The role of solar power in the sustainability of clean, green motoring

Thomas Newby, Chief Operations Officer, Tonik Energy

As we move into 2020, the transport industry is under growing pressure to decarbonise, an objective which comes with two distinct challenges; the need to dramatically cut harmful emissions – existing hand-in-hand with a change in consumer attitude – and the need to reduce the grid’s support on non-sustainable energy sources. Both global and regional emissions targets are likely to be a driver of change over the next decade and the sustainability and durability of solar power makes it the linchpin to this rapid time of transition to green fuel.

Electric vehicles as the new norm

Over the past year, great strides have been taken to support the regeneration of the UK’s transport system; Bristol set a nationwide standard of change by becoming the first city in the UK to ban diesel vehicles and has set a much needed precedent for cities across the UK; the government outlined its Road to Zero Strategy, which is part of a £1.5bn investment into ultra-low emission vehicles; and, a major milestone was reached in October, with one in 10 new cars sold in Britain either being battery or hybrid electric, which represents a jump from 6.9pc a year ago. This agenda is, undoubtedly, bearing fruit. 

However, as the pollination of EVs spreads across the nation (the UK Government’s aim for all new cars to run on non-fossil fuel by 2040 would result in 33-million electric vehicles (EVs) on UK roads as early as 2038) accelerating the integration of renewable energy into the grid will be paramount. When Britain’s most severe blackout in more than a decade caused rush hour travel disruption last August, it ironically shone a spotlight on our energy usage. The equivalent of ‘flicking the off switch’ highlighted the importance of ensuring we continue to transition our national critical infrastructure from one that has relied heavily on fossil-fuels to one that accepts sustainable and clean sources of energy, like renewables, as its beating heart. Last year has been hailed as the cleanest on record, with UK zero carbon electricity outstripping fossil fuels for the first time – an important landmark in the effort to deliver a safe and secure energy system for all.

The growing demand on the electricity grid

Over the next few years, mobility-as-a-service models will start to replace traditional taxi and consumer vehicles services and we will see more cities put their green future stake in the ground. With this comes increasing pressure on public sector bodies to meet the new, at-scale public transport demands – from April 2020, company car drivers will have an opportunity to make huge savings on pure battery and efficient plug-in hybrid vehicles as new company car tax (BiK) rates come into force. Pair the new BiK tax with growing clean air initiatives that influence the consumer choice of vehicle, and it is a logical move for public sector bodies to start collaborating on the development of robust, coherent and innovative energy management and smart transport systems. Preparation for, and fulfilment of, the immediate demand created by the increased uptake of EVs is important, but what’s critical is for the public sector to future-proof energy and charging infrastructure to ensure the system can cope with the continuing need to scale over the next five, 5, 10 and 20 years.

Solar power – the linchpin to green transport

Solar is an environmental game-changer in our ability to produce clean power from renewables themselves and reduce our need for ‘grid energy’. One of the major arguments against solar power in the UK has been the weather. And, having seen a spate of flood warnings throughout the country in the middle of summer, it’s not hard to see why. But that is a misnomer. Solar power generation relies on daylight, not sunlight, and while the UK may not have the climate of the Mediterranean, it does not mean solar is a non-starter. 

Solar is, however, arguably much more chicken and egg than any other renewable. Uptake, investment and interest is reliant on efficiencies, innovations and reductions in cost in a self-perpetuating cycle. Thankfully the news here is also promising. Support and subsidies to date have seen the costs of solar panels fall dramatically. The technological advances in the solar energy sector have made solar panels much more efficient than ever before and this has directly contributed to the falling cost of solar energy up to 50% over the past decade. 

What’s needed to make a green transport system possible

Whilst the electrification of the transport system will greatly reduce our reliance on dirty fuel, what’s equally as important are changes to the management of electricity networks, particularly to create a sustainable and scalable charging network. The current infrastructure is increasingly unsuitable for significant increases in demand without cities having to face potentially costly upgrades. Whilst many sectors embrace green technology, energy storage solutions will play a crucial part in not only the UK’s, but also the world’s progress towards a clean-energy future. 

Energy storage adds crucial stability to the grid, benefiting operators and users alike. Installations that come with dynamic load management, which are able to listen to the energy demands of buildings, smooth out loads and optimise charging levels when power is in demand from a fleet of EVs. It’s a capability that will alleviate power cuts and can also help avoid costly network upgrades. It also means the nation is less dependent on non-renewable power sources like nuclear and coal. Any surplus renewable energy generated can be diverted and stored to charge the EVs, rather than relying solely on the grid – particularly during peak times, which would be more expensive. In addition to saving money on power generation, this storing energy onsite will empower organisations to sell excess energy back to the grid and generate additional revenue. 

These developments are critical given the increasing role solar power is required to play when it comes to reducing the dependency on buying energy and easing peak pressure on the grid. This will be particularly acute if the projections on EV growth and clean transport infrastructure are to be realised. Embedded solar and storage will be a key method of avoiding expensive grid connection upgrades to cope with the extra power demand from having hundreds of EV chargers on public and commercial sites, for instance fleets or car parks. Thankfully, we’re seeing signs of collaboration between public and private enterprise to bring this vision to life but there’s no hiding that more and immediate action is needed.

Collaborating for a green future

On the surface, it’s a promising outlook. The International Energy Agency says that solar could surpass fossil fuels, wind and hydro by 2050 to be the world’s largest energy source. Technology is improving year on year, demand is growing, as are applications and consumer appetite for clean, green and sustainable energy has arguably never been higher. But it is vital the solar industry does not rest on its laurels. Stakeholders of government, industry and business have a mandate from the world’s public to create a better, cleaner world for everyone. In both practical and fiscal terms, renewable energy will be a linchpin in guiding us through this period of rapid change with our transport systems – one that will move us closer towards a clean air future.