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EVs are coming, but can SA’s power grid support this rapidly rising technology?

13th October 2023

By: Irma Venter

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Whether South Africans like it or not, electric vehicles – EVs, those zero-emission vehicles that must be plugged in to run – are coming.

You may adore the purr of a powerful V6 engine, but eventually the time will come when you will have to become accustomed to the silent hush of an EV gliding by, be it a truck, a bus, or, perhaps, your next bakkie.

According to research house BloombergNEF, EV car sales are expected to reach 22-million units a year in 2025, with internal combustion engine (ICE) sales already in long-term decline.

In total, more than 100-million passenger EVs are expected to be on the road by 2026, and more than 700-million by 2040.

This is a significant increase from the 27-million units recorded at the beginning of this year.

In South Africa, EV sales are still dismal, but growing.

In the first seven months of the year, new EV car and truck sales reached 581 units, already outnumbering total EV sales for the whole of 2022.

The question foremost in the minds of most potential EV buyers in South Africa seems to be whether the local power grid will be able to allow for the repeated and reliable charging of EVs – sufficiently so that an EV driver can get up every morning and get to work, without fail.

The constrained domestic power grid has already witnessed years of loadshedding as State-owned power producer Eskom continues to fail to meet electricity demand.

“The short answer is that we do not have sufficient electricity available for EVs to charge from the grid in South Africa,” says Stellenbosch University (SU) Department of Industrial Engineering professor and Internet of Things research chair Thinus Booysen.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. The grid is already failing, and this with demand as it stands currently.

“Anything we add to the grid just piles on the pressure. Any car that wants 7 kW is 7 kW we don’t have. We don’t have any excess, not at any point during the day.”

“But,” notes Booysen, “let’s pretend for a moment that all of Eskom’s generation capacity is available and that the utility is fully functional.”

“Even in this scenario, we’ll have a problem should four-million vehicles out of South Africa’s total domestic vehicle parc of 12-million vehicles change from ICE vehicles to EVs.

“If all these vehicles charge at the same time – from the slowest chargers – it would exceed the grid’s capacity.”

Mobility Patterns
“To really understand the impact of EVs on the South African grid, we must also understand the mobility patterns of EV users,” says Booysen.

“We made use of an employee survey at SU – we looked at where these employees live, when they arrive at work, and when they leave, including holiday periods.

“The next step was to look at the typical charger used to charge an EV, as well as the time it takes to charge, and for this we initially assumed people would use the less expensive, slow charger – 2.5 kW AC.

“We were really conservative – if you take a 22 kW AC charger and upwards, it takes only 400 000 EVs to charge at the same time to crash the grid, and even less if you start moving to really fast DC chargers,” says Booysen.

“We discovered that the essence of the problem is that most people will charge their EVs at the same time, and over the period of peak electricity demand – in the morning and in the evening, when our grid is currently most constrained.

EV drivers will arrive home, plug in their cars and forget about them till morning when they leave for work.”

Booysen believes that fast chargers which utilise the grid only should not be considered for South Africa or the rest of Africa, even if some vehicle brands may punt such a solution to a customer who just spent a cool million or two on a new EV.

“The only people who really need fast chargers are those travelling long distances on highways. Fast chargers should be restricted to these consumers, unless EV owners can get their power from somewhere else other than the grid.”

On a suburban street with ten homes, it is likely that three to five grid-connected fast chargers (22 kW) will render the neighbourhood’s transformer unable to deliver that demand, notes Booysen.

They Say It Will Be Okay
When considering all these stats, the question now is what to do about local vehicle manufacturers that are telling the South African public that it is okay to buy an EV, that the trick is to charge the vehicle when power is available, in the same way you do with your phone, or when demand is low, such as at night time.

Are they selling a pipe dream?

“South Africa also has loadshedding at night time,” says Booysen. “The grid is in such a poor state that we also need night-time power restrictions. The problem remains no matter the time of day: South Africa does not have sufficient energy generated in a day.”

EV makers also claim that their vehicles save on running costs, as the cost per kilometre of fuel may be four times that of electricity.

Although this could indeed be true – at a realistic gain of about R1.50/km – the economy, through sacrifices in terms of economic growth, will effectively be subsidising those with EVs at approximately R6/kWh, if they charge from the grid during a period when Eskom is forced to shed load, explains Booysen.

