London to Electric Car Biz: On Your Marks, Get Set


London Mayor Boris Johnson wants his city to take the lead in making the UK the electric vehicle capital of the EU. Like the leaders from San Francisco, Calif. and Portland, Ore., he threw down the gauntlet earlier this year. But in the midst of a global economic recession and the recent sharp devaluation of the British pound, London isn’t about to seize the crown on its own — it’s shopping around for foreign investment.

Today, less than a month after Johnson detailed a 35-page plan to fire up the city’s electric vehicle market with government funds, EV-friendly policies and heavy marketing for plug-ins and charging infrastructure (and a push from the UK government), London’s official foreign direct investment agency, Think London, pitched more than 50 executives from cleantech companies at an event in San Francisco, laying out the appeal of setting up shop in London.

Dallas Kachan, managing director for the Cleantech Group, offered the short version: “There’s some pretty darn good infrastructure — financial and other infrastructure,” that entrepreneurs can leverage to do business in London, including the highest concentration of VCs of any city in Europe. But there’s also the fact that London expects its 2025 climate goals (reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent) to require an investment of some £20 billion ($32.7 billion), and the city is prepared to put up the first round of capital. Beyond that, cash is already flowing to get the city ready to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games with a heavy emphasis on minimizing waste and carbon emissions while maximizing energy efficiency.

According to Paul Bromelow, global sales director for Think London, there’s a time crunch for companies in the EV space — whether on the charging side or in the business of actual vehicles — hoping to get in on the ground floor in London and parlay that into business throughout the UK, EU and internationally. He said in an interview today that most Olympic contracts will go out within the next two years, and that he sees a 12-18 month window of opportunity in which companies can “take advantage of the rate of acceptance” of electric vehicles.

Bromelow explained that he sees demand for electric vehicles starting to take off as a result of incentives like congestion pricing waivers (electric car drivers don’t have to pay the £8-per-day fee that drivers of conventional cars do to drive into the city). He also said he expects a boost in demand as a result of Tesla Motors’ new presence there, with the Roadster generating buzz and excitement about electric vehicles on a level that the G-Wiz, a small electric city car already available in London, simply hasn’t been able to produce. Companies in the EV space that establish a presence in London and start commercializing there after that 12-18 month time frame, will likely be getting on at “floor two,” according to Bromelow.

While the city aims to draw that £20 billion in climate investments over the next decade and a half, Bromelow noted that expansion of electric vehicle infrastructure is among the top priorities. Padmensh Shukla, the finance chief for the city’s climate change program, told us today that at this point, the city’s EV team has its head down trying to “fully bake” the plan Johnson unveiled earlier this year — analyzing which charging business models for charging infrastructure will “actually be good for London,” and how the city should work with the UK government on spending and policy. Within 6-12 months, he said we can expect to see more details on how to bid for the the charge point network buildout.

Better Place, which wants to deploy not only charge points but also battery swap stations, has been in talks with the London government (founder Shai Agassi reportedly pitched Prime Minister Gordon Brown last summer), but as we’ve noted before, the company hardly has a lock on charging infrastructure in the region.

Shukla emphasized that there’s plenty of room for multiple charge point companies. “We’re not creating a monopoly,” he said. On the panel, he noted that the city wants its EV infrastructure to be more like Java than Microsoft, with an open platform. When it comes to batteries for electric vehicles, Bromelow said the city would be “hugely interested” in talking with companies about setting up a presence, likely in Eastern London.

“This is a long-term game,” Shukla said today. “We’re not saying things are going to get back to 2007, but things should start moving from here.” As Janet Coyle, director of the 2012 Games at Think London put it, “London is very much open for business.”

London charge point graphic courtesy EVoasis

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