The evolution of European power grids: Adapting to the EV wave

With the rise of EVs and the push towards more clean energy, the European power grids face a pivotal moment. The growing demand for EV charging strains legacy infrastructure, compelling a shift towards more intelligent and flexible grids.

By: Mette Marie Knudsen, Managing Director, Denmark

With battery-electric vehicles recently exceeding 20 % market share (1) and overtaking diesel, the increased demand for home charging and public charging stations is challenging the structure of the European power grids.

A current affair: How the European power grids work

The European electricity grid is the largest interconnected electrical grid in the world (2). Since 1996 – when the Electricity Directive 96/92/EC was passed (3) – Europe has been sharing electricity cross borders through thick copper cables known as “interconnectors”. Like the ocean tides, the electricity ebbs and flows throughout the interconnectors, matching power demand with supply at all times. Grid operators throughout Europe, like Réseau de Transport d'Electricité in France, Statnett in Norway and Amprion in Germany – all members of ENTSO-E (the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (4)) – work to maintain this equilibrium to ensure the grid doesn’t collapse and cause blackouts. Together with power suppliers, they address issues like peak demand, grid reliability, and the need for grid updates.

To secure energy flow for the future and ease the integration of renewable energy sources, the EU has set a target for its member states to enable at least 15 % of their production capacity to be shared with neighbouring countries by 2030. In 2021, 16 out of 27 countries reported being on track to reach this target (5). In addition, EEA (European Environment Agency) and ACER (EU Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators) recently released a joint report advising EU member states to double their electricity system’s flexibility by 2030 to be able to ramp up the renewable power capacity (6).

Under pressure: How war and local factors have challenged the system

The convergence of a global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and local problems in the power sector – such as low water levels in the reservoirs that feed Norway’s hydropower plants and a record number of outages in France’s nuclear fleet –

has put this highly synchronized system under pressure (7, 8). Businesses and citizens have been asked to cut energy consumption during peak hours, and many countries have suddenly found themselves going from net exporters of energy to net importers. Governments have also been faced with increased pressure to stop exporting due to high local energy prices.

In flux: How smart grids and smart charging can make the grid more flexible

So, how will the system cope when adding EV charging on a larger scale to the mix?

There are a few challenges posed by the conventional grids in handling the rapid growth of EVs. European countries that have been dependent on gas for cooking and heating, need to increase the capacity of their low-voltage grids to accommodate for the transition to electricity and the charging of EVs. Fast charging creates high demand that can match small villages in wattage, putting a strain on local grids. To facilitate transition to more clean power, the grids need to be upgraded to balance out the fluctuations of intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind. For the same reason, renewables also require storage. Currently, peak times are in the morning and in the afternoon (think morning shower and coffee, and dinner after work), however, this may shift with enough EVs on the road – with most EVs being charged at home during the night.

Smart grids and grid-scale storage are being used to address a few of these challenges on a macro level. Smart grids – networks that use digital technologies, sensors and software to match supply with demand in real time – reduce the need for costly new infrastructure while at the same time making grids more reliable and resilient (9). Grid-scale storage encompasses technologies capable of storing energy and supplying it back to the grid at more opportune times (think solar power at night) and when demand is high. While hydropower is the most-used technology for this, batteries are the most scalable type of grid-scale storage. The IEA (The International Energy Agency) sees battery storage as essential in managing the impact on the grid and handling variations in renewables (10).

In residential areas, smart charging solves the challenges with peak demand on the power grid. Smart charging evens out the peaks by allowing your car to be charged when electricity consumption is low, and at its cheapest. In addition, new technology – like Zaptec’s patent for dynamic phase balancing – are changing the energy landscape of tomorrow by allowing multiple vehicles to share limited power between them and charge in an efficient manner, relieving grid pressure where destination chargers and home chargers are needed.

Conclusion: The spark Europe needs

A resilient and adaptable power grid combined with clever technology for charging and energy storage is paramount in supporting the EV wave, ensuring reliable energy supply, and facilitating the transition to cleaner energy and transportation. Smart technology is the spark Europe needs to ride the wave into a greener future.