First publishedin ITS International
Pivot Power founders: (left to right) Matthew Boulton, chief operating officer; Michael Clark, chief technology officer; Matt Allen, CEO
Electric vehicles will increasingly become a key part of the mobility mix but charging infrastructure is currently patchy. Adam Hill talks to Matt Allen of Pivot Power about disruption, horses, slot machines – and the importance of customer experience
Electric vehicles (EVs) – including buses, taxis and cars for individual and shared use – are already a common sight on our roads. They are not yet ubiquitous. But that will come. There will be around 30 million electric cars in the world by 2030 (as they become cheaper to make than internal combustion engine cars), according to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Sales in China will account for nearly half the global market in 2025.
This means EVs will increasingly become a key part of the mobility mix, especially in cities – but there is a problem. Among the biggest barriers to growth is the charging infrastructure. Put simply, ‘range anxiety’ is a big deal: there are not enough charging points to give people the peace of mind to invest. “There’s a long road ahead,” admits Matt Allen, CEO of UK-based energy start-up Pivot Power. “But there is both political and social will, a clear need and direction of travel. We need to address the power infrastructure issue.”
To help achieve this, the company says it is developing a “world-first national network” of grid-scale batteries and rapid EV charging stations, which would be able to support over 100 vehicles charging at the same time.
Supply and demand
It plans to develop 45 sites around the country - and planning permission has been awarded for the first battery at Southampton. “National Grid has the luxury of sitting at the top of the food chain,” Allen laughs. But he says that Pivot Power’s approaches have been well-received: “This is not futuristic stuff, it’s now. We’re working with the infrastructure that’s here. This is about access to power: gigawatts and billions are big numbers but if we’re not talking about billions then we’re talking about the wrong numbers.”
Nordic countries are showing that there is an appetite for EVs. “Norway has moved the needle,” says Allen. The UK has some advantages when it comes to establishing an EV charging network, he says, not least in terms of its relatively small size and dense population.
Allen insists that: “I don’t want us to be the size of a Shell or BP.” But he consciously uses the existing terminology of the energy industry which Pivot Power is determined to disrupt. ‘Upstream’ operations (the equivalent of extracting oil) are followed by ‘midstream’ - the company putting numerous cables into the market for bus stations, taxi ranks and general charging – and then at the ‘downstream’ level things start to get interesting. There is a lot of chatter about EVs – and more than a little uncertainty. “We see an industry that is young, excited and had lots of different views – at a policy level and a company level. But rapid charging is required, whether at home or on the street. If it’s 45 minutes or 15 minutes, that’s important.”
Pivot Power does not come from a retail background – but Allen recently had a Tesla on loan and his account of the customer experience he had with it is instructive. “I don’t own an EV – I don’t have the confidence,” he confesses. Travelling from London in the loaned Tesla with his family, he stopped in Bristol (just over 100 miles – or 160km - away) to recharge for 45 minutes. “I was thoroughly unimpressed with the experience,” he says. His young children – like young children everywhere in the world – were never going to be placated by sitting quietly while recharging was taking place, and the only entertainment available was fast food and slot machines. “We probably spent more than we would on petrol, just to keep the kids happy,” he laughs. Therefore, another element in the acceptance of EVs is that more thought needs to be given to what is on offer for drivers and their passengers during the recharge process. After all, even 800-volt charging stations (currently only available as pilots) will still require a recharge time of 20 minutes or so for a range of 400km. While very fast, that is rather longer than people are currently used to waiting to fill up on petrol.
Future mobility plans
Allen suggests that various things might be needed at EV charging sites: a children’s play area to make it enjoyable for families; a business lounge to accommodate those travelling for work; even a gym, perhaps. “Forty-five minutes of emails is productive,” he says. “But a coffee and a Red Bull and a Snickers – how many can you consume in 45 minutes?” If EVs are really going to be a successful part of governments’ future mobility plans, then a great deal is going to have to change. Not since the days of Henry Ford has there been such an opportunity to improve mobility to such a degree.
“We haven’t had the chance to do this for 100 years,” he suggests. “There are incredible pictures of New York in 1910 with horses everywhere – in 1920 there’s not a horse to be seen. But we need to rethink the customer experience.”
And there still needs to be that major investment in infrastructure. “I’m pragmatic,” he says. “If it’s going to be a frustration or challenge in my daily life then I’m not going to do it.” On a long journey, you need to be sure that there will be a charging point – that’s not occupied, and that’s working – exactly when you need it. Likewise, there is no point having an electric car if your neighbour and your neighbour’s neighbour have one too – and yet there is only one charge point in your street. It is possible to charge your car from your own power supply overnight, assuming you can get round your neighbours tripping over your extension cable on the pavement. “I can run a plug outside,” Allen agrees. “But that’s not scale! And it’s technically illegal – an early adopter thing, 0.1% of us will do that.”
However, he is optimistic: “As in the film Field of Dreams, ‘If you build it, they will come’, there’s an element of that.”
However, let it not be forgotten that car ownership – whether electric or otherwise – is not necessarily going to hold much appeal for future generations, particularly in urban areas, who have grown up on ride-share. “I love Spotify – I will probably never own another CD in my life,” he acknowledges. “London has its own challenges. We have a car, which could be gone and I wouldn’t even know it.”
Pivot Power has already had financial offers from players keen to get into what they see as a growing market. “I’ve stopped the conversations pretty early,” Allen says. “There’s still a lot to be done. We’re learning as we go. This hasn’t been done before. So if you’re a big company, then great – but you’re not necessarily going to be able to do this better.”
Having said that, he laughs: “Fast forward 12 months, or 24 months, and then maybe it’s a different conversation.”
Pivot Power: the story so far
Pivot Power plans to build a 2GW network of grid-scale batteries and EV charging stations across the UK as part of a £1.6 billion programme.
It says this will provide infrastructure to support the rapid adoption of EVs and underpin clean air policies, while introducing flexibility into the energy system to accommodate the demands of mass EV charging and higher levels of intermittent renewable generation.
Pivot Power says it will develop 45 sites around the country, installing grid-scale 50MW batteries at electricity sub-stations connected directly to the extra-high-voltage transmission system.
These will help electricity system operator National Grid to manage supply and demand. The firm says the battery network will be the world’s biggest, storing enough electricity to supply 235,000 average homes for a day.