Fastned’s 10th anniversary was in February. What happened before and in those 10 years? How did they succeed in creating freedom for electric drivers? And what about the future?
How it all began
In 1990, California created its Zero Emission Vehicle Mandate. It forced the 7 largest carmakers selling cars in California to start making electric cars. The carmakers were not happy, but they complied reluctantly. The fossil fuel industry was not happy; it lobbied against the policy. In 2004, the car and oil industry won, all electric cars driving around in California were collected and destroyed (a few ended up in museums). For those who would like to know more about this early history, there is a movie on the topic: Who Killed the Electric Car?
In hindsight, we know that the adversaries were too strong, and the technology too weak. But this was not the end of the electric car. It inspired people with vision to keep working on an electric car future. The best known among them are the five founders of Tesla, most famously Elon Musk, as well as the CEO of Nissan from 2001–2017, Carlos Ghosn. But they were not the only ones.
There was a growing awareness among many people that the future of transport should be electric. All car companies had research projects and there were dozens of startups trying to do what the big companies were failing to do. The company I worked for bought two electric Lotus Elise to show policymakers what was possible and coming.
In the Netherlands, two guys were thinking about the need to charge your electric car when you are away from home. They realized it was a chicken and egg problem. No charging infrastructure was going to be built without cars on the road, but these cars would not get on the road without charging infrastructure.
There was also a startup making and selling fast chargers. One of the guys started to work for it, the other became an investor in the company and joined the supervisory board. They met and got talking, daydreaming, and writing a business plan. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.
One of those two guys, Bart Lubbers, wrote the history of the early years in a journal that reads like an exciting book.
The central observation was that people bought a car for the freedom it offers, but a car that is unable to drive around freely because it must return to base to charge does not offer a lot of freedom. For electric driving to become a success, charging should become as easy as filling a tank at a gas station. They envisioned that charging stations should be as easy to find and as recognizable as gas stations.
The service areas along Dutch highways are an integral part of the highway system. They are a combination of parking and rest areas, gas stations, and often restaurants or hotels. As part of the highway system, these places are owned and managed by the state. They are also the most coveted locations for gas stations. With a license to build charging stations at these locations, their business plan would be solid enough to start a company.
Their first order of business became lobbying the government, convincing the state to hold an auction for licenses to build charging stations. The state got behind the plan, it held the auction, and our two guys won most of the licenses. All that was left was deciding on the name of the company and registering it.
Anybody who followed the Tesla adventure through the German permitting process can guess what came next. For each station, they filled a thick binder with a few dozen reports for the necessary permits. The relevant local authorities had to decide on each report. A charging station is a lot smaller than a gigafactory, and the locations were created for such a purpose (and no water was needed), but still, bats are a protected species in the Netherlands, too. It took time and a lot of patience.
The other guy, Michiel Langezaal, did most of the surveying of the locations. When meeting with the authorities that managed the sites, he was often better acquainted with the site and its peculiarities than the administrators. Some of them were enthusiasts, some did not understand why anyone would pursue this. Regions with enthusiast administrators got their stations sooner than the “but why?” regions.
It was on the 3rd of November 2013 that the first car could charge at the first operational Fastned highway station. That is a year and a half after receiving the permit. For a completely new type of building and installation, that’s very fast.
Now the task was building the next stations to create a network. The intention was to open one station every week for the next four years. Reality would be different.
It is often not what you simply don’t know that causes you the biggest problems. It is what you think you know that turns out to be wrong.
The future would not be as expected
When Bart and Michiel wrote their business plan, there were no electric cars on the roads, or at the dealers. There were no drivers that had charging habits for their non-existing electric cars. The type of cars that would be made and the way their drivers would use them was nonetheless crucial for the success or failure of Fastned.
All the presumptions that were used to write the business plan were checked and validated by insiders from finance, government, and industry. It was like the story Tony Seba keeps telling about the introduction of cell phones. All the experts were wrong. It was not that it did not happen or happened a hundred times faster than expected. It just happened in a completely different way than expected.
What was expected was some electric cars like the Tesla Model S, each very expensive and with a big battery, and far more electric cars like the Nissan LEAF or Mitsubishi i-MiEV with small batteries and a price a green enthusiast could afford. Most people would not be able to charge in their own driveway, would have a small battery, and would use a fast-charger for €10 per week.
What happened was the Chevy Volt, a brilliant EV that solved the problem of the too-expensive battery by providing a range-extending internal combustion engine (ICE) for fallback. The plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) was born and rightly included in the incentive programs.
