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Comment: Why renewable energy will be a linchpin for fleets in a rapid time of change

Thomas Newby, chief operating officer (field & installation), Tonik Energy, on businesses can steal a march on greener fleet operations by embracing renewable energy solutions.

Thomas Newby, chief operating officer (field & installation), Tonik Energy

The UK has committed to 2050 as the year it will be carbon neutral, with the intention of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years. Whether or not this target will be met fully by 2050, the UK’s clean air journey will have an immediate impact on the way we travel. Given transport is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK today – accounting for 23%, according to DBEIS info – the role it has to play in the reduction should not be underestimated.

Amongst the steps in place to ensure the UK is accelerating on its drive towards a cleaner future, the Government has recently outlined its Road to Zero Strategy, which is part of a £1.5bn investment into ultra-low emission vehicles. Not only that but the Department for Transport last month launched a consultation on its intention to apply green number plates to zero emission cars, with the aim of increasing the visibility of environmentally friendly vehicles and providing incentives for drivers to switch to electric vehicles (EVs).

There is no doubt net zero can be done, but for this to be achieved the transport industry will need to draw on its wealth of experience and skillset to reduce the emissions of individual vehicles and the demand for motorised transport. As EVs and autonomous vehicles become the new normal, businesses and their fleets are under increasing pressure to not only meet the new mobility demands of employees, but to also develop sustainable and future-proof strategies.

We know there is a need for an enormous shift in cultural behaviour to shift individual attitudes towards alternatively fuelled vehicles – there are only about 210,000 EVs in the UK. And about 1% of households use an all-electric car and about 2% hybrids, which means tens of millions of cars will have to be replaced.

However, nowhere is the challenge more acute than with the current offering of the UK’s infrastructure. One of the most pressing issues facing EV charging deployment at any scale is power availability. Existing electrical connections were specified to suit the building needs and use cases at the time of construction. They are simply unsuitable for significant increases in demand without potentially costly upgrades. Intelligent EV charging systems that can manage the total building load are suitable to a point, particularly where vehicles are parked for longer periods of time. However, we’ll inevitably reach a stage where there simply is not enough energy available from the supply during the time period required.

It is, therefore, a necessity to consider alternative methods of power generation, notably solar. Generating and storing energy on-site through solar and battery storage is an effective way to minimise expensive grid connection upgrades and provide the additional power on-demand. Any surplus renewable energy generated can be diverted and stored to charge the EV, rather than relying solely on the grid – particularly during peak times, which would be more expensive. This is most relevant to businesses looking to meet the demand from tens or even hundreds of EV chargers on a single site, such as fleets or large car parks. A move that is only likely to be expedited with the changes in the Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) rates from April 2020, which will see company car drivers choosing a pure EV paying no BiK tax in 2020/21 and very little thereafter.

Distributed generation and storage solutions also reduce the dependency on buying energy at peak times, easing pressure on the grid. As network-wide deployment of cost-effective renewable generation increases, systems with sufficient scale have the potential to generate additional revenue supporting the grid. These ancillary services, which help balance the network, reduce the threat of brownouts, particularly as clusters of EV uptake have the potential to create significant local distribution network challenges. It is critical, therefore, when looking to install EV chargers, businesses and fleet managers work with renewable technology experts who will look at the whole business solution. Installations that come with dynamic load management are able to listen to the energy demands of the building, smooth out loads and optimise charging levels when power is in demand from a fleet of EVs. It’s a capability that will alleviate power cuts and can also help avoid costly network upgrades.

Renewables are now generating more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time in the UK. Despite clear progress, greater renewable energy uptake is critical if the reality of the UK’s smart transport system and carbon reduction ambitions are to be realised.

For businesses, it isn’t only about avoiding pitfalls; there is an opportunity in transitioning to electric fleets. Solar generation is proven, sustainable and durable. Businesses can get ahead of the curve by embracing renewable energy solutions sooner rather than later. In both practical and fiscal terms, renewable energy will be a linchpin in guiding us through this period of rapid change and towards the UK’s clean air future.

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Natalie Middleton

Natalie has worked as a fleet journalist for 16 years, previously as assistant editor on the former Company Car magazine before joining Fleet World in 2006. Prior to this, she worked on a range of B2B titles, including Insurance Age and Insurance Day. As Business Editor, Natalie ensures the group websites and newsletters are updated with the latest news.