Autonomous Renewable Charging – An interview with Desmond Wheatley of Beam Global

In November 2022, Beam Global announced it had received a $5.3 million order from New York City for an additional 71 Beam EV ARC solar powered EV charging systems. This was the seventh order placed by the city, expanding its EV ARC systems to 160. 
Autonomous Renewable Charging – An interview with Desmond Wheatley of Beam Global
Desmond Wheatley. Courtesy of Beam Global.

REM talked to Beam Global CEO Desmond Wheatley to discuss the advantages delivered by autonomous renewable charging and where Beam Global is going.

The new units ordered by New York City are flood-proof to 9.5 feet, wind-rated to 125 mph and feature an emergency power panel to serve as emergency preparedness equipment for fleet operators and first responders during grid failures and extreme weather events.

The EV ARC can be rapidly deployed, without digging up city streets and parking areas and without expensive upgrades to city circuitry. It is transportable, off-grid, requires no construction, permitting or electrical work and provides resilient EV charging.

New York has already met its 2025 goal of 4,000 vehicles in its fleet. It has the largest EV charging network in New York State.

Around the same time, Beam also received three other large orders from the VA, Department of Homeland Security and TechFlow, which will support the U.S. Army.

As well as the EV ARC, Beam Global supplies the Solar Tree EV charging system, the ARC Mobility Trailer to easily move and redeploy multiple EV ARCs, energy storage solutions for micromobility, watercraft, drones and last-mile delivery and boasts a deep patent library.

Beam Global is based in San Diego and Chicago. Its CEO Desmond Wheatley explained how the company got started, the main advantages of its products and its particular approach and how the company sees itself expanding in the near future.

How did Beam Global get started?

Actually, it was originally founded as under a different name as Envision Solar. It was founded by an architect who at that time had a vision of providing bespoke solar shading structures for car parks, and there's an awful lot of that nowadays, but at the time, back in 2006, that was a very novel idea.

I joined as a consultant in 2010, I think because some of the leading investors in the company were looking for some help and it was a very apparent to me quickly that it was gonna be hard to scale it up as an architectural services firm. When I took over in 2011 we reorganised the company and turned it into a product company. I suppose the only thing left from the original vision is that we still deploy renewable energy in parking lots, but in a very different way and for very different reasons. So since 2011 we have been concentrating on producing products to accelerate the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and using renewable energy instead of grid-tied energy.

Can you give a brief rundown on your main products and where your main markets are? The product I've heard about is the EV ARC, but I gather there are a few others as well.

Yeah, so the EV ARC - Electric Vehicle, Autonomous Renewable Charger, the important word there is autonomous because it’s not connected to anything at all, not even the ground except by gravity. Its larger sibling, the Solar Tree, has the same technology in it. It generates and stores all of its own electricity in our proprietary battery systems and also has our same patented tracking solar tracking solution which is absolutely vital in a parking and driving environment, but it's larger and it generates a lot and stores a lot, more electricity and it's really designed to charge full size vehicles, Class 8 vehicles that come over here, full size buses, that sort of stuff. In the United States, those are the two products that we have in to market at the moment.

Patented and coming, hopefully bringing to market this year, is the EV Standard. EV Standard is a street lamp standard replacement. So I take out the existing street light, replace it with the EV Standard, which has a windmill at the top of it, a light wind generator. It also has a tracking solar array. The pole of the street light is full of our battery technology and electronics, and the purpose of this product is to provide curbside charging, but again, without the requirement for civil or electrical work because we're using the existing foundation and we do actually leverage the street lights electrical connection.

In this instance, it has a grid connection. All the majority of charging will take place off the renewable sources and it will be able to operate without the grid connection and curbside charging is probably the hardest thing to provide and yet will be essential for all northern European cities, vertical cities in the US and Asia, because people just don't have large parking lots to park their vehicles on. To give you a quick example, New York City has something in the order of 300,000 lamp standards. They have insufficient parking for even their own fleet vehicles, far less the residents and theirs and others in parking lots. So they park them on street. I believe in the future every fifth lamp standard will be a charge point and then right behind that is the UVM Arc Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Arc. This is a drone recharging product. Same technology, same philosophy, no construction, no electrical work rapidly deployed. A network so that drones can touch down and refuel en route, to extend their range. So this would be for package delivery in the commercial sector largely and then for situational awareness in the military applications, which is probably what we're looking at first.