Other carmakers were a problem, though. They saw the potential of a gas guzzler with a fake electric option that would qualify for the generous incentives and would help to greenwash the company.
To create incentives for electric cars, the Dutch government used existing fiscal instruments. The “luxury” sales tax on top of the normal sales tax was redefined as a CO2 tax, based on grams of emission per kilometer. Without emissions, electric vehicles did not have to pay this often very high tax. The road tax for electric vehicles was lowered to €0.00. The benefit-in-kind income tax for cars provided by employers was lowered to 0% for electric vehicles. This combination of tax benefits made the first generation of electric vehicles almost competitive with fossil fuel vehicles. The most expensive, like the Tesla models, could be even cheaper to drive, depending on mileage.
The benefit-in-kind incentive was the most important one, but it excluded about 40% of the market, namely the people who paid for their own car.
The people who could get a car with a lavish incentive from their employer got free gasoline but had to pay for their electric charging with their own money. Dutch roads saw a booming PHEV cohort driving around. Most were the “fake-PHEV” kind that were not good at driving electric and consequently were never plugged in.
Although the “fake-PHEV” loophole delayed real electrification, the government did most things right. The last incentive to mention here was municipalities installing public curbside chargers close to the homes of EV drivers. This way, EV drivers without the opportunity to charge in their own driveway could still get an overnight charge at a public charger.
Nobody expected the exclusion of 40% of the market from the most important incentive or expected most EVs to run on gasoline. The market for Fastned grew slower than expected. What was also much slower was the speed with which the utilities were able to provide grid connections. It could take over 2 years between requesting a connection and actually getting a connection. This slowed down the opening of new stations.
The combination of fewer customers and fewer stations resulted in less revenue. Less revenue made investors hesitant to provide money to this new type of business, slowing down the growth even further.
These obstacles did not change the basic premises of the Fastned business plan. It would just take more time to achieve profitable operation of the charging stations. The goals of providing freedom to electric drivers and avoiding the chicken and egg problem were as relevant then as they were when the idea to start a charging company was first conceived.
The target of opening 50 stations per year was never realized. Three years after opening the first station, at the end of 2016, there were not 150 stations, but “only” 57. But even just 57 fast charging stations at top locations along the highways helped make the Netherlands a charging paradise.
Restarting the BEV transition
We all make mistakes and often we learn from them. That is true even for governments. The incentives for PHEVs were lowered in 2016 and completely removed in 2017. Those are the years EVs without a tailpipe were starting to really appear on Dutch roads. This was the second wave of electrification, now with fully electric vehicles. Consequently, Fastned now saw customers other than Tesla drivers appear at its charging stations.
The actual start of the Dutch BEV rollout was delayed from 2012 to 2016 by the trolling of the “fake-PHEV.” Meanwhile, the most popular cars — like the Nissan LEAF, Renault ZOE, BMW i3, and Hyundai Ioniq — did get bigger batteries and more range. Bigger batteries lowered the need to charge often, and enticed the drivers to explore the freedom that guilt-free electric driving can provide. Still, there was a need for less frequent fast charging — not for the daily commute, but for the road trips that are more fun in an electric car. For all those who started driving electric in the second wave of electrification, there was a ready-made charging network along Dutch highways.
That network was very visible to all drivers thanks to the very recognizable canopies over the charging stations. The new BEV buyers knew that there was no chicken and egg problem with the infrastructure in the Netherlands. This was a big advantage over neighboring countries that had largely invisible infrastructure.
Providing freedom to electric drivers was the idea that was at the start of Fastned. That goal was clearly realized for the new drivers. Doing that while running a profitable business was going to take longer than anticipated. The Netherlands was 4 years behind schedule growing its BEV fleet. The government goal of 200,000 BEVs on the road by 2020 was reached at the end of Q3 2021. The second-wave drivers also didn’t spend €10 per week at a Fastned station. They charged less frequently; although, when traveling, they charged more. Predicting human behavior is tricky.
Waiting for the CAFE
Predicting corporate behavior is also difficult. While all carmakers were developing prototypes and concept cars, what they actually produced were many press releases. Many BEVs that it was suggested would come to market turned into vaporware. With no BEV in the showrooms of most auto brands, there were no sales.
The industry was preparing for the European CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency) mandate that was going to go into effect in 2020. It was safe to delay offering BEV models because all competitors were delaying doing so. In 2020, they would need to sell many BEVs to comply with the mandate. Selling before that time did not count towards their average emissions.
