Paul Barker grabs a cuppa and a chat with one of fleet’s most influential figures – Coffee with…Toddington Harper, Chief Executive, Gridserve
Green energy firm Gridserve recently opened its first electric recharging forecourt in Braintree, Essex, and says this will be the first of 100 to be developed in the next five years as part of a wider approach to climate change.
QHow have things gone with the first 36-vehicle site in Braintree now being operational?
People absolutely love it. We’ve clearly raised the bar in electric vehicle charging, but we’re in a pandemic so it would be highly irresponsible to try and get people out of their houses to check it out
Gridserve is driven by the principle of reducing the carbon entering the atmosphere, says its chief executive, Toddington Harper.
“What the company is really all about is delivering sustainable energy on such a scale that we can help move the needle on climate change,” he tells Company Car Today. “There’s a direct correlation between how much carbon you put in the air and global temperature rising. Unfortunately, when we emit a further 300 billion tonnes of carbon emissions, temperatures will move beyond one and a half degrees of warming. And that is going to be disastrous.
“It’s a very difficult way back from that situation, and that is going to happen in less than seven years, which bothers me enormously,” he continues. “What we’re trying to do is to deliver such a scale that we can move this needle. What we’re delivering is something called a sun-to-wheel model, which is kind of building and replicating a new kind of energy ecosystem.”
QYou’ve made some quite bold statements about progressing to more than 100 sites. How will that progress?
Uckfield hasn’t got planning permission yet, but Norwich has. The plan is to deliver over 100 sites over the next five years, we had that plan before the announcement about new petrol and diesel cars being banned in nine years, and now you wonder if it is ambitious enough.
It’s designed so that we can give people the confidence to really be able to make the transition knowing infrastructure like this exists and that it’s going to be okay.
Also, particularly helpful for company cars, is that if you run a business and want to transition to electric vehicles, you can’t experience the charging complexity that is prevalent in the market today. You need to know that you can go anywhere with no hassle, no anxiety, no range stress.
QExplain more about Gridserve’s approach to the market?
These electric forecourts are designed from a blank sheet of paper to serve the needs of electric vehicle drivers perfectly. It’s designed to really make that experience not just as good as a petrol or diesel experience, because I can’t imagine many people will tell you that’s a brilliant experience, but to try and actually make it a brilliant experience.
And then the final piece of the jigsaw is to say okay, how about a vehicle offer as well, integrating this whole kind of ecosystem. The ultimate objective is to make electric vehicles less expensive than petrol and diesel ones. And that is actually possible today, which really surprises people. If you finance an electric car in comparison to a petrol or diesel one, then you can get really good benefits because you spread a slightly higher upfront cost with much lower operating costs.
And then if somebody lives near to an electric forecourt, for example, and they can charge primarily an electric forecourt then we can include that energy in the monthly fee. I can thereby say this is categorically cheaper. The government’s approach is a very helpful stick; petrol and diesel cars will be banned in nine years, it’s pretty binary and will force action. But what motivates people is if something can save money, or even make money.
QCan you talk a little bit about the relationship with Hitachi? It expanded with a recent investment in Gridserve?
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Yes, they’re a shareholding business, which is fantastic. I think we’re very fortunate to have such a fantastic investor with a long-term view. They like the fact that it’s not just about electric cars, it’s about net zero.
QGridserve is also seeking to develop a leasing arm. What is the status of that area of the business?
We didn’t know very much about leasing until last year. We had a pretty vertical learning curve, so we have made some really great hires; people who really do know what they’re doing and have been in it for many years. We’re in the process of some very considerable overhauls and reworking what we’re doing. It’s a constant evolution to make it more and more useful.
We call it Electric Vehicle Solutions. Because it’s not just about electric cars, it’s about how you bring that together with energy, and charging, to make it really straightforward as solution.
We can work that out, including charging solutions to people’s homes, public charging infrastructure, the vehicles themselves, the whole lot together in a single package. And the objective would be that it would cost less than what they are spending today on petrol or diesel.
QDo you think we’re yet at that cost equivalence point?
I do. Certainly if the company pays for diesel or petrol we’re definitely there. Electric cars are just so much cheaper to run. And they’re not much more expensive initially any more. I mean, they used to be wildly more expensive, but they are so much less expensive these days. Now, if you’re clever, and you’re not greedy and you really want to work it all out, you can make it cheaper. And it has to be.
I’ve been running sustainability businesses for 19 or so years, and the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that most people won’t pay more money to go down a more sustainable path.
However, if it’s the same cost, and it’s not difficult, lots of people will do it. If it’s cheaper, and more sustainable, open the doors, the flood is coming.
And that’s really what is important, because it all comes back to moving the needle on climate change. What we’re trying to do as a whole is quite complex; building solar farms, batteries, charging for electric vehicles. Now, having got all the pieces in place, it is actually fairly straightforward for us to replicate. And you actually need all the pieces in place, because then you can give customers that overall reduced cost. If you can’t control the cost of the vehicle, or the energy in the first place, then you’re not maximising your opportunity to reduce that cost as much as possible. We want people to say, I want an electric car now because it’s better, cheaper, easier. And not just because the government says I have to do it in nine years.
QWhat about the cost of charging. Are the forecourts like motorway service stations where they’re a premium price because of the convenience?
We don’t really think electric forecourts are an alternative to motorway services. There are around 150 motorway services, which perform a very specific functions of serving the network. There are around 8500 petrol stations. Their particular function is primarily serving local communities as well as pass-through traffic. Electric forecourts are designed for the latter. They’re not really a motorway services competitor, they are a solution for petrol stations. If you are one of the 30-50% of people that can’t charge at home, the comparison is a local petrol station that serves the community primarily, but on the edge of a busy road to get pass-through traffic.
QSo you would align yourself with local public charging rather than more expensive on-route charging?
That definitely correlates, we are definitely less expensive. We set our prices as to be as competitive as possible. That’s why we’re quite a lot less expensive than other people in this space that have got anywhere near the sort of charging power that we have. We’re 20- 30% cheaper than some, and others are more than twice the price. We want people to turn up; that is quite important.
And if you do what some of the other guys are doing, namely charging whatever they think they can without really doing the maths and making it economically attractive to customers, it means that you’ll be seen as a last resort, as opposed to a regular option. And that doesn’t really help the people who can’t charge at home. Whereas if you’ve got a solution like we have, which has a very fair cost, then the economics work.
QOnce you’ve got this network of 100 would you get to the point where fleets can have one account with you that they can use any of the sites, in effect like an electric fuel card?
That’s exactly what we’re doing. There are lots of lessons learned from being an EV driver. Having to be part of a membership scheme, particularly one that requires an RFID card to arrive in the post is pretty painful. I learned that the hard way.
Our first starting point is that it is open access and really easy. It’s contactless payment, someone can turn up, plug the car in, and touch the contactless device. And the car starts charging, all in less than 20-30 seconds.
We’re also going to bring in an app. And the reason the app is useful is it will allow us to give different pricing structures and different packages to people and also allow us to do fleet solutions.
Also, what we’ve been working on, which is one of the most awesome features that people haven’t seen yet, is something called plug in and charge. Basically, it remembers your car, so next time you turn up, you plug it in. And that’s it. No more contactless payment, nothing. You just plug in, walk away. And if it is a company vehicle the company will get charged. No worries, no cards no nothing.
It’s like Nokia mobile phones and smartphones. No-one could see beyond Nokia, and then all of a sudden everyone forgot about Nokia and grabbed the better thing. The government didn’t have to ban Nokia phones for that to happen, people just made the transition because a smartphone was a better solution.