Energy Source & Distribution hits the road with John Sullivan, who leads the team at Chargefox—Australia’s largest EV charging network.
Having joined Chargefox as CEO early in 2023, Sullivan says his first six months in the role have been a “remarkable learning experience”. Previously chief technology officer at sustainable energy finance firm Brighte, Sullivan’s career moves have been motivated by the desire to make the biggest impact possible.
“I value noble causes, kick-starting or helping accelerate things that are the right things but need help,” he explains.
“I think I can safely say I was one of the first leaders of an Enterprise Agile transformation in 2005 at Sensis. I started one of the first Women in Technology internship programs at MYOB in 2016 called DevelopHer, and now I’m working on the reduction of carbon emissions through adoption of electric vehicles. I have always wanted to feel the impact of the work I do.
“At Chargefox, leading a growing business in such a rapidly evolving sector is undeniably challenging, but it’s also an absolute thrill for a product innovator like me. What makes it exciting is that we’re breaking new ground, and there’s no established playbook to follow.”
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Growth driven by demand
In 2018, Australian Motoring Services (AMS)—a subsidiary of NRMA, RACV, RACQ, RAA, RAC, and RACT—in conjunction with ARENA and the Victorian Government, provided funding for Chargefox to build Australia’s largest network of ultra-rapid chargers, capable of speeds up to 350kW.
“The aim was to make EV ownership practical for all Australians,” Sullivan says.
“At the time, even the Tesla network was in its infancy, and was only available to Tesla drivers, so Chargefox stepped in and set up 22 charging sites from Perth to the top of the east coast, enabling travel between major centres.
“Critically, these chargers were open to all EV makes and models. This paved the way for other vehicle manufacturers to sell EVs with confidence and for other organisations to start installing their own chargers, expanding the network across the country.”
This year, the company moved from charging hardware to focus exclusively on being the leading software platform for charger and EV management, working with companies, governments, and councils to bring thousands of publicly available chargers to the rapidly growing number of EV drivers.
The cornerstone of Chargefox’s offering is its app, which allows EV drivers to find a charger and pay for charging quickly and easily. Soon, the company will integrate with the infotainment and navigation systems of leading vehicle manufacturers, providing a seamless experience for even more EV drivers.
“Our model means the Chargefox app provides the most chargers available to drivers in one place, and we’re able to grow our network at a rate others can’t match,” Sullivan explains.
According to Sullivan, Chargefox’s push is truly nationwide, with the company aiming to eventually connect all Australian states and territories for EV drivers.
“EV ownership is growing right across the country, so the demand for charging is accelerating,” he says.
“Right now, there are nearly 2,000 publicly available charging plugs available on the Chargefox network, and we expect there to be over 5,000 by 2025.
In South Australia, Chargefox is working with the RAA as they build out South Australia’s first border-to-border network of EV charging stations—RAA Charge. Construction of the network is well underway, with the 140-site network to be completed in 2024. Once completed it will span highways, CBDs, and suburbs to facilitate EV travel across the state.
The ACT, while boasting the highest rate of EV ownership in Australia, had limited charging facilities available until recently, Sullivan explains.
“Now we are seeing a growing number of EV charging stations in our nation’s capital, many of which will be available on the Chargefox network, including the new location at the
Royal Australian Mint. This new installation by our partners at ENGIE features six new 150kW DC chargers.”
Chargefox is also working with Synergy and Horizon Power in Western Australia to build the WA EV Network—one of the longest EV charging networks in the world. Upon completion, it will stretch more than 5,000km and feature 98 EV charging stations across 49 locations.
“There are so many organisations working together to bring this vision to life,” Sullivan says.
“We’re providing the software to manage the chargers and making them accessible to drivers via the Chargefox app. Our friends at JetCharge are doing the hardware, and there are countless other suppliers and contractors involved. About a dozen stations are already operational and more are being brought online all the time. It will be interesting to see which EV enthusiast is the first to drive the full length once it’s fully completed.”
Perhaps the project most critical to truly nationwide EV charging availability is The National EV backbone being built by the NRMA and partly funded by the Australian Government, Sullivan says.