These last years of the decade were the time of the “Tesla stretch.” People who had never bought a first-hand car, or anything in the price class of Tesla, decided that it was Tesla or nothing. In many cases, it became a Tesla. In other cases, for drivers who could meet their driving needs with a non-Tesla, it became a ZOE, i3, or LEAF, or one of the models based on a conventional fossil-fueled model like the Golf, Niro, or Smart.
With fully electric cars driving around and live drivers doing the charging, real-world behavior patterns could be discerned. There was a clear correlation between the number of BEVs on the road and the sales of electricity at the charging stations. The decision to go for the best locations along the highways turned out to be the right way to build a charging network. The better locations and density of the network made even many Tesla drivers regular Fastned customers.
Now the quarterly reports began to show confidence based on the statistics collected from operating a network. The road to profitability was longer than originally expected, but less speculative. Supported by CAFE, real profit would emerge in the first years of the next decade.
Welcome to the CAFE
The last quarter of the decade ended with over 30,000 new BEVs registered in the Netherlands. Many of those even in the last week of the year. It was about fifty–fifty between the Tesla Model 3 and the rest of the market. They all were eager to drive electric. The 2020s started with healthy growth at the Fastned stations in the first two months. In the neighboring countries, CAFE started to push the dealers to sell BEVs. Then Covid happened. From trying to spend as much as possible on growth, the mantra became, “hoard cash to survive the recession.”
This is not a history of Covid, so I will skip what happened in 5 disastrous quarters with the revenue at Fastned.
On the other hand, the Covid lockdowns that paralyzed many businesses did not influence the BEV market much. Most registrations were because of employee contracts and orders placed in 2019. In many European countries, BEV sales grew with high double or triple digits.
Only the already big Dutch market showed low growth in 2020, and a fallback in 2021. Still, there was more than a doubling of its electric fleet on the roads, from over 100,000 to 240,000.
In 2021, the tenth year of its existence, Fastned got an extra €150 million from investors and €50 credit from a bank to build new stations. Now it needs an extra 400 AAA++ locations to build them.
The extra money enabled Fastned to accelerate hiring employees and building stations. Lockdowns and working from home are still influencing the visits to charging stations, but the increase of BEVs on the road more than compensates these measurements.
In the annual report regarding its tenth year, Fastned shows maps of all six countries it is active in. Fastned never lacked in ambition. It realized early on that what was planned in the Netherlands should also be planned for the neighboring countries. Seeing what is possible, and what the situation was in the surrounding countries, international expansion is the next big step.
CleanTechnica looking at the Fastned future
CleanTechnica has published a number of independent reports on the growth and finances of Fastned. The growing organization is slowly specializing, with different departments and local companies in each of the countries it serves. Seen from the outside, two main activities emerge. One is the operation of existing stations selling electricity to electric drivers. CleanTechnica calls this part “Fastned Retail.” The other, bigger part of the company is working on finding new locations and building the stations. We call this “Fastned Projects.”
Fastned Retail can be analyzed as a normal retail chain. It has revenue and costs. Profitability is based on the number of BEVs passing a station. The registration of new BEVs was hardly delayed by Covid and very much accelerated by the CAFE mandate. In Q4 of this year or Q1 of the next, that number of BEVs will be high enough to show a profit at most stations, probably enough for the whole operational “Fastned Retail” part of the company to become profitable.
At least, that was the prediction based on the results of the first half of 2021. But just like the appearance of the “fake-PHEV” and the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, the future is sometimes different from what is expected. In Q4 of 2021, electricity prices spiked. Fastned partially compensated the higher prices with a €0.10 raise in the kWh price and accepted lower margins.
The prediction below is based on the growth of the Dutch BEV fleet, the slowest growing fleet in the countries Fastned is active in. The cost of sales are the high current costs. If they go back to historic levels, profit will be here sooner. The growth of opex, D&A, and financing costs are in line with the growth in sales and revenue. These are all very conservative figures. But still, it is using a crystal ball.
“Burning cash,” as cynical analysts use to call investing in future income generation, is never profitable in the short term. We have seen it at Amazon and Tesla. It takes time for the business to grow to a size that the profits are big enough to finance the growth. But when that moment comes, profits can become very big.
The faster you grow, the longer it takes to become profitable. The more you grow before becoming more profitable, the bigger the profits will be. It is a management decision to generate losses as long as they see fit.
I hope to not have corporate profits for many years, but rather huge growth numbers.