Simply Electrifying – An interview with Jasper Konings  of Heliox

Jasper Konings is Director of Commercial Vehicles and Fleets at Heliox. E-mobility is on the minds of many with increasing pressure from consumers to see environmentally friendly behaviours from businesses. Whether it’s using electric delivery fleets or sustainably powered public transport, there is a clear need for e-mobility. Mr Konings spoke with REM to discuss the current direction of E-mobility, how charging infrastructure is developing across the world, mobile charging, marine electrification and a number of other related topics.
Simply Electrifying – An interview with Jasper Konings  of Heliox
Jasper Konings. Courtesy of Heliox.

Can you tell me about Heliox, what it does and also your own background?

Heliox is a company that started in 2009 as a spin off from Philips Electronics. There are several examples of spin offs, the most famous being ASML. That is a big company with thousands of people working there.

Heliox was founded by four former directors of Philips Power Electronics, and for the first couple of years, they focused on different applications. From 2014 onwards, they introduced their first fast DC charger for heavy vehicles - not focusing on the car market. We have been in this sector since 2014, with our first real big project starting in 2016/17 when Heliox installed the first and largest bus charging location here in Eindhoven - from there we have been expanding.

A major step for Heliox came in 2018 when a significant part of the shares was sold to Waterland Private Equity, who made it possible for us to grow from a start-up to scale up. In 2018, Heliox had a team of around 30 to 40 people and in a few years the team has grown to around approximately 250 to 350 employees where we have teams in R&D, marketing, technological innovation and sales. We have contracted manufacturers who undertake the actual assembly for us and we control the whole supply chain - including the purchasing of crucial components for the supply chain. Thanks to capital investment, we can are able to purchase all the parts required and only need to use our contracted manufacturers based in several locations i.e., Europe and the United States.

We are a market leader in the Benelux region for charging electric buses and we have more than 100 megawatts of charging power installed here in the Netherlands. In Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, we have 31 megawatts of charging power installed. All buses in Schiphol Airport, including those on the platforms as well as those in the terminals, are all electric buses charged by Heliox. On top of that, we charge all buses in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and in the Northeast where there is a growing university city. The Northeast region is an interesting area as that was where electric buses were driving in between cities for the first time, meaning longer distance travelling was growing. Furthermore, we are very present in the in the north of Europe as well as many locations in Germany and in the last few years, we have grown in the United States.

Where do you see the main direction of E-Mobility at the moment? To what extent is it going beyond cars and small delivery vehicles and heading towards buses and trucks and so on?

Since the 1st of April, we have been setting up a dedicated division for commercial vehicles and fleets, meaning medium-heavy and heavy-duty trucks. In the area of light commercial vehicles (LCVs), there is already existing charging infrastructure for passenger cars, which is covered by many suppliers and therefore out of our scope. Heliox, however, is completely focused on the business to business (B2B) side with medium heavy trucks and buses. As a result, we are already several years ahead on the electric bus market and since April, we have been in a special position. So yes, with regards to buses (mainly city focused) and medium and heavy-duty trucks, we aim to pick things up and will continue to accelerate these vehicles' transition toward e-mobility.

With regards to trucks, they are not yet long haul meaning its e-transition is delayed. Last-mile delivery trucks and waste collection trucks, will be enable this shift as large cities are clear about their legislation. They want to shift away from fossil fuel energy in city centres as soon as possible, meaning these vehicles are going to be the first port of call From here we see a lot of potential.

What kind of effect have you noticed from the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Is that tending to hasten progress in this sector quite a bit?

No, I personally do not believe that the energy discussion that we are facing largely involves the developments of e-mobility. Most problems we are facing, at least here on the continent, are around gas that is related to the industry. On one hand, yes, we are definitely suffering from gas restrictions coming from Russia, but that is mainly affecting the gas industry and private homes. On the other hand, it is more or less a moral discussion amongst the people, as the invasion has in some ways boosted the discussion around the use of fossil fuels. But from a pure business or technological point of view, I don't see the correlation and see more of a psychological impact.

What's the current situation with regard to charging infrastructure in various countries and how can it be improved?

I think the charging infrastructure for cars and LCVs is really being accelerated these days. In certain areas of Europe it’s better developed and is mainly supported by the local industries that see the advantages of it. Countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all used to be laggin behind a bit, but having full power of their own industry (i.e., German car manufacturers are getting up to speed now by launching new electric vehicles) you see a big acceleration of the installation of charging infrastructure. In the Netherlands, we have the advantage of being a very compact country with a solid infrastructure. So, charging infrastructure in the Netherlands, together with some Scandinavian countries, is amongst one of the best. But it's easy if you have a compact country like that. Things are getting better in France and southern Europe, but there are still some things that need to be improved.

