The UK’s first electric car ‘street of the future’

My Electric Avenue MarlowQuestion: What happens when a number of electric cars on the same street plug in and recharge at the same time?

Answer: In some cases the cable connecting the houses to the local substation may become overloaded – and people’s lights may go off.

Okay, this is certainly a worst-case scenario – but it could happen. And things are likely to get worse, as sales of plug-in cars – pure electric vehicles (EVs) and plug-in hybrids or extended-range electric vehicles – are on the rise, and they will keep increasing. Also, vehicle batteries are becoming higher capacity, and charging times are getting faster – adding to the problem.

This acceleration in sales of cars with some form of electrification is not just hope on the part of EV manufacturers – the Automotive Council Technology Roadmap, produced with the consensus of the car industry, shows that from now and for the next 30-40 years, more and more cars with plug-in capability will be developed and sold.

So how do we know what will happen when electric vehicles become more commonplace and they all plug in to the grid to recharge at the same time? Well, we don’t know what will happen – and that’s why My Electric Avenue is creating the electric car ‘street of the future’ to simulate what the local electricity grid of 2030 could look like. It should be pointed out at this stage that it is believed there is sufficient capacity in the UK as a whole to charge EVs – it’s at a very local level where problems may arise.

My Electric Avenue was officially launched on 3 June 2013, with a clear mission: to recruit 100 people to each drive an all-electric Nissan LEAF for 18 months, with these 100 people being in 10 ‘clusters’, and 7 clusters having 10 people in each. A cluster is a group of neighbours on the same feeder from the local electricity substation; in practice this may be just one street. Looking at this from another angle, the project had to aim to recruit ten neighbours on one street, out of a total of perhaps 70 properties on one feeder from the local substation. So one in seven people had to say yes to leasing an electric car for 18 months, and to providing feedback about their experiences.

My Electric Avenue is an Ofgem-supported project, and at the early presentations to the energy industry regulator, which aimed to secure the money from the Low Carbon Networks Fund, many of the decision-makers at Ofgem were highly sceptical about how on earth ten sets of neighbours around the country could be recruited to take part in the project, against the clock, to unlock the funding for the trial.

Yet ahead of schedule – in less than 9 months since the launch event – My Electric Avenue announced that it had recruited the required numbers of clusters – in fact it had exceeded the targets by recruiting 111 people in 11 clusters, with 8 clusters with 10 people in each.

So now all the clusters are being provided with a brand new all-electric Nissan LEAF, a charge point, and ‘Esprit’ technology to monitor and control recharging. Marlow, with nine neighbours taking part, is the first cluster to receive all its cars and equipment, followed closely by the other residential clusters of Chineham, Chiswick, Lyndhurst, South Gosforth and Wylam, with two more based in South Shields. In addition there are two ‘workplace-based clusters’: Slough Borough Council and Your Homes Newcastle.

One of the trial participants in Marlow, Caroline Birkbeck, says: “The Nissan LEAF is the perfect car for short and medium length journeys. It’s also incredibly cheap to recharge, with running costs of just 10-15% of our diesel car. I’m delighted to be part of this trial, it’s already showing that electric vehicles are an ideal form of transport today, and they are likely to become even more popular as their technology develops in the future.”

The £9m My Electric Avenue project was conceived, and is being delivered, by EA Technology – the same company that has also developed the Esprit technology, or the ‘black box’ that should hopefully prevent our local electricity networks being overloaded as EVs become more commonplace.

My Electric Avenue is the first trial that directly controls domestic EV charging to prevent underground cables, overhead lines and substations being overloaded. The project aims to prove a solution that would avoid the need to dig up the roads to install higher capacity electric cables.

This is the first Low Carbon Networks project that has been led by a business such as EA Technology rather than a large energy company. It shows that smaller companies can move quickly and can make things happen.

Other project partners in My Electric Avenue are Scottish and Southern Energy Power Distribution Limited (SSEPD) (the host Distribution Network Operator, or DNO), Nissan (EV supplier), Fleetdrive Electric (EV rental programme management), Zero Carbon Futures (charging point network developer) and Northern Powergrid (participating DNO).

You can still take part in My Electric Avenue; even though the ‘Technical’ trials are now fully subscribed, the Social trials are still open for business. The Social trials are designed to complement the information gathered during the Technical trials and participants can lease a new 100% electric Nissan LEAF at a specially negotiated rate for 18 months. Applicants can be individuals or groups and there’s no requirement to have any technology installed in the home. Spaces in the Social trials are limited and so the cars will be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.

More information is available at www.myelectricavenue.info

Living with a Nissan LEAF

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Paul Clarke

Paul Clarke, Editor, Green Car Guide