For decades, electric vehicles (EVs) seemed like a thing of the future, but they have an interesting past. At the turn of the 20th Century, 40 percent of cars in the US were powered by steam, 22 percent by gasoline and a surprising 38 percent by electricity. Yet while EVs disappeared from the public eye for decades, they made a comeback in the 2000s when manufacturers recognised their potential.
It’s now safe to say that the EV revolution has arrived. The UK has announced its commitment to end the sale of internal combustion engine cars by 2030. By 2050, there will be millions of EVs on the road, which translates into significant demand for power from clean energy sources.
This has set the stage for companies like Pivot Power (part of EDF Renewables). Alongside Wärtsilä, Pivot Power is in the process of building some of Britain’s most innovative EV charging sites.
“What Pivot Power is doing now was unheard of when we announced it in 2018,” says Edward Sargent, Business Development Director at Pivot Power. “We were about to build hundreds of millions of pounds worth of infrastructure in a short timeline. No one is supposed to connect to the National Grid directly unless you’re a steel mill or a power plant – but we did. In the year before we were on the scene, I think the grid had something like 16 applications. Then we came along and established 40 sites.”
Pivot Power’s Energy Superhubs, which combine grid-scale batteries with power infrastructure for EV charging, are being developed alongside National Grid substations in strategic locations close to major roads and towns, connecting directly to the high-voltage transmission network.
“On a local level, this gives access to multi-megawatts of power,” says Sargent. “You can be connected directly to the National Grid’s transmission network and the battery will pay for it. As we bring more intermittent renewable power generation online, we’ll need more energy storage. In the UK, we’ll generate 30-40 GW of new wind energy by 2040, which is a lot of energy. But the wind doesn’t blow constantly. Storage is going to play a massive part in the future.”
Caroline Wright, Senior Business Development Manager at Wärtsilä Energy in the UK, agrees and elaborates further. “This is the next stage in renewables. Energy storage has a vital part to play in the energy transition, allowing more flexibility in the grid to support the growth of both renewable generation from wind and solar.”
Once complete, the Energy Superhubs will create Britain’s most powerful EV charging network, with a total capacity of up to 2 GW. The first two sites in Oxford and Kent are already live, with hardware, batteries and GEMS software supplied by Wärtsilä, and another two are currently in construction.
What’s amazing is that this work isn’t simply a vision – it’s already a reality. “We’re already building a hub for cars in Oxford,” says Sargent. “In Coventry, we’re looking to help with a bus depot. A bus has a consumption rate of between 9 and 11 miles to the gallon. That’s roughly a Coke can of diesel for every kilometre, and the emissions from that affects the city centre most.”
The Oxford site has the capacity to deliver 10 MW of power at the country’s largest public charging hub. It’s part of a Pivot Power-led project dubbed ‘Energy Superhub Oxford’, which is due to save 10,000 tons of CO2 annually once fully operational, or the emissions of 2,000 traditional cars. There are also plans to expand the hub to bus depots.
“If you have 100 buses charging overnight, you’re looking at around 20 MWh, which has quite an impact on the network of a small town,” says Sargent. “We can give them large amounts of power and hopefully help them to build on that. Waste collection vehicles, for example, will surely go electric. They can pay for themselves on diesel costs alone. It’s a no-brainer.”
In Oxford, Wärtsilä supplied the energy storage technology, including the GEMS Digital Energy Platform. The software uses artificial intelligence and machine learning based on real-time and forecasted data of, for example, weather, grid measurements and market data to optimise system performance while also providing customers with critical information about the network.
“The software manages the power assets, like a brain that sits on top of the block and controls and balances the power from the grid,” says Wright. “Any imbalance can be managed in that local area, supporting the evolving changes in our grid as well as the market, future-proofing these projects for years to come. They have real-time access to asset performance and can manage everything from a single viewpoint.”
Through shared resources, Wärtsilä and Pivot Power can achieve their ambitious shared goals. “We’ve got the technology to help support their vision, we’ve got the software and the technology to deliver what they need to improve EV charging in the UK, and we share the same vision,” says Wright, who points to the fact that running an entire country on renewables isn’t a pipe dream – it has already happened. “At the beginning of the lockdown in 2020, we were running practically solely on renewables. We were basically running on sunlight. How amazing is that?”
Pivot Power’s work is so ground-breaking that it doesn’t yet have any true competitors. “We’re really not competing with anybody,” says Sargent. “We’re still in the early stages of battery and EV market growth, and we’ll need huge storage capacity across the network, which also has to transform itself.”
Of the total energy storage that the UK will require in 2035, Pivot Power’s sites could provide almost 10 percent of it. “These days there are lots of bigger projects in development. Our mission was to accelerate the transition and that’s what we’ve done,” Sargent says.
“We have designed our technology and products to support large utility-scale projects and have the technology to deliver this,” adds Wright. “It’s a new market but it’s progressing rapidly.”
While there is more to come, Sargent highlights the fact that progress is never instant. “A car park with 20 MW is great, but in a few years, it’ll be the trucks that need charging. That’s a few years away, but infrastructure takes time to build. Now, we’re barely scratching the surface – everyone is jumping aboard. It’s great to see how others are looking at what we’ve done and building on it.”
In 10 years, Pivot Power aims to have delivered gigawatts of storage, and its first sites will have been refreshed with modern tech.
“10 years is a long time. Hopefully, we’ll look back at what we’re building now and think it’s rudimentary. Things evolve. Smoking in bars is unimaginable today, and future generations will look back on the idea of driving vehicles that burn polluting, explosive liquid fuel and think we were crazy. We need to change,” he concludes.