“Through this project, 117 fast charging stations will be constructed on the national highway network with a focus on connecting regional communities.
“NRMA is a major shareholder in Chargefox and we are working with the NRMA to make
all of their existing EV chargers and the new ones in The National EV backbone available through both the Chargefox platform and the MY NRMA App.”
Improving the user experience
Sullivan says the Chargefox team is always looking for new ways to improve the charging experience for Australian EV drivers.
“A key frustration for the growing number of EV drivers is arriving at a charger only to find it occupied by a vehicle that is fully charged yet remains plugged in,” he explains.
“To combat this behaviour and ensure chargers can support the most drivers, we are trialling idle fees at some locations in Western Australia. A fee of $1 per minute is incurred for vehicles once 10 minutes has passed since their EV was fully charged. We have had great feedback from drivers already as part of this trial and we are seeing very promising results.
“We’re also currently working with the South Australian Government to trial innovative ways to incentivise people to charge at times of the day when cheap solar energy is abundant, and disincentivise charging when the energy grid is under the most strain. This work will further unlock the potential of renewables and reduce expenditure on electricity infrastructure, which would in turn impact household electricity bills.”
Asked who Australia should be eyeing as the gold standard of EV uptake and charging infrastructure, Sullivan says, “Europe is the obvious one. They are leading the way in EV adoption and legislation and already have an extensive network of chargers available.
“While Europe is out in front, the US is probably a more helpful comparison for us here in Australia. Both the US and Australia have deeply ingrained driving cultures, long stretches of highways far from everything, and concentrated populations in big cities.
“We have the opportunity to cherry-pick the best of what is happening in the EU, USA, and Asia while ensuring we cater to the nuances of what the Australian driving public needs. As an industry, we will all benefit from sharing and collaboration over secrecy and competition.
“The thing I am personally most excited about is the trend towards a seamless charging experience for drivers with less friction and fewer manual steps. At Chargefox, we are working very closely with our partners to build a future where drivers can charge wherever they want, however they want, pay with whichever method they choose, and get back on the road with the least possible fuss.”
Carmakers are looking to electrify their vehicles just as quickly as EV charging technology is evolving. Sullivan says collaborating with automakers like BMW has been a “game changer” for the EV ecosystem.
“Let’s rewind to 2019 when BMW first teamed up with us, offering i3 buyers a three-year subscription to Chargefox’s charging network,” he says.
“Fast forward, and we’ve stretched that to an impressive five years of free charging. This not only sweetens the deal for potential EV owners but also makes the transition to electric an easy choice.
“Now, as BMW expands its electric lineup with plans for a dozen models on Aussie roads by 2023, our partnership with them becomes even more crucial. Our strategically placed charging stations, especially along highways, wipe out range anxiety and make long-distance EV journeys a breeze.
“These partnerships are the driving force behind a new era of EVs, promising better range, faster charging, and a greener footprint.”
The most significant obstacle for EV uptake in Australia, Sullivan says, is the need for improved charging infrastructure.
“We need to establish a comprehensive and integrated network of charging stations across the nation. Conquering range anxiety, educating the public about the merits of EVs and providing a frictionless charging experience are all paramount challenges we are vigorously tackling. By focusing on these aspects, we can pave the way for a smoother and more rapid uptake of EVs in Australia.”
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Sullivan says growing Chargefox’s partner network will continue to be a top priority for the business.
“We feel it’s only through these partnerships that EVs will become the vehicle of choice in Australia,” he explains.
“We see the integration of our platform into lots of different devices, including in-vehicle apps, mapping technologies, chargers for a plug-and-charge experience, logistic tools, and business automation tools. The classes of EVs supported will increase to include buses and light and heavy vehicles. EVs will become more ubiquitous.
“Lastly, we are starting to support a wider category of chargers than the current primary focus on fast DC chargers. Over the next couple of years drivers charging behaviour will change and it will move from infrequent full charging behaviour to frequent top-up charging.
“DC chargers are still important, and the number of installed DC chargers will increase. However, people will move to everyday charging at destinations and to support this we will increase the number of easy access AC chargers on our networks, ones at supermarkets, gyms, shopping strips, and we will see more kerbside charging installations.”