And then lastly our battery technology. I acquired a battery company last March, I've been using the product for 10 years. So we now own all of that technology and all the patents and everything that goes into that. We're putting batteries in medical devices, drones, submersibles, transportation, micro mobility. Just about anything, frankly, that runs on batteries, benefits from our technology.

Do you export your products outside the US and if so where?

We have done, but as we said in a very minor way. So the sort of the obvious cheat international if you like is Canada, that some people in Europe might not view there being a great deal of difference between these two North American countries. We are also present, in a very small way, in Europe and in the Caribbean however.

I've made no secret of the fact that European expansion is absolutely top on my list of strategic priorities right now. In fact, I've just returned from a trip to Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, and I was there almost entirely to forward those expansion plans. So, you know, one never knows exactly what's gonna happen, especially in the very changeable world that we're in at the moment, but it certainly is my intention to have a foothold in Europe, both manufacturing and selling, this year, and also in the Middle East for two very different markets, but Europe of course is the largest market in the world for vehicles and particularly electric vehicles, and we believe that our products will be even more useful and perhaps popular in on the European market than they are in the North American market.

I gather you generate profits from corporate sponsorships, can you explain a bit more about how that works?

So my view around electric vehicle charging in general is that the old fueling model, which is a highly transactional model where you go somewhere to a dispenser, you pump units of energy into your vehicle and you part with your cash at that point of sale, I think that that will not serve electric vehicle charging well in the future.

It's much harder to make money selling kilowatt hours than it is selling gallons of petrol and the capital costs and the infrastructure. I mean, if you think about it, there's a reason that utilities are set up the way they are as essentially monopolies, and it's because if they weren't, it wouldn't be commercially possible to deploy the type of infrastructure, but for the capital to work, they need to put to work 30 year paybacks is a typical bond limit on utility infrastructure. That's not going to work for EV charging and with all of that said, we need to find some other business models to support the charging of electric vehicles at an industry where there's a great deal of value, but as yet not much money. So that means we've failed to monetise the value so far. We believe that one of the really clever ways of doing that would be rather than having a transaction for fueling, let's use sponsorship program. So for example corporate, think of corporate sponsor, any large corporate that you can think of, just as they name stadiums and other arena, those sorts of regards, this would be the driving on Sunshine Network brought to you by your friends. So because we have no unit cost of energy to recapture, there's no utility bill, so we can actually give the charging away for free.

And because the value to the sponsor isn't actually trying to recapture profits through charging, it's just brand awareness and those sorts of things beyond that. The very real tangible cash benefits that they get is that the carbon offsets associated with the network belong to us. But we can make the manoevre to anybody we want to. So if we have a sponsor, let's say we have a large oil company as a sponsor, they get their brand all over street at the same time while they're losing gas stations. So they're losing that street presence. Now they get their street presence back.

But behind the scenes, they get the hard, tangible cash value of the carbon off millions of pounds of CO2 offsets a year from the network. So it's a very effective way of monetizing something. And of course, for the general public, for the first time in history, they're able to drive on sunshine for free, which is really not a bad deal.

Who are your main partners, in that who are you working with to try and expand the transition towards EVs?

Well, at the moment more more than 50 percent of our revenues are derived from government sales. Now it has to be said prior to COVID, it was the other way around. Most of our revenues came from non government sales. COVID completely put a stop to that because of course people were not going to the office and therefore people were not deploying workplace charging or retail charging or whatever else. We're seeing that coming back very dramatically 72 percent year over year increase of non government revenues in 2022 from a relatively small number, but at the moment the line share of what we're doing is supplying charging infrastructure to fleets. So U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Homeland Security, State of California, State of Massachusetts, State of Florida and actually New York City is our largest municipal customer. I think this is a moving target at the moment. There's a lot of pressure for the adoption of electric vehicles through mandates for government entities. Not surprisingly, most of them have underestimated the task that will be involved in deploying the infrastructure. So what happens is that they find themselves in a position where they're taking possession of electric vehicles because they're mandated to, but they don't have any charging infrastructure, and only then they discover that it's not about buying a charger, it's about going through a multi-month and sometimes multi-year process of environmental impact studies, permitting, zoning, engineering, construction and electrical work and then they find us and find that we can do that in less than one hour.

