By 2030, say some, one-third of all passenger cars on the road will be fueled by electricity rather than gasoline or diesel. But it will take a lot more than vague commitments from automakers and political statements to meet that target. One of the components to the wholesale change will have to occur in vehicle fueling — charging an EV (electric vehicle) is a different experience than pulling into a gas station, grabbing a drink, and pulling away 10 minutes later, ready to drive another 300 miles.
Mass adoption of EVs won’t happen without the infrastructure to eliminate EV drivers’ driving “range anxiety” — the fear of a car running out of power for want of an EV charging station. That’s good news for Volta Industries, a relatively young company building a “commerce-centric” EV charging network. Volta makes open-network charging stations in locations “where drivers already spend their time and money, including grocery stores, pharmacies, and other retail locations,” says the company’s new CFO.
The charging stations Volta provides are supported by sponsors that advertise on the station’s 55-inch digital displays. In addition, the stations are placed in highly visible spots at retail locations, not in the back of a mall or parking lot. According to the Department of Energy, Volta has 1,845 active charging stations in the United States out of about 41,400 total public EV charging outlets.
After agreeing to a potential special purpose acquisition company transaction in April, Volta hired Francois Chadwick as chief financial officer. Chadwick is a former vice president, finance, tax & accounting at Uber Technologies, where he helped launch the service into more than 100 countries.
The following interview with Chadwick has been edited for clarity and length.
What’s the difference between the gas station model and Volta’s charging station model?
One of the fundamental differences is when you go to a gas station, you are going to the gas station to fuel. With the EV chargers, you are fueling where you go. The charging itself just becomes a byproduct of where you are already planning on going.
We’re starting to understand better when drivers want to charge and what benefit we can then show the store or the supermarket or other site. … If there is a Volta charging station at a store, they will go and shop there — they can plug the car in and go shopping, and the vehicle is being charged. … We’re also looking at creating a unique experience for the driver. There’s an app that they download. And there’s more and more that we can build into that app, so that [charging] becomes a seamless experience.
As far as planning, it seems like there are many things you can’t necessarily know about the speed and vector of electric vehicle adoption. So, how far out can you plan?
We acquired some new technology recently that addresses that exact issue. We’re taking in several different data flows and predicting where the greatest amount of ‘ask’ will be for charging stations. So, a simple data flow would be, how many electric cars are being sold in a particular municipality? We can look at the sales data and the ramp rate. And then get ahead of that by having discussions with the various site and media partners.
It takes time to put these EV charging stations in the ground. You have to talk to the retail establishment, but there may also be a different owner of the actual car parking space. Sometimes you can connect the electricity through to the site partner, depending on the charger. But we may have to dig deeper and directly connect to the utility. And then obviously there are permits we have to obtain. The length of time [to do all that] varies.
The data we collect has become beneficial information for the utility providers. They are interested in understanding what type of infrastructure they will need to build to meet future charging demands.
Would you rather be ahead of the market and have a charging station perhaps sitting there unused or react to established market demand?
The ideal answer would be we do everything just in time, and it’s perfect. That’s pretty difficult. With the new [data] team that we’ve created and the technology we have, we are getting closer and closer to that. But part of this is a bit of a race. We want to make sure that we have sufficient chargers in places we want them, and they benefit the site partners and media partners. But we also want them in there as quickly as possible, knowing that the market for EVs will continue to grow.
Has the industry come up with a possible year that might be the tipping point for EV adoption, or is that just a big unknown?
I know it’s coming. Look at the increasing amount of sales of electric vehicles and the federal and state mandates of when all vehicles need to become electric. What’s going to happen is that the resale value of a gas-powered car will start to drop. So, people are going to begin to make predictive decisions based on that. They will ask, should I be getting a gas-powered vehicle right now, knowing that it will have no resale value in four or five years?
As the gas economy disappears, there’s a lot that’s up for offer. As more and more electric vehicles get on the road, fewer people will go to gas stations; there will be fewer gas stations; and there will be less sold at a gas station. A lot of revenue that a gas station makes is when people buy a can of Coke, cigarettes, a Twinkie, or whatever else. All of that is going to disappear.
The SPAC was arranged before you arrived at Volta. What’s your sense of how a SPAC transaction differs from an initial public offering?
There are a lot of similarities. You still have to complete accurate financial statements, a management discussion and analysis, a listing of risk factors — all of those disclosures. A difference is that with an IPO, you have one set of advisers. In a SPAC deal, you have the SPAC itself and the operating company. So what I have found is that you have to be very very coordinated, and make sure everyone is on the same page. And obviously, the SEC has come out with some guidance about a month ago, so we worked our way through that very quickly. And we’ve been working very, very closely with our auditors on our company-level positions.
Have you had to expand Volta’s finance team as a result?
We’re actively recruiting. We need to build out internal audit, treasury, and other core functions, like FP&A. The slight difference over a pure technology company is we have all of those assets: the charging stations. We partner with the supermarket or grocery chain or the actual owner of the sparking space, so there’s a lot of leasing. So, we face lease accounting issues that may be a pure-play tech company doesn’t face.
We have a lot of good talent. So [recruiting] is a key focus as we grow the company, take it international, and take it to the next level on the public markets.