Plugged In with Alex Bamberg
While all the focus is on electrifying road transport, Alex Bamberg of Aqua superPower is quietly, but rapidly, laying the foundations of a revolution in the marine sector. We speak to him about his crucial role in the development of GeniePoint and the Electric Highway as well as the challenges facing the electric boat charging sector.
It’s been called the Tesla Supercharger network of the marine world, but it’s a moniker Alex Bamberg – CEO of marine charger installer Aqua superpower – is happy to aspire to.
“Our charging app offers a lot of functionality, but we’ll soon be offering ‘plug and charge’ which will imitate the Tesla experience because we feel that is the only way. We want to avoid all this messing around with phones for charging – customers can do it if they want to access certain features, but for a simple charge the Tesla way is what most people want.”
Creating the Tesla Supercharger network of the boating world is no mean feat, but fortunately Alex has the credentials and experience to pull it off along with his colleagues.
For those not in the know, Alex was the founder and director of Chargepoint Services – the charging infrastructure firm behind the GeniePoint network - which was eventually bought by Engie in 2019.
GeniePoint is a well-known brand even in today’s increasingly crowded public charging market, but back in the early 2010s it was a major player and pioneer. In other words, Alex has previous when it comes to setting up a charging network from scratch.
“I’m not an engineer, but I know how a car engine works and I’ve got a background in automotive going back 20 years. I did some work in emissions labs too and with battery technology improving at the time it meant EVs could compete directly with their fossil fuel counterparts - I could see where the market was headed.
“The level of acceptance of fossil-fuel based vehicles is quite extraordinary considering they help ruin the climate, screw up air quality and give you cancer - it's only through decades of habit that we accept them. But back in 2010 I could see this [EVs] was really going to happen.”
Alex explains how he built up a “fantastic team” at Chargepoint Services, alongside the GeniePoint public network, with an early success story coming at the London 2012 Olympics when the company installed charge points for the Games.
It’s clear how proud Alex is of that achievement.
“It was the largest three-phase AC charging network in Europe at the time. For the first time ever we were plugging in 20 or 30 cars at a time. We learnt so much at the time and in those early days, not forgetting that this was all cutting edge back in 2011/2012.”
Whether you're looking for a cable to charge your car or your boat, we've got a range of EV charging cables to suit almost any charging needs.
Behind the scenes of Electric Highway
Alex continues to explain how GeniePoint went from strength to strength after the 2012 Games.
“We made an impact, in particular with Dale Vince,” says Alex, casually dropping in the name of one of the most influential and divisive (perhaps unfairly so with respect to EVs) figures in the world of EV charging.
“I had spoken to Dale many times and he was even building an electric vehicle himself at the time. I said ‘why don’t you write a cheque and we’ll put chargers in across the whole motorway network for you'.”
At this point I assume Alex is paraphrasing, but also secretly hoping he nonchalantly asked Dale Vince, the founder of energy company Ecotricity, to drop a few million quid to fund the UK’s first proper motorway rapid charging network.
Either way, it’s clear Alex had a big hand in jumpstarting the UK's charging infrastructure.
“We essentially put 290 of the first 50kW chargers in place between 2014 and 2016. If you look back, that was the change that transitioned the UK into buying electric vehicles and it proved that without public accessible infrastructure, this transition was never going to happen. I know it sounds so bleedingly obvious now, but it was actually quite hard at the time.”
I take the opportunity to ask Alex if he feels Dale Vince gets a hard wrap.
“Dale does come in for some stick and it's not really due. The idea of getting a charger outside the front door of a Welcome Break on the M4, or wherever it was, was hard work. But he saw the vision, he agreed with me and he wrote the cheque. And that’s the point - somebody had to get off their backside and write a cheque for this pioneering network. It's very easy to sit in a chair and go ‘well, I would have done this or that’.”
Electrifying the marine sector with Aqua superpower is now Alex’s primary mission and he’s clearly following the same successful blueprint set out by GeniePoint – build out the infrastructure to build up confidence in the technology. In this case, electric boats.
Most people will understand the need and benefits of automotive going electric, but the world of boats is less widely understood. So, why is it important for the marine sector to go electric?
“Marine engines, at the sub-30 metre market anyway, are derivatives of car engines and light commercial engines. Historically, those engines tend to be three to six years behind on emission controls, so they're pretty dirty relative to a new car, combustion car. That means from an air quality and environmental position, we need to hurry up and transition away from carbon fuels in that area alone.”
But it is not just the health and environmental impact on humans that provides a sense of urgency, Alex tells me, but also the effect on the marine ecosystem itself. At some point all boats will need to dump their bilge water.
Depending on the boat, this may contain water, oil, urine, detergents, chemicals and more. Clearly not the sort of stuff we really want to be putting into the water.
Alex does an excellent job of explaining the nuances of the marine ecosystem and why else the industry should shift to electric, but it’s all swept away (along with my follow-up questions on the matter) with a simple “Well, why not?”.
