How electric cars can help South Africa’s electricity grid
Rather than placing extra strain on power supplies and causing load shedding, EVs have an important role to play in the future of electricity
Load shedding has become a hot topic in South Africa. For anybody who is unaware, in a nutshell, load shedding is a last-resort measure used to ease over-demand on the electricity grid via scheduled temporary localised power cuts.
With electric vehicles beginning to make real inroads around the country and this October’s first ever EVRT Africa set to raise the profile of EVs even further, many South Africans have voiced concerns that load shedding could be worsened by the power demands of charging them.
Ben Pullen, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Generation.e, first experienced load shedding in South Africa in October 2018. He says that concerns that EVs could exacerbate problems are wide of the mark – and that the grid could actually be aided.
“Currently there’s been no load shedding at nighttime – it’s been more of a daytime issue,” he explains. “So you’ll charge your vehicle at nighttime and you’ll be fully charged for the day ahead – it’s very rare you would use all of your battery [in a day] unless you were doing a long-distance road trip, which is rare for the majority of the population.
“What you’re doing actually is helping the grid. The current grids don’t act in a way where they can flick the energy on and off when they like, so [at off-peak times, such as during the night] you have electricity being generated and maybe being wasted. If cars can start taking some of that load at nighttime, it could be good for the grid, because they’ll sell those kilowatt hours instead of generating and wasting them.”
The next stage, indeed, is that electric vehicles are set to be able to feed power back into the grid, as well as via related tech such as Tesla’s Powerwall home battery.
“Nissan is one of the leaders of that technology right now,” Pullen says. “They’re already doing pilots around the world where they’re applying vehicle-to-grid technology, which means it becomes part of the grid – when the car needs energy, it can charge, but if the grid needs energy, it can feed some energy back. While we have a small amount of cars, it’s hard to imagine the impact, but even if we had 1,000 cars in an area, if all of them had batteries at 60kW, that’s 60,000kW of battery power. The car could become a battery storage unit, which the grid desperately needs – across the world, storage is the big challenge with electricity.
“Tesla Powerwall would charge itself from the grid and then you would use it for your home when it needs it, either when the grid’s down or, most likely, because you’re trying to benefit from buying electricity when it’s cheap and then using it when it would be expensive.”
As the owner of a BMW i3, Johannesburg-based Maletlabo Handel has enjoyed plenty of first-hand experience of running an electric car in South Africa. The EVRT Africa Project Coordinator is positive about the future – and the present.
“Load shedding is still a challenge in SA,” she admits, “but this has never affected my daily commute with my electric car. I just need to plug in my car during off-peak periods and in the morning I’m good to go with a guaranteed fully charged battery.
“The infrastructure is slowly being put into place strategically in SA, and with solar-powered charge points, soon worrying about charging your car during load shedding would be a thing of the past.”
It has been theorised in the past that too many EVs being charged in a small area could cause blackouts, but that is, Pullen says, “a lot of scaremongering. Technically, it could be an issue if you had hundreds and hundreds or thousands of cars all plugging in at the same time expecting the grid to give them power, but it’s not a risk that we need to be worried about in terms of it making the grid collapse. The best chargers all have demand-management capabilities. So, for example, if you had 10 charging stations, they can be controlled so they would never be charging, say, 22kW at once, because 220kW is quite a big load.”
Much like the way we are investing in our planet’s future by switching from petrol to electric vehicles, taking a forward-facing approach to power supplies is vital to South Africa’s future, Pullen stresses.
“If something isn’t working as well as it should be, it doesn’t mean you stop trying to improve anything,” he says. “So, yes, there is obviously an issue with the grid to provide consistent and sustainable power, but if we start ruling out new technologies, the grid’s going to be so outdated.
“It’s really important to embrace electric vehicles, battery storage, renewable energy and smart meters now – anything that helps the grid be smarter. There’s so much more that you can do with the grid. The more that someone like Eskom is embracing these technologies, it can only be a good thing, because it means they’re looking ahead to the future. South Africa cannot be left behind.”