Celebrating the past; accelerating the future.
Justin Meyer, Managing Director of SWARCO Smart Charging recalls the last 13 years in the EV charging industry as the business celebrates its 13th anniversary.
It’s now exactly 13 years ago that I agreed to take the helm of the business that is now SWARCO Smart Charging. In that time, we’ve built an organisation that employs more than 160 people, has annual revenues of approaching £40 million, and enjoys year-on-year growth of between 30% – 35%.
We’ve installed more than 12,000 commercial charging stations throughout England, Scotland and Wales, making a significant contribution to building the UK’s electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and delivering an electric future. But it’s not been easy.
When I joined APT Controls (now owned by SWARCO) in 2010, they had a vision, even though there was no EV charging industry to speak of. The only electric vehicle on our roads, approximately 1,000 of them, was the G-Wiz and it created a very poor perception of what the future held. (G-Wiz was voted the worst car ever in an Auto Express poll.)
Some of my contemporaries doubted my sanity at leaving an established automotive business, where I held a senior sales position, to gamble it all on a future that looked finished before it had even started. There was little interest from the Government, and less interest from the local authorities who we’d identified as a key target. Instinctively, however, I knew it was the right decision.
After joining APT Controls, and launching our EV charging business which we branded Evolt, we helped arrange and attend the first ever Cenex LCV event with three other providers. I remember at the time we managed to attract only a handful of visitors (remarkable in the context of the thousands who now attend Cenex LCV each year). We spent months patiently lobbying the Office for Low Emission Vehicles to garner support and potential investment.
My mantra then, as it is today, is ‘build it and they will come’, and our efforts paid off; the Government’s Plugged-in-Places programme was the first sign of tangible progress.
Our proposition was simple: we would supply, install and maintain EV charge points; we just needed to find the customers.
What was immediately obvious was that no-one was sitting there waiting to place an order. When an industry doesn’t exist, however, you must create one. This couldn’t be done alone; we needed to have the belief from the automotive manufacturers themselves that an investment in electric vehicles was viable both economically and environmentally. Whether our entreaties to the wider industry had a direct impact on Nissan’s decision to build its Leaf in Sunderland is a moot point. Suffice to say it was a turning point, and the impetus the UK needed to take EVs seriously.
Of the early providers of infrastructure, most decided to focus their activities, for obvious reasons, on London. We looked further afield, and specifically to Scotland where the Department for Transport seemed especially welcoming of our approach.
I recall a road-trip to visit all of the (then) 31 Scottish Local Councils. Three quarters of them were excited by the prospect but saw little future in electric vehicles. The remainder were not only excited, but positively eager to see what we could do to help. First among these, of course, was Dundee, a leader then, and a leader now. After two years of almost endless uphill battles, Dundee City Council became our first customer.
It might be easy, at this point, to say that the rest is history, only it wasn’t. What was also clear in an industry that was still, at best, embryonic was that there were no standards and no agreement on such fundamentals as sockets. Our first charging points used a three-pin socket, and it was some time until an AC protocol was agreed and even longer before a DC protocol was established with the Japanese, the French, and the rest of Europe all championing their preferred solution. (Indeed, this is still somewhat ongoing, though CCS is likely to win out in the end.)
A bigger challenge, and perhaps the biggest challenge that exists today, was power. To overcome this, we were among the first to look at storing energy as the solution to overcoming the constraints of the grid. By generating renewable energy on-site, principally through solar panels, and storing it, we effectively had our own source of charge to transfer to the vehicle. Our first installation was completed in , and we still see our own generation and storage as a key way of overcoming the bottleneck of getting power to any new site.
The importance of reliability
We were quick from the outset to recognise that reliability is key. That didn’t just mean the reliability of our technology, but also the reliability of our operational services and the dependability of our people. Today, reliability is more important than ever in building trust: it was the reason why we opted to invest in developing our own in-house software platform – E.Connect – and our own team of software developers who are constantly innovating new features and services; it was the reason we invested in our own team of service engineers (we now have more than 30 and operate an all-electric fleet) to provide nationwide coverage and support; and it was the reason we also invested in our own customer services team, the same team who also help us in managing the ChargePlace Scotland network and who bring much-needed employment in the local area.
A great deal more has happened over the last 13 years that can’t be recounted in a single article. When APT was acquired by SWARCO in 2014, they little imagined the business that we have now become, but the senior team has been steadfast in its support and investment, and having the backing of such a financially robust organisation is undoubtedly of great comfort to the Local Authorities and private sector customers who we work with, who know we are in it for the long term and always have been.
None of the progress we have made could have been achieved without the support of our people. They demonstrate our core values of agility, reliability and trust every day in the work that they do, from the service engineers and sales teams to the project managers and administrative staff. Their passion, their spirit of co-operation and desire for innovation are the reason for our success, helped by working with some truly inspirational customers across the UK.
Since 2010, the industry has changed beyond recognition. We have evolved with it, culminating recently in the launch of our own Chargepoint Operator (CPO) business PoGo, capable of deploying fully-funded solutions to further accelerate the infrastructure roll-out and with ambitious targets for the future. But it’s not about numbers or flags on a map; it’s really about making sure that the right infrastructure is in the right place, to serve the right people.
A long road ahead
There are still many challenges. As a recent BBC documentary revealed, the availability and cost of power – and getting power to a site – remains a headache, and the industry is partly a victim of its own success.
Because the quality of electric vehicles has improved dramatically, and consumers are steadily being won over with regards the environmental benefits of owning an EV, there are now fewer charging points available per vehicle than there were two years ago (one charging point to 32 vehicles today versus one to every 16 vehicles in 2021).
We have built, and they have come, so the need to get more charging points into the ground is now more important than ever and that cannot be done alone. It requires less finger pointing, and much closer collaboration from all sides, to better understand the challenges we all face, and how they can be overcome together. Connecting people is key to sharing experiences and best practice and navigating our way through challenging times.
Notwithstanding these difficulties, the future is a positive one. We are working on many new innovations, including our own app, and have exciting plans for the months and years ahead. Customer and driver satisfaction remain at the heart of all we do, and as a business and as an industry, we can be justifiably proud of the huge distance we have travelled in such a comparatively short space of time.