UPS has found a way to plug in its electric fleet without blowing up London’s grid

The new fill.
The new fill.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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UPS is going electric in London. The delivery company has flicked on a charging system for all 170 of its electric trucks operating in the city without overloading the grid. The multi-site system—which UPS calls the first of its kind to be implemented at scale—uses on-site batteries and smart-grid software to time recharging from utilities so that it occurs when demand is low.

That may not sound like a big deal but it’s the latest milestone in the mass integration of plug-in electric vehicles. City’s electrical grids were not designed for simultaneous charging of thousands (or millions) of EVs; that would threaten grid stability and wear out expensive infrastructure far faster than normal.

To solve that, utilities are working with manufacturers to develop vehicle chargers that adjust energy consumption based on the available electric supply on the grid. The technology is still evolving, but any implemented system is likely to have a few components:

  • software that allows vehicles to charge when the grid has plenty of power, and to return power to the grid when the grid is low
  • batteries that give charging stations their own energy reserves while allowing it to tap into the grid during off-peak hours
  • local generation including solar and other alternative energy sources

UPS’s system is small relative to those being built for passenger vehicles. Tesla has its own supercharging stations. VW, as part of its settlement for cheating on diesel emission tests, will invest $2 billion on 2,800 charging stations in 17 of the largest US cities by June 2019. Companies like ChargePoint are partnering with automakers to build out their own national network. China dwarfs everyone: it says it wants to have at least 2 million charging stations installed by 2020, almost one for every EV projected to be on the road in the country by then.

Eventually, utilities could be looking at their first major new source of demand in decades. Electrifying US cars and non-commercial trucks would add 774 terawatt hours of electricity demand, nearly the same as the entire US industrial sector, Bloomberg estimates. Globally, EVs are expected to drive electricity consumption up 300-fold by 2040 (pdf), about 5% of total projected consumption.

Commercial trucks will add even more demand.The total cost of buying and operating an electric truck is due to fall below that of a conventional diesel truck in the coming years, and UPS says technologies like its new charging system signal “the beginning of the end of a reliance upon traditional combustion engine powered vehicles.” The company says it already has 300 EVs (and about 700 hybrids) in Europe and the US, out of 9,000 vehicles worldwide, and has ordered 125 new fully-electric Tesla Semi tractors for 2019.