A smarter approach to electric driving and the energy transition

By 2035, all new cars sold in the Netherlands must be emission-free. In the Netherlands, the comment that the power grid is not capable of supporting traffic electrification is often heard. However, that’s not the case at all. There is sufficient capacity – provided we use energy in a much smarter way.

Maarten Steinbuch, Publicist and TU/e professor

The number of fully electric passenger cars in the Netherlands is currently around 400,000. There are far more electric cars than the government predicted some ten years ago – the increase is actually in line with my own predictions! The pace is slowing down slightly as people are wondering whether government measures to promote electric driving will be reversed. However, we may claim with great certainty that the future of mobility is electric. When it comes to passenger cars, there is no real discussion. Freight traffic is expected to follow soon, and major steps are being made in the field of aviation, too. In addition to batteries, hydrogen has long been seen as a possible alternative to fossil fuels. However, it takes three times as much electrical energy to power a car with hydrogen, compared to a battery. Cars also become far more complex due to the use of hydrogen technology.

Reinforcing the grid: expensive and difficult to implement

Let’s take a closer look at the claim that our electrical infrastructure is not up to supporting the increasing number of electric cars. If everyone in the Netherlands starts driving electric vehicles, this will lead to an increase of some 20% in the annual demand for electrical energy. Including all freight traffic, this might perhaps add up to 30%. That’s not all that much, relatively speaking. I think the increase in demand amount to around 200 or 300% if the industry fully electrifies and we all have a heat pump installed at home. If we manage to integrate enough renewable sources into our electricity supply, there will be sufficient energy to meet this huge increase in demand.

But of course, energy is not the same as power – and therein lies a challenge. Our electricity grid has been rolled out with average energy demand -and not peak loads – in mind. And those loads are going to increase significantly. If a large percentage of the Netherlands’ population arrives home at six o’clock, plus their car in to charge and starts cooking electrically, there will be an enormous demand spike.

The solution: smarter charging and feeding power i

nto the network

Do we need to massively scale up the capacity of the grid to meet peak demand? No. However, we do need to be much more intelligent when it come to the available capacity. With smart software, for example, you can ensure that the charging of the battery in your car takes place in a phased way. You can’t postpone cooking your dinner, or do it in stages, but you can easily charge your car in steps, at times when the demand for energy is minimal. The car only charges at times when overall consumption decreases.

In fact, the electric car offers a fantastic opportunity to deal with peak loads. A car battery capacity is relatively large, so why not make good use of it? Batteries for storing electrical energy in the home will have a capacity of 10, 20 or perhaps 30 kilowatt hours. However, the average car battery has a capacity of at least 60 kilowatt hours. If your (second) car is regularly at home, you have a huge buffer at your disposal. In this way, the car becomes part of the solution to the congestion problem. As long as you make sure you always have some 30 percent capacity left in your battery in case you need to go somewhere in a hurry!

Lack of technical staff

In my view, storage is essential for both mobility and the energy transition. With the help of batteries, you can more easily integrate renewable resources, allow consumers to supply power to each other, and break through the traditional day-night rhythm of electricity consumption. Of course, the energy transition and electrification of traffic will require much more than storage. For example, we also need more fast chargers and heat pump installations. Personally, I think the current lack of technical staff is slowing down these developments enormously. In the future, the shortage of people with secondary vocational level training in electrical engineering and ICT will become even more acute. I would really like to encourage all parents to send their sons and daughters to technical education.

The mobility transition has more to do with the energy transition than most people realize. For example, the storage capacity and battery factories required for electric transport worldwide will also play a role in the broader electrification of society. And at least as important: to successfully realize the energy transition, various parties must think differently about their role, forget the historical context, and consult with each other about new, smart solutions. For example, energy companies could offer local energy management initiatives more leeway, and the government should be allowed to develop laws and regulations for this. Companies involved in the development and optimization of electrical installations and systems also have an important role to play in this.

Maarten Steinbuch is a high-tech systems scientist, serial tech entrepreneur, commissioner, keynote speaker, and known as an advocate of electric mobility. He holds the Systems & Control chair at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) as Distinguished University Professor and is scientific director of innovation institute Eindhoven Engine. His research ranges from automotive technology ( especially connected cars and clean vehicles) to mechatronics, motion control and the behavior of fusion plasmas.


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