An interview with Marco Roeleveld. Driving the Energy Transition: A Look at Alfen's 15-Year Journey in EV Charging
Alfen, a leading energy solutions company in Europe, is marking 15 years of innovation in EV charging in 2023. We sat down with Marco Roeleveld, CEO of Alfen, to discuss what drove the company to start developing EV charging solutions, its current state and the future of the industry.
What drove Alfen to start developing EV charging solutions 15 years ago?
“Listening to our customers to find out what they need is in Alfen’s DNA. Our partner for many decades, Dutch grid operator Essent (now operating under the name Enexis) was thinking about the future of the electricitical grid and approached us in 2008 to participate in an experiment with electric driving and charging. They were already thinking about the impact of EV charging on grid capacity and stability.
EVs in the way we know them today didn’t exist yet in 2008 (it was only a year later, in 2009, that Tesla launched its first electric car in the USA, and it was very expensive and super rare). So Essent, who wanted to experiment with electric mobility, had to rebuild Volkswagen Golfs themselves. How? They just took out the fuel engine and added some basic battery technology. Alfen carried out the pilot from a charging perspective to identify what EV drivers would want and need. This pilot inspired us to introduce charging passes so every driver could identify itself. We quickly discovered a need for back offices to settle transactions but we purposely did not get into the settlement business ourselves.”
When did Alfen install its first EV charging station?
“We installed the first Alfen model called ‘Tube’ in Den Bosch in September 2009. We were very proud to manufacture the first Dutch public EV charging station, driven by a need to address the biggest obstacle hindering EV adoption at that time: the lack of infrastructure. In 2010, we successfully established a system of ‘interoperability’ with several other providers, thereby ensuring accessibility for our customers. This interoperability allowed drivers to charge their vehicles with any pass, a vital step towards electrifying mobility. It became clear to us that collaborative efforts were necessary to achieve this goal, so we cooperated closely with ElaadNL, a knowledge and innovation center for smart and sustainable charging of electric vehicles, formed by Dutch grid operators.”
At the time, all Alfen knew was concrete transformer stations. Why did you decide to expand into EV charging stations?
“As a company, we’re always thinking about retaining a competitive edge by continuously designing and adding value to our products to meet our customers’ very dynamic needs. Around 2004, we were adding intelligence to our transformer substations by incorporating remote reading and control by adding software. We wanted to design and develop these components ourselves because if we didn’t make them, we wouldn’t have enough added value for our customers and we could lose our position in the market. So we made these first steps in ‘smart’ technology which made the transition to EV charging a little more logical.
In the period between 1998 and 2008, grid operators started merging and the supply of energy was separated was separated from the grid operators. With only a few grid operators left, and there were talks about even further integration that would change our business. Therefore Alfen started investing in adjacent areas, and EV charging stations turned out to be quite a successful path for us.”
Take us back to the EV revolution. What challenges did you face in those early days?
“Well, in the first years we were a charging station developer operating in a market with no electric cars for sale. And when electric cars such as the e-Golf from Volkswagen and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class Electric Drive started to appear on the market they all used different charging protocols. For example, Renault had a distinct approach to EVs, mandating that they must be ‘Z-E ready’. This was different from other car manufacturers. The Japanese system employed Mode 2 and required a distinct plug for the car.
Car manufacturers would come to Almere to conduct tests on new car models to ensure their interpretation of the communication protocol was fully compatible with our charging technology. And our engineers would visit them as well.
In 2014, car manufacturers implemented Mode 3 standardisation, simplifying the transition to electric driving for users.
Internally, we started with a small team of engineers, who helped us pioneer electric vehicle charging. Today we’ve grown to ~350+ FTEs, with each team member working on a specialty and a modern production facility, including robots and cobots to improve quality and speed. We are proud to lead the way in the EV charging industry, making it easier for everyone to switch to a cleaner, more sustainable mode of transportation.”
What challenges did you encounter that made you consider changing course, and how did you overcome them?
“In the first 10 years, our main challenge was to make it financially feasible to invest more money than the revenue we generated. It required a lot of creative problem-solving to manage within our financial means. We had internal discussions about the direction we were headed and whether the expenditures were worth it. At times, I questioned whether we should even continue pursuing the EV dream we all had. Luckily, we had a very committed team who believed in our vision, and we persevered through those challenges. Looking back, I am proud of our persistence, the progress we made, and the position we now hold in the industry.”
What lessons can you share from those early days?
“I have the philosophy that although you must always try to assess situations and weigh big decisions, sometimes you shouldn’t be afraid for what lies ahead. Try to anticipate the impact, but also remain optimistic and have faith that you can move forward when new challenges arise. Have trust in your own ideas.”
How does smart technology support the energy transition?
“We realised that making the electricity grid smarter is a critical component of the energy transition - it allows for better integration and management of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, into the grid. With more and more intermittent renewable energy sources being added to the grid over time, it becomes challenging to balance supply and demand and ensure grid stability. Smart grid technologies help manage these challenges and increase the grid’s efficiency and reliability. Additionally, a smarter grid can enable the integration of EVs, which requires a significant increase in charging infrastructure and coordination with the grid to avoid overloading.”
How has Alfen developed from a pioneer in the Netherlands to a leading player in the European EV charging industry?
“The Netherlands is well known for its supportive policies and incentives for EVs, including tax benefits and investments in charging infrastructure, which has created a favorable environment for EV charging. As a result, we’ve benefited from Dutch municipalities’ tenders and quickly gained revenue, which we then reinvested in further developments.
Alfen’s success in the Netherlands allowed us to expand into other European countries like Belgium, the UK, France and Germany where the EV markets have grown rapidly. Our expertise in the Dutch market also allowed us to leverage our knowledge and experience to develop innovative solutions for homes, semi-public and public EV charging, which have become increasingly important as EVs become more prevalent throughout Europe.
By building on our experience in the Dutch market, we have established ourselves as a leading player in the EV charging industry with sales presence in 13 countries today and more than 500,000 charge points delivered. We are well-positioned for continued growth as the EV market in Europe continues to expand.”
What are Alfen’s future ambitions in EV charging solutions, and how do you see Alfen’s role as the market continues to develop?
“At Alfen, we aim to remain one of the leading players in EV charging infrastructure in Europe. We plan to continuously expand our portfolio of related products and services to meet our customers’ evolving needs.
We plan to make further strides in destination charging, which includes offering charging solutions at destinations such as shopping centers, sports facilities and restaurants. This is an area where we see strong demand from our customers. Additionally, we recognise that price transparency and direct payment will be crucial developments in the future.
We remain committed to investing in research and development to introduce new, cutting-edge EV charging solutions for our customers. Additionally, we strive to ensure that our customers and EV drivers have a seamless and convenient charging experience.
We see ourselves as a key player in shaping the future of the EV charging market in Europe, and we will work closely with our partners and suppliers to achieve our vision of a cleaner, greener transportation system. As the EV market continues to grow rapidly, we believe that Alfen's expertise and innovation will be critical to continuing to develop the charging infrastructure necessary to support mass EV adoption throughout Europe.”