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Leapfrogging the grid: introducing grid-independence levels

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In the book ‘Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever composed to reverse global warming’, a list is compiled of the 100 best ideas to sequestrate emissions. At number 26 sits the electric vehicle.

If by 2050 only one in six vehicles is propelled by electricity, it would drawdown 10.8 gigatons of CO₂ emissions in 30 years (Hawken, 2017, p. 483) - an amount that almost equals the total energy-related CO₂ emissions of the advanced economies combined in 2019 (11.3 gigatons of CO₂). And this one in six market penetration is a conservative prognosis at best.

This much-needed increase in market penetration (and raised demand for EV's) is in large part dependent on the installation rate of charging infrastructure. At the moment, European EV drivers have access to close to 200.000 charging points across the continent (public, fast charge, and ultra-fast charge). The majority of these charging points are located in the ‘Blue Banana’ region. This works out to about 1 charging point per 7 cars. A reasonable figure for the current market (1.3 million EV’s) but insufficient with the expected production volumes (13 million EV’s by 2025). To service that amount of vehicles, the EU Commission has estimated that 15 times the current amount of charging stations would be needed by 2030, which will put a massive strain on the electricity grid.

Map showing the Blue Banana region, in the EU

The Blue Banana region

Technological developments are opening up promising possibilities for large-scale grid flexibility and decentralisation. Meaning, intermittent renewable energy sources will work together with local energy storage opportunities to reliably supply the grid. The introduction of EV’s opens opportunities to add extra battery storage to the grid. The batteries of EVs could be used to store energy or extract energy when needed, managed by so-called ‘smart grids’ However, despite all the buzz around smart grids, EVs will of course still be a huge energy consumer.

Thus, begs the question: What development should be supported that will significantly reduce the strain on our electricity needs?

At Lightyear, we advocate for self-sufficiency. If we apply this term to the automotive industry, it means furthering the adoption rate of, and technological advancements in grid-independent vehicles. In a previous blog post, we talked about the value of solar cars and how they are for a large part grid-independent for commuting distances. But how do we make the varieties in grid-independent vehicles more transparent? And how are solar cars integrated into a wider ecosystem with local micro off-grid energy generation and storage? In other words: How does this work for other vehicles if we integrate solar? A surface area of 2m2 on a Lightyear One will give more grid independence than when the 2m2 is integrated on an electric bus.

Introducing grid independence levels: harmonising off-grid energy generation and on-board energy generation

One way forward is to set a classification standard for every grid-independent vehicle. A level that shows how much of its energy consumption comes from its onboard energy and “off-grid” charging via independent microgrids. The less a car has to rely on the large-scale grid infrastructure, the higher its Grid Independence Level. The lower reliance on grid infrastructure means fewer investments are needed in upgrading infrastructure and installing public charging points. This will enable faster adoption of electric vehicles all around the world.

Off-grid energy charging compared to On-board energy charging

Off-grid energy charging compared to On-board energy charging

Inspired by self-driving vehicles

In creating this standard there is no need to reinvent the wheel. In 2016 the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) introduced a taxonomy for self-driving vehicles, a classification to determine the level of independence a car has. These 6 levels (from 0-5) range from full control for the driver - level 0, to full independence and no driver needed - level 5.

The benefits of driverless cars have been well documented:
1. more fluid traffic resulting in shorter commute times and fewer emissions
2. commuters can focus on other activities whilst driving (leisure or work).
And the obvious one...
3. fewer collisions thereby saving lives and reducing insurance costs.
This taxonomy opens the path for the automotive industry to pinpoint the technological advancements that are needed to build self-driving vehicles. It thus results in a more focused approach that helps guide and push for innovation in the right areas.

In a similar fashion, and to be ahead of the curb, we aim to learn from the Levels of Driving Automation and also set these standards for grid independence. By introducing Grid Independence Levels, the industry can focus on reducing the energy consumption of vehicles, increasing onboard charging yield and focussing on a wider ecosystem of local energy generation and storage.

Total Grid Range Lightyear One

Total Range - Grid-independent

So when does a car obtain a certain Grid Independence Level? We’ve listed a few criteria for what different levels would entail below:

Level 0 - 0%: All kilometres driven are powered completely by energy from the grid

Level 1 - < 20%: The vehicle's auxiliary system could be powered through an on-board energy source. A maximum of 20% of the annual kilometres driven is charged by on-board or off-grid local energy generation and storage.

Level 2 - 20%- 50%: When having a solar roof installed, the battery drain of the vehicle is no longer a problem and charging frequency falls substantially. A maximum of 50% of the annual kilometres driven are charged by on-board or off-grid energy generation and storage.

Level 3 - 50 - 75%: Vehicles in this category have no need to charge for a daily commute due to a super-efficient vehicle combined with an integrated solar roof. Also, these can be charged to a maximum of 75% of the annual kilometres driven by on-board or off-grid energy generation and storage.

Level 4 - 75%-95%: Charging becomes a monthly task rather than a weekly one. Vehicles in this category can give power back to the grid when they are fully charged, a maximum of 95% of the annual kilometres driven are powered by on-board or off-grid energy generation and storage.

Level 5 - 95%+: Almost full independence from the electric grid, no need to charge from the grid ever.

Designing vehicles using systems thinking

Though Lightyear One has a solar roof designed for maximum yield and aerodynamics - the idea here is not necessarily to advocate for cars that are covered in solar panels from axis to roof. The idea is to open up the possibilities for a system that focuses on increasing grid independence levels of electric vehicles.

The image below shows that the grid independence level varies per use and per location. The solar yield varies depending on the car and destination, e.g. 60% of the annual kilometres in a Lightyear One driving in South Africa would be solar-powered versus 30% solar mileage in the Netherlands.

Much like the Levels of self-driving that differ per implemented technology, so too can a similar taxonomy be applied to grid-independent vehicles. With grid independence levels, we could move the industry to produce more energy-efficient vehicles and focus on a system change by charging using regular power plugs powered by local energy micro grids. Ultimately, this could be a new alternative contribution to accelerating European Policies towards stimulating the adoption of electric vehicles for this decade.

Leapfrogging the battle

In 1891 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, dear friends at the time, each worked towards their own solutions for mobility. Ford on a gasoline-powered automobile, Edison on less expensive batteries, some specifically built for EV’s. In a letter to Ford, Edison wrote: “Electricity is the thing. There are no whirring and grinding gears with their numerous levers to confuse. There is not that almost terrifying uncertain throb and whirr of the powerful combustion engine. There is no water-circulating system to get out of order - no dangerous and evil-smelling gasoline and no noise.” Ford nevertheless pushed on, and through economies of scale was able to produce the famous Model T.

Henry Ford was right for the first round of this game, one that lasted a good 150 years. But electric vehicles are on the brink of winning the rematch. A good development, but Lightyear is pushing further and aiming higher. By pushing forward with highly grid-independent vehicles, it is our aim to be able to leapfrog the grid and create a vehicle that is completely self-powered. With these limitations removed, electric vehicles, and clean mobility would be available for everyone, everywhere. This hopefully would lead to EVs occupying a much higher spot in Drawdown’s top 100.

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We design for independence and convenience. We create clean solar electric cars that can drive off-grid and into all of life's adventures.

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This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 848620