Until recently buses, with their big, often diesel, engines, were major contributors to traffic pollution, particularly in big cities. Over the past decade or so significant efforts have been made by private operators and local councils to transition towards cleaner bus fleets powered by electric or natural gas. However, it’s a costly process and a major bottleneck for electric buses has been how to charge them.
The bandwidth of power supplies to many bus depots simply isn’t high enough to support the amount of electricity needed to quickly charge the heavy duty batteries needed to keep an electric bus running for several hours at a time. And bringing them up to scratch, which usually involves having to dig up streets to install higher capacity power lines, is logistically complicated, time consuming and expensive.
However, a UK start-up chaired by Steve Holliday, a former National Grid boss, develops new battery technology that it hopes will offer a solution and speed up the transition of UK bus fleets to electric. Zenobe Energy has also convinced some major investors in its prospects, having recently secured £25 million in investment capital from two Japanese power giants – Tepco and Jera.
Zenobe manufactures and installs giant batteries in bus depots that can charge at a slower pace throughout the day when buses are out on their rounds. The fully charged mega-batteries can then be used to charge the bus batteries when they return to the depot in the evening, neutralising the need for any expensive infrastructure upgrades.
Founded as recently as 2017, under its original ‘what it says on the tin’ name of Battery Energy Storage Solutions, Zenobe recently completed its first installation project at Guildford bus depo. The start-up is being heavily backed and has already raised a total of over £50 million in investment. Before the most recent £25 million equity stake bought by Tepco and Jera, big private equity investors such as New York’s Tiger Infrastructure Partners had already bought into Zenobe’s vision. The company also has £28 million in debt financing from Spanish bank Santander.
The next step for Zenobe is more contracts with the operators of electric bus fleets. However, longer term, and most probably why the start-up has been so successful in raising capital, is the prospect of it powering electric car fleets. When driverless cars are finally licensed to take to the roads, a major economic model shift is expected to take place with private car ownership declining, eventually to the point it will be rare for individuals and families to own their own vehicle. Instead, transport-as-a-service taxi fleets will be on demand through subscription-based apps. These huge fleets will be electric and represent a massive future market opportunity for Zenobe.