The EV Powered Interview

Taking the smart approach to charging with David Watson

Ohme has rapidly become one of the UK’s biggest home charging companies, backed by the likes of VW and Polestar. So we spoke to its CEO, David Watson about the firm’s origins, the challenges it has faced and what’s next in the world of home charging

Tell us how Ohme came about

I ran an investment firm called Temporis Capital that focused on the renewable energy space. As more renewable energy projects were on the grid, energy prices were becoming more volatile and I was beginning to get worried about what that volatility may do to the grid or to those projects.

So, I started looking at batteries. Initially, Elon Musk had a huge battery farm in South Australia, where some of the most volatile energy prices were, and he built this battery farm to effectively help manage energy volatility. When there was too much electricity on the grid, the batteries would absorb all of that, and when there wasn’t enough, it would feed back into the grid. So I started looking at those as a way of potentially balancing the peaks and troughs that resulted with wind and solar.

And, when I looked closely, I could see that batteries were on a price reduction trajectory. And I came to the conclusion that EVs would be the mass form of transport, much, much quicker than people thought and then I thought, well, cars are parked 90 percent of the time at work or at home, so you could use those batteries to effectively balance the grid.

So then we thought, how could we make that happen and the first thing we did is we invented a smart cable with a 4G chip in it that could talk to our cloud. You could plug it into your car, you plug it into your house and it would speak to the grid operator and try and figure out what the cheapest times of energy were and send that schedule to the charger.

Until that stage, people used to get up in the middle of the night — there weren’t even timers in the car. And we brought along this cable which would effectively turn on and off charging at the time that it was cheapest. So people who had the first Ohmes and had an Octopus low tariff, they could charge it at 5p/kWh, which was at that stage a quarter of the price of normal electricity.

And from then it was how do we scale, how do we move beyond early adopters and people who were really, really engaged in energy and who understood smart energy and how could we build a proposition that worked for everybody?

Now that we’re in the era of mass adoption how do you provide for people who just want to be able to plug the car in and get the cheapest tariff, and not worry too much about the detail?

We did focus on the early adopters at the start but we started talking to Motability, which effectively leased vehicles on behalf of disabled people. And they were struggling with the whole charging experience. One, the installation of a charger and two, the in life of managing and controlling a charger. So we began to realise that we had to refocus on building some tools and systems to make energy cheap, reliable, and easy for people to access. So the emphasis of the company changed.

We had to really, really look at that process of installation and how we could make it easy and start to think about our app and think about how we could communicate the message of cheaper energy. So there was a number of things that we did. We focused on the app, on our communication, on the language. When you moved beyond the early adopters, people weren’t even aware  that there were these energy tariffs and how they work. So one of the biggest barriers was effectively education and simplifying the message.

So, for those new to EV ownership, what is dynamic charging?

A typical driver will come home at five in the afternoon and plug in their car and will typically unplug the car at eight in the morning. So if you don’t know anything about the driver, all that the charger can do is assume that it charges at max. So at 5pm your car will charge at max charge.

But if the car is at 60% at 5pm and the customer says ‘I would like to be 80 percent full at 8am’, then that 20%, which is only about three hours charging, could be at any time between five and eight. So then you pick the time that energy is cheapest. So if an energy supplier has decided that it’s cheap in the middle of the night for a few hours, then ultimately, because you know what the customer wants to do, you can move that charge into that time.

Once the charger knows your tariff and needs, it can speak to the supplier and to the car. It knows what your preferences are and then you just sit back and charge at a much cheaper rate.

So dynamic or smart charging is effectively moving away from that system where the system knows nothing about the driver and assumes just charge as fast as you can to one where you know exactly how much is in the car, how much they want in the car, when they want it ready by. You also know what energy supplier they have and so you end up as a driver with the cheapest energy.

The benefits of that for a typical customer would mean you charge for a couple of hundred pounds per year, rather than £700 or £800 on ‘dumb’ charging.

We’re seeing more EV-specific tariffs being launched so do you think we’ll also see more hardware to take advantage of these?

I expect so. Ultimately, customers want access to the cheaper energy and the technology that’s required in order to deliver that cheaper energy is evolving.

The next phase of evolution involves a degree of flexibility, where customers change their preferences or do different things at times when the grid is under immense stress. For example, in the winter where you get energy crunches, the grid operator has historically called on backup generation to provide electricity quite expensively. Now they’re exploring situations where people who wanted to charge would not charge or they would change their behaviour and it’d be additional revenue for customers who participated in that.

So, the market is evolving even further than just looking at supplier requirements to moving towards system services and new levels of intelligence that need different pieces of technology to be integrated with these energy tariffs.

But the next challenge is actually how do you make sure those customers have a great experience? And I think that’s the bigger barrier than simply technologically integrating a piece of hardware. Can you actually make that service easy and reliable for large numbers of people?

You mentioned flexibility and battery storage and balancing the grid. So is vehicle-to-grid technology going to be part of the future of charging?

Ultimately it will be but before it becomes a mass market proposition lots of things need to change.

If you look at DC V2G, you have a piece of kit that could be anywhere from £5,000 to £8,000. That needs quite a sophisticated user with a very uncertain payout, where the technology is only beginning to be supported by car OEMs. So that’s a long way away from a mass market product.

AC V2G has the potential to unlock the world in a much different way, because it is cheaper to install. It’s a little bit more expensive than a normal single-way charger, but not in the same thing as DC. But we do need car manufacturers to support it, and then those supported technologies to support geographical variations across different countries.

V2G will play an important part in the future, but presently there are quite a lot of barriers, whether they’re regulatory and technological or financial or even user experience to making it a mass market proposition.

We have technology in our pipeline, but it’s not something that I think is going to have a massive impact on what we do in the next year or two.

In that case, what is next for Ohme?

We perhaps don’t feel it here, but the UK is quite fortunate in that it’s a good number of years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of smart energy and smart tariffs and an open energy system. Drivers here in the UK have been fortunate to have access to super cheap energy and technology providers. But that hasn’t really existed in Europe.

I remember in the early days when people would be on Twitter and kind of begging, saying ‘When are you going to come to X,Y,Z country because we’re paying 30 or 40 cents a kilowatt hour’.

Over the last couple of years energy prices have gone more volatile [in Europe] and energy suppliers and policy makers are starting to introduce more incentives and drivers can push towards a more flexible system. So the net effect is that our focus over the next 12 months is expansion into Europe and Australia.

You do have some hardware differences and regulatory misalignments but ultimately there’s so much more the same than different.

Octopus are also expanding quite quickly into Europe and releasing tariffs all over different countries, so that’s helpful. We’re partnering with them in those countries to do the same things as we’ve done here and export the learnings of the last three or four years and give people in other countries access to some of the things that drivers over here have taken advantage of.

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Matt Allan

Matt is Editor of EV Powered. He has worked in journalism for more than 20 years and been an automotive journalist for the last decade, covering every aspect of the industry, from new model reveals and reviews to consumer and driving advice. The former motoring editor of, The Scotsman and National World, Matt has watched the EV landscape transform beyond recognition over the last 10 years and developed a passion for electric vehicles and what they mean for the future of transport - from the smallest city cars to the biggest battery-powered trucks. When he’s not driving or writing about electric cars, he’s figuring out how to convert his classic VW camper to electric power.

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