It's very effective and then of course beyond that there's no utility cost. So there's actually no unit cost for energy. That's very important for them as well, and a really big and increasingly important decision factor in buying our product is grid vulnerability. We know the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians have hacked into the grid. We've had Kinetic attacks onshore, which have brought down large pieces of the grid and in fact it's not that difficult to turn the whole grid off once the grid is a source of fuel for transportation, it becomes a much juicier target, and frankly, even if it's not human beings, hurricanes and all sorts of other things, increasingly violent weather events, are bringing the grid down. Our products, of course continue to operate during those events and so therefore we are a hedge against that type of thing. We are a disaster preparedness asset frankly.

I remember reading earlier that you are also involved in informing and educating people about EV's.

Been doing that for the last 12 years. We had to. So if you think about it, we started deploying solar powered electric vehicle charging infrastructure back in 2012. Then there were really, I often jokingly say, only four electric vehicles on the road at that time, and I don't mean models, I mean actual vehicles. It's been a real struggle actually over the last, well certainly for the first eight years that we were in business, just getting people to accept that EVs were a good idea, and then beyond that saying oh, by the way, we've got this kind of black magic box that you can use to fuel them and you don't need to connect it to the grid even though you've been taught for 100 years that anything electric must be connected to the grid.

So education has been a great struggle for us. I mean, it's been very gratifying and now here, people in the corridors of Washington, are parroting things that I've been saying for 10 years as though they were their own original ideas, which of course is the highest form of flattery. It’s been a bit of a struggle, but I think now what's happening is, first of all, the industry's just taking off on its own, but secondly, because our product is so broadly deployed now, people see it everywhere and it feels much less risky now.

What would you say are the main challenges facing the transition to EVs right now and how are they being resolved?

Well, the one that we just discussed is I've in my view the greatest. I'm still astonished by how ignorant people are. I know that sounds like a very unkind word to use, but I mean, in the technical sense, with regard to the benefits of electric vehicles.

So the perception, for example, that electric vehicles are more expensive than internal combustion engine vehicles. Actually, that's already not true for a comparably equipped vehicle. It's already cheaper from a TCO or from a total cost of ownership point of view to operate in an electric vehicle than an internal combustion engine vehicle. Consumers are not very good at looking at TCO. The sticker price is what they always look at and so that's a hurdle to overcome. Clearly lack of infrastructure is a very significant hurdle. Most people that you talk to will say “So I'd like to have an electric vehicle, but I'm worried I won't be able to find chargers”. That's less true today than it has been. I think what's gonna happen is that it's going to become very much more true in the not too distant future. I think you're gonna see a consumer adoption of electric vehicles which exceeds the expectations of experts. As a result, partly because of that, partly because it's so very difficult to deploy EV charging infrastructure, particularly the traditional way the grid upgrades, the trenching, the construction, the power stations, transmission distribution of Elsa, I think you're gonna see infrastructure being by far the biggest hurdle to the deployment of EVs.

With that, the consumer is the mightiest force that I know of on the planet. I mean, it's nearly the irresistible force, right. Once consumers want things, they get them and then they get really impatient if the infrastructure is not there to support them. Governments and corporations react to that and they react often faster than they knew they were capable of. So I'm sort of cautiously optimistic about the thing, but we are certainly gonna have to do an awful lot of work. I mean, the US is gonna need something like 60 million publicly available plugs in the next couple of decades. It's not a small undertaking.

What would you say are the main advantages of, say, the EV ARC, which seems to be your most popular product?

Well there are actually four or five areas which which are absolutely critical differentiators for us. So the, the first one is speed to deploy. We already talked about it. I mean, look, what's taking two years in New York, we're doing it under an hour. It takes about 18 months in California, but that’s specifically for grid-tied charging with surveying and permitting, although, by the way, that's only going to get harder at the moment because of the grid tied tradition - traditional infrastructure companies are doing what's appropriate and what's predictable. They are plucking the low hanging fruit locations. So they're installing chargers in a parking space close to an existing electrical circuit. They don't have to do a lot of upgrades and trenching and all that sort of stuff. However, those locations are actually quite rare. They work while EVs are still less than 6 percent penetration in the US.

