As of 31 August 2022 there were 20,534 EV charging locations in the UK, up almost 1,600 from the month before. But those 20,000-odd sites are split between around 80 operators – with no single EV charging network reaching even 17% of the market, and the fifth-largest network only reaching 4.7%.
For individual EV drivers, this fragmentation is a pain – but for EV fleet drivers and their managers, it’s a nightmare, with the choice of either dealing with dozens of networks (each with their own app and card and receipts), or limiting drivers to a select few. The issue is compounded by the fact that each network has its own sprawling set of opaque tariffs based on everything from charge time to location.
It is this problem which Paua aims to solve: taking the complexity out for both EV fleet operators and individuals, with a single roaming charge card that opens up this environment for all users.
But the electric vehicle charging application provider is tackling more than just market fragmentation. It's also helping deliver critical digital and data transformation for EV charging networks. We're making it our latest "One to Watch" -- a monthly feature on a startup that excites us for its innovation, mission and team.
Paua CEO: "Just the integration process can bring value"
“We have about 1.4% of people on the roads today driving battery electric vehicles. That means the UK built the infrastructure for 1.4% of people; it's all over the place. It's hidden behind hotels, it's in a pub car park, down a country lane, it might be on a motorway service station or a fuel forecourt.”
So says Paua CEO and co-founder Niall Riddell speaking to The Stack.
Once a driver finds a charge point they must then deal with one of the 80 networks, and their various apps, cards and subscriptions, he adds: “That's a bleeding headache for even the most committed individual.
"But for someone who's really not that committed to it, and is just thinking about it, it's like, 'nah, it’s too complicated, I’m not doing it'. “So we've got to solve that roaming capability between different networks. That's effectively where we’ve done the hard work... to integrate with multiple different charge point partners.”
(The energy market veteran has spent 15 years with major utilities -- "RWE with the Germans, British Energy with the British, EDF Energy with French and then over to SSE with the Scottish" -- ending up running the Electric Vehicle Team at EDF Energy, before launching Paua with the help of a government grant in early 2020.)
Paua currently works with 15 charge point operators across 6,124 locations across the UK and Europe.
It makes money by charging fleet managers for access to that mobile app and current solution. ("That's £3/driver a month at the moment. Obviously, there's enterprise deals available if you're very big.")
Its pitch is simple: a single payment card and billing portal, for that fixed fee per month, per driver, which works across multiple different charging point operators and lets EV fleet managers get harmonised receipts and payments data) but the work behind the scenes is much more complex, encompassing not just development of Paua’s own tech stack, but working with the data of all their network partners – and, in many cases, enhancing it.
(It currently charges fleet managers £3/driver a month for access to the app and card: "Obviously, there's enterprise deals available if you're very big" says Riddell; for partners on the charging network side meanwhile, the benefits of partnering with Paua include helping drive more charging sessions to their network.)
Along with providing services for EV fleet managers, Paua also offers white-label solutions, with Moove, one of Uber's largest car leasing partners in MENA, using Paua for its new UK charging solution.
When is a standard not a standard?
Paua has tackled the mid-tier network market. The "big guys" are resistant to roaming relationships and the small guys "sometimes haven't got the technical capability or commercial capability to put the propositions together so they're harder to work with" says Riddell in his refreshingly direct way: "We started out by building relationships with a number of forward-thinking UK based operators and a number of European players..."
“With some of those mid-tier guys, one of the really interesting ways we brought them value is by doing the digital integration with them. Because we forced them to go through a journey to understand where their data is, and what their data quality is, and what their capabilities are,” says Riddell.
“We've been very fortunate that we've had some really positive feedback from some of our charge point operators. And we've been able to teach them and enable them to do things they weren't able to do before. So just the integration process can bring value," he says -- noting that many EV charging open data issues stem from it being a “very early-stage industry” with everyone “learning as we go”. One of these learning processes is the use of the Open Charge Point Interface (OCPI) standard, the core standard for the industry, says Riddell.
"It's been written as a true open standard by a bunch of engineers, who've put lots of stuff into it. [But] it's been written in a fairly vague and ambiguous way, which means it's also been implemented in a fairly vague and ambiguous way.
“So one of the biggest problems we face when we sit down with a lot of these charge point operators for the technical integration, is that everybody's implemented things slightly differently: ‘We don't know how to do this, but we kind of put an extra piece of code in here, so can you implement this code here? And there's an API to do this bit, because we're not sure about this bit...’”
As a result of this, Paua now conducts a half-hour interview when onboarding a new charge point partner, just to clarify how they’ve approached data integration. This has reaped dividends for Paua, by quickly narrowing down the “scope of where things can go wrong” according to Riddell, who adds that this has "been quite useful because it does mean that, as the industry speaks to each other, it enables us to get better at what we're doing.
”Any tariff you like"
The other major data challenge is tariffs, with “thousands and thousands and thousands” of tariffs across the UK’s charge points, according to Riddell. What people want, he says, is a standard price-per-kilowatt-hour – but what they get is a fragmented, opaque mess: “People out there have charged things like a time-based tariff; or what about adding a tariff for parking, and surely there should be a minimum connection fee.
"And, 'oh, hang on, if you stay over a certain period, then we're going to charge you an overstay fee.'
“You then add on to it the layer around the fact that, well, 'this piece of land over here is owned by this local authority, and they want to charge a little bit more than this local authority. So I've added a penny on this one, whereas these guys don't have a penny. So this one's 20. This one's 21. And those guys over there, they want 25 pence a kilowatt-hour,'” says Riddell.
As Paua doesn’t mark up the charging costs of its users, and with wildly divergent pricing – Riddell says the most expensive rate, at 89p, is more than three times the cheapest, at 25p – the company needs a way to incorporate the very complex pricing models used by its charge point partners.
But while the company has to deal with this complexity in the back-end (its stack is built on AWS managed by Outsystems, and a SQL database), it tries to maintain a clear focus for its users.
“Our number one objective is making sure people get a charge. And actually, that's probably the primary thing they're interested in. Price goes out the window, amenities go out the window, it's really all about just being able to get some extra juice in that car. And even if it's a small amount for another 10 miles, it's valuable to the driver to get that,” he explains: “So our focus has been on, rather than building the world's best tech stack with all the bells and whistles, it's about getting the driver the answer to the question, which is: can I get a charge?”
With the government pushing for EV charging harmonisation - and roaming capabilities - and some of the larger charge point networks considering the benefits of roaming, Riddell believes the issue of enabling access to the UK's EV charging networks is improving: "But the other side of 'how do you make it easier for people to access to infrastructure' is the amount of infrastructure. We need more infrastructure in the right places.
"Meanwhile there are simple things we can do to improve access: we are one of those things."