be enough space inside cities to provide the high numbers of charging points demanded by drivers when EV vehicles start to be used en-mass.

The only solution is to build the infrastructure before the cars arrive on the doorstep. Doing so will also encourage more commuters to ditch their fuel-guzzling vehicles early. The strong take-up of EV vehicles in Norway and the Netherlands followed the governments of both countries clearly signalling their commitment to the creation of the necessary charging infrastructure, avoiding the usual ‘chicken and egg’ debates about sustainable transport. Analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance are predicting EVs getting close to price parity by 2022 – we need to make sure range anxiety isn’t still putting people off then, when switching could save them money, clean up our air, and contribute to our climate change goals.

The technology

Pivot Power’s superhubs, which will be positioned near motorways, on the edge of towns and cities, will connect directly to the transmission network substations in order to supply the level of energy needed for EV vehicles. Each hub could potentially support 100 rapid 150KW chargers, which would be able to ‘re-fuel’ a vehicle in 45 minutes. The technology is expected to develop to the point of using 350KW chargers, once the latter become available in the UK, which would enable a car to be fully charged in under 20 minutes – the equivalent of a cup of coffee and rest at a traditional service station.

Each rapid EV charging station will have a 20MW connection, which is enough to supply a town of 10,000 homes. Combining the batteries and EV charging points will also drive down building and operating costs, as well as secure maximum value and efficiency from the use of the land, strengthening the company’s financial standing and making them a more reliable partner for risk-averse local authorities.

Indeed, battery-based energy systems are the most cost-effective commercial solution when it comes to providing additional and flexible energy support. They also make a significant contribution to the UK’s pledge to keep the global temperature rise within two degrees. The sites, which store energy obtained directly from the National Grid’s extra-high-voltage transmission system, do not have the construction overheads of gas turbines, the cost of which inevitably makes it way to the consumer.

The entire network will be able to discharge energy equivalent to two thirds of Hinkley C’s nuclear power station, the energy stored will be used to charge EV vehicles or sold back to the National Grid, thereby providing a valuable revenue opportunity for Local Authorities under significant pressure to generate income to make up the shortfall created by increasingly constrained budgets.

An energy model for the future

The energy superhub model could be extended into nearby commercial areas such as retail parks, supermarket car parks or other logistics spaces. Local authorities could also choose to utilise land they may own for such sites, thereby making a direct contribution to the creation of a low-carbon economy. Other benefits include job creation, and thus the supporting of higher living standards, democratic and cost-effective access to energy for citizens, and attracting investment from more sustainably-minded businesses keen to know that the needs of their operations will be served.

Renewable energy needs to grow substantially in order to meet the UK’s decarbonisation targets. Having a flexible system inside the grid to provide energy as and when needed will be crucial to ensuring our towns and cities stay both productive and sustainable in years to come. By utilising proven technologies, councils can enable the transition into the low carbon era safe in the knowledge that it won’t cost the earth.