But that quickly gets soaked up and now you have to start extending circuits a lot further and all that permitting will become more complicated, not less complicated. Even though all of the jurisdictions say they're going to find ways to expedite it, I've never seen that happen in my entire history of building stuff. It's always goes the other way. So I think our ability to deploy quickly is a good thing today and it's going to become an essential thing in, and scalably, in the future without construction, without electrical work, without weather threats or any of these things.

Certainly cost, from a TCO point of view, again, we are by far the less expensive way of doing this because we have no construction or electrical cost and there's never a utility bill. So again there are cheap ways to deploy EV charging in the low hanging fruit scenarios, but they don't describe what will happen in the future. We will be by far the least expensive way of going about this.

Capacity would be the next thing the US grid and this is true of the global grid has nowhere near enough capacity to support transportation. Not surprising. It was never designed to replace oil as fuel, so it was never built for that, and it's probably not got 1/3 the capacity that's required, even on a spreadsheet. But in practical instances, it’s gonna require a lot more than that. So we know it takes a long time to build power stations and all the other infrastructure to do that, if ever, with Nimbyism and all the other sorts of things that feed into that. So our ability to put capacity into consumers hands with not having to upgrade the grid is very vital differentiator for us.

The invulnerability, as I've already pointed out, we continue to operate, Robin, even during hurricanes. We’ve survived 185 mile an hour winds - remember the products are even bolted down or glued down. So it's a very robust product for against vulnerability. It's clean if you care about that. I mean, we're taking sunlight, putting it straight in the vehicle. It's very hard to be cleaner than that. So green, you know, sustainable and all those other things.

And then finally as I think if I didn't already mention it, total cost of ownership much lower.

It turns out these things, they have to be really cornerstone and pretty essential to the growth of the industry now. By the way, I hasten to add, I'm not suggesting that we will be the only solution by far. This is going to require everything we can throw at it. Humanity, I mean everything. We will just play an important role.

Are these units best deployed in groups or can they be deployed individually?

Either. I also want to point out that all of our products, EV ARC, the solar Tree, EV Standard, and to a lesser extent U VR, all of them are capable of connecting to the grid too. So we are able to take power off the grid and put it into our batteries, but also importantly for grid operators, and we have several large utilities who are customers, they're able to reach into our batteries whenever the grid comes under stress and sometimes that's just a few milliseconds. You just need to jump in there and grab a bit of a few electrons for a few million seconds while you're reserve spin up. So the our ability to be grid able but not require the grid is a very another important differentiator for us.

Are there any other companies offering similar products to you? Or in essence who are your main competitors?

The closest thing to competition that we have is the companies who are using used shipping containers and there are two or three of them out there. They'll take a 20 foot shipping container, put solar modules on the roof, batteries inside and bolt an EV charger to the outside. They can almost compete with us on speed to deploy, although they're slower than we are.

The thing is, there are several crucial differentiators about shipping containers. The legal size of a parking space in the United States is 9 feet by 18 feet, shipping containers are 20 feet. So you're going to stick 2 feet into a drive out. You might think that that's insignificant, but drive-outs are often fire lanes, and it's actually illegal to impede their access even by an inch.

Beyond that, one of the crucial advantages, is that the vehicles are actually parked on the product. That's not an accident. That's because I knew when I came up with this that most jurisdictions have a legal minimum requirement for the number of parking spaces you can have on a property for the use of it on the property, and if you reduce by 1 the number of parking spaces available to parked cars, you knock the whole property out of compliance. That’s the sort of thing you can get away with for six weeks, six months, maybe even six years, but we can't build a business doing that.

We built the product so that we can deploy in a parking space without construction, but not reduce available parking and that's right top in our patents. A shipping container of course reduces that. They're not at the energy density that we have because they don’t have the tracking, they're not following the sun that we are.

