The EV Smart Charging rEVolution: Pandemic rEVerberations
About The EV Smart Charging rEVolution Column
This month we’re looking into Pandemic rEVerberations…
I’m Julian Skidmore, a senior software engineer at Versinetic and helping to develop our EV – electric vehicle – charging solutions.
We’re a progressive embedded consultancy with an interest in EVs going back to 2012 when we designed and supplied EV chargers for the London Olympics. I’ve had a 2016 Renault Zoe EV since 2017 and over 20% of us who drive into work use a BEV [Battery Electric Vehicle].
In this monthly series, we’ll be covering EV innovations and our experiences with EVs. This is particularly from the perspective of EV charging and the charging infrastructure, which we believe is the other half of the EV revolution.
Whispers of a Future World
As I write this column, the planet is in the midst of the greatest economic threat seen since the banking crisis of 2008 and the most critical global plague since the global flu pandemic 101 years ago. It’s natural, therefore, for all of us amongst the pain and turmoil to consider how this will impact all aspects of our lives.
So, how does COVID-19 affect the electric vehicle charging space? And also our relationship with both renewable energy and fossil fuels?
Connections aren’t hard to find. Even at the end of March, there was concern that COVID-19 could be passed on through contact at petrol pumps. Fossil fuels are a relatively centralised resource (you or I are far less likely to own an oil well, than say, solar panels). Therefore, safety requirements and the sheer energy density of fossil fuels engender them to be distributed at relatively few central locations where multiple physical contacts take place on a very frequent and often hurried basis (holding pump handles or paying for the fuel). For this reason, they appear to be a plausible vector for the virus .
EV charge points are different, because the normal case is to charge electric motors at home (no risk); or charge at work. Alternatively, at some other destination where you would be using your own cable; probably an RFID card for authorisation and with few contacts per day. Tethered charging of electric cars, where there’s a queue, is more of a risk. This is because there will be a short period between change-overs.
During a pandemic, charging can be perceived as being safer even though there is no hard evidence of COVID-19 transmission through pump or charging handles .
Fossil Fuels & New Ways of Working During the Pandemic
Lockdowns in many parts of the world have made us reevaluate our relationship with burning fossil fuels for electricity generation. We’ve discovered the value of quieter roads . Pollution in China over the first three months of 2020 is heavily down on 2019 and a similar effect has been observed over Europe . We have discovered that we like quieter environments and it even has a measurable effect on seismic activity .
We have discovered that we don’t necessarily need to fly everywhere to have face to face meetings – that teleconferencing, as well as being much cheaper, is a productive way to relate . This is interesting economically, as it’s a case where a loss in GDP correlates with an increase in quality of life. And for ourselves at Versinetic – as well as a significant proportion of the salaried population – we’ve transitioned to successfully working at home at incredibly short notice.
Pandemic & Oil Industry Consequences
The shock of a sudden, global and sometimes fatal virus has brought out much of the best of what humanity can offer  as the fight to defeat the plague continues. The question is whether or not this has long-term or just short-term consequences, particularly as far as the rEVolution goes?
It’s a valid query. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak is causing the price of fossil fuels to plummet, as well as costing the jobs for hundreds of thousands of people in the UK. Not mention millions in the United States, at least temporarily.
Therefore, if petrol is cheap and people are poorer, won’t this clean revolution stall?
Wired.com seems to think so  whilst clean Technica disagrees ; here’s rEVolution’s take.
Oil supply isn’t cheap right now, because oil suppliers have suddenly discovered how to drill for it at a quarter of the price. It’s cheap because we’re buying far less during the pandemic. And because Saudi Arabia wants to claim as much market share as possible while the oil industry is still viable . We’ve just started to see what a world burning less oil looks like. As far as that goes, it’s a nicer world: one where planes don’t pass 100 metres above my house every 90 seconds.
Long-Term Implications for Oil Industry
And the impact of cheaper oil right now won’t get people to fill up as we’re still in lock-down, and when restrictions are released in the next month or so, prices will bounce back up . This is all problematic for oil because:
Lower prices make it hard for less competitive oil rigs to stay open, and when they close it’s hard to start them up again. If I were to live in Texas, for example, I’d be thinking about how quickly I could switch to solar (admittedly, I’d be reflecting on that anyway).
Similarly, lower oil prices make it hard for fuel stations to stay open; so, we can expect to see the continuing decline of fuel stations in the UK. Consequently, we will also observe longer queues to fuel up.
There’s a practice called Contango , where oil is stored temporarily in containers. The current Saudi oil glut may fill these and should that happen, suppliers will have to start reducing oil production. This, in turn, may mean closing more competitive rigs. In fact, they’ve already started to reduce production by 10% and it still isn’t enough .
Basically, the oil industry is a massive just-in-time supply chain which is vulnerable to shocks – as we’ve seen in 1973, 2014 and now.
EV Market Resilience
Currently, though, the EV industry has more resilience because it’s an early adopter, wealthier market segment where demand seriously outstrips supply. It’s dominated by people who want to switch primarily for environmental and ethical reasons; aren’t going to be dissuaded by temporarily cheap fuel and are less likely to become unemployed as a consequence of the pandemic.
Therefore, it was fairly easy to predict several days before the results came out that for March the stunning growth sales of EVs won’t be impacted much by the pandemic, whereas petrol and diesel cars would be severely blighted. That’s because people have ordered EVs often months in advance and often get them delivered; whereas people buy fossil fuel cars from showrooms which are non-essential as of the lock-down.
And this turned out to be even more the case than I expected, based on SMMT’s vehicle registration figures for March 2020 :
I expected Petrol car sales to be down about 30%, but they’re actually down by 50%. Meanwhile, I anticipated BEV sales to fall around 9500; in fact, they’re about 20% greater. This is good news in a crisis where so much of what’s happening is not.
Looking to the Future
What’s likely in the next few months? I would project that April will be even lower for fossil fuel car registrations. However, towards the end of the year the decrease will become less severe. Conversely, in two or three months growth in EV sales may well soften before recovering again later in 2020.
In the year ahead, at least in the period before a vaccine becomes widely available, we should note that the negative impact of COVID-19 on public transport will translate to a wider take-up (though not necessarily purchase) of true BEVs, particularly in the second-hand and low-range market as people seek to substitute higher risk short-range journeys. Consequently, we can expect to see a growth in EV vehicle rentals and an up-take in the use of public charging points (owing to their use by a slightly higher proportion of people using an EV without off-street parking).
It’s not merely a question of economics and fear driving vehicle shifts; very recent research has started to link COVID-19 death rates with (particularly NOx) pollution. Experts have correlated heavily polluted cities with high pandemic casualties. One possibility is that the impact of air pollutants exacerbates the mechanism by which the immune system overreacts to COVID-19 in more serious cases .
The COVID-19 pandemic is a serious shock and a deeply human catastrophe, but it will pass. As we see our global society working together, hope suggests some positive signs in what emerges.
As such, what we hear outside now are the whispers of that world; roughly the sound of 2040 – when most fossil fuel power generation will be confined to history.
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