“In effect, those who can afford to buy EVs and charge from the grid may unwittingly be undermining the economy for their own financial gain.

“This means that those who can afford to buy EVs should be incentivised to install their own distributed generation systems.”

Be a Producer
Distributed generation systems are the solution that will enable South Africa to immediately host an EV sector, says Booysen.

Given the current grid squeeze, unlikely to be resolved soon, EV owners and operators have to install their own generation capacity.

This is the solution not only for private EV owners, but also for public transport operators such as minibus taxi owners, bus fleet owners and municipalities.

“Given constricted electricity production, electric transit needs to be coupled with a transition to renewable energy,” says Booysen.

“Photovoltaic charging during the day also renders EVs substantially more carbon-friendly than their diesel and petrol equivalents.”

“However, renewable sources are intermittent,” he explains, “and the output is not necessarily matched in terms of when it is needed to the load required.

“These systems must, therefore, be matched by substantial investments in battery storage to temporally decouple demand and supply.

“This could take the form of stationary battery storage at charging stations, or batteries used in swapping schemes.”

Stationary battery storage systems can charge slowly from the grid or renewable sources when available, thereby reducing the grid load, says Booysen.

These systems can also be used to discharge quickly into vehicles without burdening the grid.

“Batteries used for swapping can also charge slowly from the grid or renewable sources when available, with a concomitant reduction in grid power load. It will, in fact, probably be faster to swap a battery than charge a vehicle with a fixed battery,” says Booysen.

He believes it is possible to deploy second- life vehicle batteries from developed countries to build renewable-powered charging stations in South Africa.

When EV users generate their own power, it bypasses the problems South Africa is currently experiencing with its constrained transmission system, where the pipeline to ‘transport’ power is simply not big enough, adds Booysen.

He also emphasises that it is important to implement centralised, smart control of EV chargers, much the same as Eskom hopes to do with home geysers during peak demand periods.

“This means local authorities or the companies which install EV chargers would be able to switch off EV chargers should it become necessary, owing to high demand on the grid.

“At the moment, there is no provision for that to happen.”

It will also be helpful to lower the charge rate of any EV in accordance with the power demands of the household at any point in time, slowing it, or switching if off during periods of peak demand.

Park-and-Ride Sites
Often solutions create new problems.

Should a large number of private households and companies install their own power generation capacity, it will mean a loss of income to Eskom, local authorities, as well as service stations, through the loss of fuel sales.

A solution to this could be the construction of large charging stations, linked to renewable power regeneration, in or just outside inner cities, where EV users – public transport operators included – can charge their vehicles, suggests Booysen.

These sites can act as park-and-ride or park-and-walk facilities for commuters who can use them to switch from their cars to public transport, or to walk the rest of the way to work, while their vehicles charge during the day.

Taxi ranks can also offer this service to minibus taxis, either paid for by taxi owners, the municipality, or energy company owners – depending on who wants to earn the revenue.

Public transport operators can typically use such large-scale charging sites to charge their fleets, negating the need for their vehicles to return to the depot to charge.

Cities, on the other hand, can earn an income from these sites, notes Booysen.

A vital part of the EV revolution in South Africa is to push people from their cars to public transport, he adds. Charging a large vehicle carrying 60 people is much more efficient that charging 60 vehicles carrying one person each.

In short, says Booysen, South Africa must create an electric mobility system, and not just randomly acquire EVs.

Booysen emphasises that South Africa will not be able to simply sit out the EV revolution because of loadshedding.

A number of big global vehicle manufacturers, like Volvo and Mini, are set to become EV-only brands.

Some regions in the world also aim to ban ICE vehicles, including South Africa’s main automotive export markets.

The European Union (EU) and the UK, as a bloc, remain South Africa’s largest export region for automotive exports.

Last year, the EU and the UK accounted for R133.2-billion, or 58.6%, of total automotive exports of R227.3-billion. Three out of every four vehicles exported from South Africa were destined for the EU and the UK.

However, both the UK and the EU have announced a ban on the sale of new ICE vehicles from 2035.

This means the automotive industry – South Africa’s largest manufacturing sector – cannot continue to produce ICE vehicles only. It will also have to produce EVs for these export markets and, for the sake of economies of scale, it will also need to find a local market of sufficient size for these vehicles.

Edited by Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor



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John Thompson

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