“Yes, there are significant other worries around ecosystems generally on the water that need to be tidied up. But [in terms of the boats themselves] there are, if you like, a global parts bin of batteries, motors, engine controllers owing to the automotive sector.
“Yes, they need to be adapted for marine use, but the technology and supply chains already exist. So, the idea of having an electric power boat or electric day boat is viable now. I can tell you now that there's about 73 electric powertrain providers as we speak today.”
Who’s going to make the shift?
Alex estimates there are around 30 million boats that could make the shift to electric globally.
The leisure and commercial markets are ripe for change, but Alex explains the size of the boat is important here.
“The first key mover to electric in substantial volume will be the sub-20 metre market – electric makes sense for them right now from a commercial perspective.
“There are massive advantages of very low maintenance for electric powertrains that suits the commercial market extremely well. Commercial operators would go a long way to save 2-3% on fuel – in fact they invest a lot in trying to save in that sort of area. And at certain levels, there's huge cost savings on the fuel as well, let alone all the other benefits of silent running."
Alex also says the smaller end of the market will also benefit from the fuel savings as well as saving up to 90% on maintenance throughout the life of the boat.
Another key advantage the marine sector has in making the move to electric is that the existing use cases fit nicely with charging stops. After all, in the leisure market the boats are often stopped in one place for a significant amount of time (when they could be charging), while other commercial scenarios sees boats using the same “corridors” for travel.
“If you're a commercial operator, the use case is far less complicated - you're buying a commercial boat because you know it does 10 trips a day at 20 knots or 10 knots and you know exactly what you want it to do.”
In other words, Alex says, we know where the boats travel to and from, how far they travel typically and how long they stop for. That means Aqua superpower can plan its charging locations with a high degree of accuracy and confidence that they will be in the right places.
Can you get range anxiety in a boat?
The EV industry is gradually loosening the shackles of range anxiety as vehicles are released that go further on a single charge alongside an increasing understanding among the public that a range of 600 miles is not necessary.
But what are electric boats even capable of?
It obviously depends on the boat size, battery size, speed and efficiency. If you’re thrashing the throttle reaching 30 knots then you’ll get around 50 miles of range. Drop to a more leisurely and realistic speed of 10 knots or under and you can expect 200 miles.
In reality, Alex says the stop-start nature of a lot of boat journeys means the range won’t really be an issue.
“We're putting in charging corridors either around big lakes or along coastlines. We're not putting chargers in every 50 miles - we're putting them in every five or ten miles. Because that means, in theory, you could actually have a smaller battery which keeps the capital costs down of these boats.
“So you could come in and charge slightly more frequently and have a smaller battery. Or you could have a bigger battery and charge less frequently. It’s your choice.”
Putting in rapid chargers at marinas and so forth has some inherent benefits as there can be power on site already, but that’s where the advantages stop.
“To state the bleeding obvious, half the landmass isn’t there, so the cable can only come in from one direction. In addition, the grid connections tend to cost more money too. It’s all doable, but just requires capital to make it happen.”
I also point out Aqua Superpower's recent installations in Venice which featured a design to match the wooden piles dotted around the Venetian waterways. I ask Alex if tourist destinations and other sites of historical importance are more picky when it comes to chargers being installed.
“We've partnered with a Venetian company to install some high powered AC 11kW and 22kW chargers which are in a pile.”
Alex goes on to explain how Venice could prove to be beacon in electric boat mobility, showing how it can be done.
“Everything in Venice is done by boat, so it means we can showcase the use of DC rapid chargers as well as AC chargers for when the boats are on standby, such as the chargers we’ve placed into piles to meet the heritage and cultural sensitivities.
“Not only that, but there are thousands of boats in Venice moving around on petrol or diesel and frankly it’s foul and the noise and environmental impact is diabolical. The place would really benefit from cleaner, quieter electric boats.”
Map of the current Aqua Superpower charging network
When is the tipping point for electric boats, then?
“I believe we're going to see a significant uptick in electric boat usage from 2024 onwards and 2025 is a key date where we need to have very significant infrastructure in place to pick up the thrust of the transition.”
That means more chargers in existing locations and more charging locations in general.
“More locations is absolutely the focus. It's all about us putting as many corridors in as possible to all the prime locations, commercial or leisure, around the world. Plan number two, which overlaps plan one but it's not total focus, would be the nice-to-have such as boat two grid – in other words, the idea of the boat potentially providing some income while it's sat in the marina.
“Our view is we want to carry on building out in the key areas and then start to build out in perhaps the not so key areas.”
Talking with Alex has been a real eye-opener into the hard work that went into building the UK's charging infrastructure back when there wasn't any. It wasn't perfect, but without it I am confident the UK EV market wouldn't be where it is today.
I'm left feeling confident Alex can repeat the trick with the marine charging sector and I look forward to visiting a quieter and cleaner Venice (and more) because of it.