The conclusion I can draw for cars is that things are at least speeding forward. But if we look at heavy vehicles and mainly the transportation of goods, there's still a lot to do. My conviction is that we need strong regulation or legislation to get that done. We need the authorities and governments to push for better charging infrastructure because the business case for EVs isn’t that attractive yet. We need either subsidies or legislation where people are forced to take those steps one way or another. But if you leave that kind of responsibility to businesses where there isn't as much investment (e.g., a charger with three charge points can easily cost you about €1,000) developments in this sector may not move forward quickly enough as it’s yet to be very profitable. So, we either need support from subsidies or to simply be forced by legislation to move on.

Can you say a bit more about mobile chargers and the current situation with these?

Well, it’s very important to understand how you define mobile chargers. For example, with our specialisation of heavy vehicles, a 40 kilowatt (kW) charger used in dealer workshops and on demonstration vehicles can be defined as a mobile charger. In buses, we don't see the necessity for mobile chargers anymore. But with trucks, it's definitely a market entry product to serve customers and dealer workshops who wish to charge trucks completely overnight.

There is a market for mobile chargers, specifically in this energy range, because of the limitations associated with electrical infrastructures. For a 40 kW mobile charger, you need a 63 Amp plug and a wall socket which is usually about the maximum that you find in workshops or factories. So that's why we have limited ourselves to 40-50 kW and that has worked fine because most of the medium and heavy trucks have usually a maximum battery capacity of by 400 kW. Nobody drives the vehicle down to zero, it's not good for the battery at all, but is also risky. But let's say if you need to recharge 80 or 90 percent of that 400 KW, that's about 300 to 350 kW. If you have a 40-kW mobile charger, you can meet the demand in 8-9 hours (which is an overnight charge). So, it's even possible for big trucks these days to have a mobile charger for overnight charging.

Can you say a bit more about Heliox's marine electrification?

You can clearly define marine applications in two technical solutions:

The first has to do with megawatt charging mounted in the vessel - you need a megawatt charging connection because with marine applications you're easily amped up with high capacity. Our chargers are used to charge small ferries, passenger, pedestrian and bicycle ferries in small harbours. For example, in Copenhagen, we work closely together with the Dutch Shipyard to supply them with chargers of up to one or two megawatts which is the maximum we can provide because of the connectors. We do not do that with a Combined Charging System (CCS) connector - a fixed connector that still has its limitations.

The second part of our marine applications is for more for larger container ships and vessels. With inter-country container ships and smaller container ships you can see the development of battery swapping because the payload of a ship is very high. And, if you have two to three, 40 foot containers, it's just fully loaded with batteries. What we see is that inter-country container ships have the technical tendency for container swapping. This has been a discussion for cars years ago. The first idea of Fastnet was to have battery swapping. That has never worked out because the batteries are now fully integrated into the car and has no chance whatsoever to battery swap. But this can work on ships where there are two or three big 40 foot containers with batteries. Heliox is not in that business as that's more heavy-duty industrial applications and we have decided not to enter that part of the market.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

For electrification to really take off, there needs to be strong subsidies in place the next two to three years. Poduction optimisation has reduced the price of a normal diesel truck very much over the over the years and production volumes of trucks are very high meaning the cost price is very competitive. For businesses who are looking to modify diesel trucks into electric trucks, they will see the price multiply by three times sometimes four times for this. You even see this with buses as modifying from diesel to electric also doubles the price.

But now that here are high energy costs, the positive business case for electrification is coming very rapidly across our environment. Nowadays, a diesel truck is more expensive in total cost of ownership than an electrical bus. However, with medium heavy trucks (especially with heavy trucks), we still have a way to go to get to where we want to be and nobody is going to invest in serious volumes unless it is subsidised.

It's important to get this ball rolling because the truck market is huge. To visualise this, there are roughly 250,000 medium-heavy trucks driven per year in Europe – 99 percent still use diesel. If we want to make a step forward on sustainability, we must start subsidising electric trucks and we so desperately need this movement from a climate point of view. When 50,000 new trucks are sold each year, you can imagine the contribution we can make in sustainability if we achieve 50 percent electrification. We need to push harder on governments to take responsibility and to get this moving in the right direction.

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