Then finally, maybe, this might even be more impactful than anything else I've mentioned. Not many commercial real estate operators relish the idea of filling out their parking lot with shipping containers you know, so we benefit from this, some people say we have a kind of Apple looking product. We're certainly finding that. We'll take that, but most people like the way it looks, whereas they they don't like the way containers look, and then beyond that from a competition point of view, that's really it on on product competition, there's no compete direct competing product and we have great patents to make sure we keep it that way. Beyond that, of course, is what we're really competing with - the ecosystem of general contractors, electrical contractors, consultants, engineers and everybody else that's required to dig up the streets to run the wires for the traditional stuff.

One of the things I really like about the EV ARC is that they can be deployed rapidly in areas hit by disasters and extreme weather. Can you just give a few examples of how they’ve been deployed in this regard?

Sure. We're in Puerto Rico now and we all know about the power infrastructure down there. One of the best examples I can give you is that one of the largest orders that we received from the state of California was actually funded by OES Office of Emergency Services. Well, there are two simple answers. First is, as the state transitions to electric vehicles, they know that they need robust charging infrastructure that will continue to operate after an earthquake or a fire or wind event, which are the things that typically knockout power in California, but also all of our VR are equipped with emergency power panels as well. So they're not only charging cars when the grid goes down or in places where the goods are available, they're also providing power to first responders and others. During COVID we actually powered our city customers, having moved EV R from office locations where they were no longer being used. No one was going to the office and so we actually moved them to COVID emergency test centres where they powered not just the test centers but also all the electric vehicles going into the city that that showed up at those test centers.

There have been multiple instances where EVR, when I'm in New York, jokingly, it’s always a bit like Superman, right? It’s like kind of Clark Kent doing a boring seven days a week in a grey suit and no one notices him, but then when disaster strikes, he spins around and comes out in his Superman cloak. And that's sort of like, how heavy it gets, we want people almost not to notice them. We just want them driving on sunshine, not noticing them, but then when it really hits the fan, they know it's there and it will provide that vital power.

How do you see Beam expanding over the next ten years or so?

First of all, organically. Just to give you an indication of what organic growth looks like for us, we did $6 million in revenue in 2020, 9 million in 2021, 14.1 million by the third quarter of 2022, not the full year. So $6914.1 for three-quarters of the year and then and we now have something in the order of $65 million in contracted backlog for for 2023, so $6914.

Organic growth will be extraordinary for us and we will never satiate the demand in our wildest dreams because of the sheer volume of of requirements for EV charging. I will, I believe, I'll end up having to build 10 factories like this across the United States and even then we won't be able to keep up with the demand.

I will also take them to Europe, the Middle East and Africa where we believe that Africans will make the same transition that they made with, from no telephone to cellular without having wires. We believe that African nations will not drive internal combustion engine vehicles and they're gonna need a lot EV charging infrastructure.

When Africa really comes online, you should expect to see us expanding there. And then finally to Asia, I think Asia will be the last area of expansion for us. Beyond that, I'm acquisitive. As I said, I bought a battery company last year, expect to see more of that. I will continue to buy complementary technologies, more vertical integration and then expand into other areas. At the moment we do renewable energy, energize, EV charging.

I can tell you that my focus is anywhere where clean energy and transportation intersect, and if there are other ways of doing that, being involved in that, you should expect us to do that. To give you an outrageous example, last year we set the world record for the longest flight of a production electric aircraft. There have been experimentals that have flown further, but this was a product that said “you could buy this airplane.”

We set the world record for that. Is it impossible that at some time in the future, Beam Global owns a fleet of light electric aircraft that we use as a taxi service or a rental service? It's definitely not impossible. That's not one of my plans right now, but this just gives you an indication of how expansive our views are, where clean energy and transportation intersect. The reason for that is because we control infrastructure, we can do infrastructure faster and less expensive than anybody else can, and that's the Achilles heel for all of these businesses.

Baterías con premio en la gran feria europea del almacenamiento de energía
El jurado de la feria ees (la gran feria europea de las baterías y los sistemas acumuladores de energía) ya ha seleccionado los productos y soluciones innovadoras que aspiran, como finalistas, al gran premio ees 2021. Independientemente de cuál o cuáles sean las candidaturas ganadoras, la sola inclusión en este exquisito grupo VIP constituye todo un éxito para las empresas. A continuación, los diez finalistas 2021 de los ees Award (ees es una de las cuatro ferias que integran el gran evento anual europeo del sector de la energía, The smarter E).