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The role of electric vehicles in SA’s energy transition

In a keynote address delivered at the 15th Africa Energy Indaba in Cape Town, Dr Titus Mathe, CEO of the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI), unpacked the role that electric vehicles can play to facilitate the country’s much needed energy transition.

… studies in the UK, US and Germany have shown that charging electric vehicles in off-peak hours, can contribute tremendously to balancing out electricity demand and supply during a 24-hour period.

The driving force behind the world’s best-known electric vehicle company, Tesla, is a South African. However, for the majority of Elon Musk’s compatriots the technology is so far out of reach as to feel almost irrelevant. In addition, electric vehicles seem counterintuitive in a country that doesn’t have enough electricity as it is. Adding energy hungry vehicles to the grid will surely make matters worse.

Not if it is done smartly, SANEDI believes. In fact, studies in the UK, US and Germany have shown that charging electric vehicles in off peak hours, can contribute tremendously to balancing out electricity demand and supply during a 24-hour period. Avoiding significant fluctuations is critical to grid stability and makes planning for new capacity easier and more effective.

The Electric Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) model
To achieve this, the Electric Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) model comes into play. In simple terms, it means that electric vehicles are in communication with the grid so that they can be charged during offpeak hours, which are typically in the middle of the day and during the night when household and commercial consumption, respectively, is at its lowest.

The V2G model integrates electric vehicles, charging stations, other energy providers, grid connections and smart metering. Smart charging enables communication and interaction among all connected elements on the system, and this turns electric vehicles into providers of energy services rather than simple users of electricity. If implemented correctly, consumers can provide energy to the grid through bidirectional charging stations, while generation, transmission, distribution, energy usage and storage are optimised across all actors.

A three-pronged solution

Who, however, will buy enough electric vehicles to make this potentially beneficial impact a reality? The existing exorbitant import duties on vehicles and components alike put electric vehicles beyond the reach of most South Africans, but SANEDI sees a three-pronged solution:

  1. First, import duties must be reconsidered and incentives put in place for households and fleet
    managers to consider electric vehicles.
  1. Secondly, original equipment manufacturers, fleet operators and municipalities must focus on
    transport in the public sphere, i.e., buses, taxis and sedans used in ride-share services. Not only
    is the market enormous, but public transportation will also make electric vehicles relevant to the
    majority of South Africans.
  2. Finally, the manufacturing of at least some EV components must be localised urgently. While
    a measure of importation will always be needed, much can be done to decrease our import
    dependency and, in the process, create the jobs that will sustain the transition to a new energy
    future.

For SANEDI, the energy transition has to be seen in the context of South Africa’s socioeconomic realities. Therefore, as we introduce electric vehicles into the grid, we have to ask how it’s going to help us create employment, even out inequality and deal with poverty. With V2G technology these outcomes are possible.

A smart grid is critical
It is not, however, an overnight implementation. A smart grid is critical, which will require modernising the existing infrastructure. In addition, we need policy certainty and enabling industry norms and standards to develop the infrastructure, skills and investment needed for a V2G rollout.

The opportunities are many, varying from manufacturing jobs to opportunities for entrepreneurs to deliver services related to charging infrastructure, grid management and ancillary services such as voltage management. It is also important to consider a cloud-based big-data platform that optimises the V2G process to provide useful information to vehicle owners, OEMs, charger providers and government.

Electric vehicles themselves are not the silver bullet. However, as part of a well-conceived and properly implemented V2G programme, they can accelerate South Africa’s energy transition, while becoming relevant and valuable to the entire population.

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