Ben Macdonald has always had a passion for sustainability and was an active environmental campaigner in New Zealand. He moved to the UK and has worked in education in a variety of schools in London for 20 years.
Macdonald recently went on to co-founded Nodum Industries Limited. The company creates innovative electric vehicle (EV) charging solutions for the urban environment and are leading the way with the company’s new ChargeBridge.
ChargeBridge is a neat electric charging vehicle solution and the demountable gantry avoids running cables or digging holes in pavements to charge electric cars. Its three-metre gantry design simply crosses a footpath making it ideal for those living in terrace houses who don’t have off-street parking. It’s a simple but smart charging solution.
We caught up with Macdonald to find how more about ChargeBridge, his thoughts on how the emobility space, how he sees this developing and why his daily ride is a Bullitt electric cargo bike.
EDs: How did you enter the world of electric vehicles (EVs) and how did it evolve?
My journey into the EV world is somewhat unconventional. I had been teaching Geography and Maths in SE London since 2000. Prior to that, I was an active environmental campaigner in New Zealand. I became increasingly aware of air quality issues in London, especially with the birth of my daughter in 2011 and the rise in the number of diesel cars.
As a keen cyclist, I felt I could taste the fumes. When my partner was looking to purchase a new car we considered a second-hand Nissan LEAF but found the cost prohibitive.
EDs: Where did the idea for the Nodum come from?
This relates to the first question and revolves around a pain point that we were experiencing. In 2016 we wanted to purchase a secondhand Nissan LEAF to replace our ageing Fiat Cinquecento. In order to make the finances work and justify the expense we needed to be able to charge from home. Given we live in a terraced home it didn’t seem possible – I didn’t fancy running a cable across the footpath.
After considering a number of options, I decided that creating a demountable gantry across the footpath was the safest and easiest way to connect the EV to the home tariff. I made a pretty rough prototype out of uPVC drain pipes and linear rails. It was never good enough to deploy and developing an understanding of the electrical risks were pretty critical given that a cable was going outside the boundary of the property.
Ultimately, we ended up buying a pre-reg VW Up! and I continued to teach Geography in SE London. I came back to the prototype in 2018 and started thinking about how I could bring together a team to make a business out of the idea.
EDs: Can you explain the ChargeBridge and its advantages?
ChargeBridge was originally designed around the constraints of my own living situation. Our terraced home is relatively typical of a smallish Victorian terrace that you find in many parts of the country. We have a relatively narrow front curtilage, overhead telephone lines and an average-sized pavement.
This meant that I needed to come up with a concept that minimised the arc through which the boom moves through. Rather than a drawbridge-style movement, the arm moves down the vertical surface on a slidable pivot. Aside from reducing the risk of conflicting with existing infrastructure and street trees it also manages the cable well.
A key advantage that we offer is the lack of groundwork because digging up paths and streets is inherently expensive. We are trying to give a degree of agency to people who live in terraced homes and reduce the cost to local government. We have deliberately tried to keep the whole product as stealthy as possible. In one of the iterations, the mechanism replaces the drainage pipe on the side of the home so it could work in conservation areas and suchlike.
It was important to us that nothing we did impeded active travel solutions. Car-centric infrastructure already takes up a huge amount of space in our towns and cities. There are few situations where putting new charge points on pavements can be justified at a time when we need to be prioritising active travel and public transport.
EDs: Is there a possibility to share a ChargeBridge rather than have one at each house in a terrace row?
Absolutely. From both an economic perspective and a resource management perspective, it makes sense to share resources where possible. We envision that on a street you might have one unit per half dozen homes or so (although this number would very much depend on the collective needs of the motorists).
The person with the unit could give permission to people to use the charge point. The reconciliation would take place automatically through the app and may allow the owner of the ChargeBridge to offset some of the initial capital outlay.
EDs: When are you looking to bring the ChargeBridge to market?
We want to be on the market this year, however, we also want to take the time to ensure that it is safe both electrically and mechanically. Part of the whole process is developing a regulatory framework that will allow for the adoption of innovative charging solutions such as ours. We are working with a few local authorities and organisations to make this happen.
EDs: How important is home charging for EV drivers?
There are reasons why most current EV drivers have a dedicated charge point at home – primarily cost and convenience. Chris Cox from Cenex completed some analysis for the Economist towards the end of 2021 comparing the cost for people with different charging regimes.
There was £750 per annum difference between a person who solely charged from home compared with someone who charged using public charge points. It would be interesting to see how this has changed since the start of the energy crisis.
A number of people are also taking advantage of home energy generation to provide their transportation energy needs. This is a lot more difficult if you cannot connect your home directly to your EV. Finally, the advent of smart charging and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) will serve to further increase the charging divide and it will be an increasingly problematic equity issue. This is why we need to take a pragmatic approach.
EDs: Do you see charging as one of the key limiters in the mass adoption of electric vehicles?
Charging is absolutely critical to the EV proposition in a similar way that having ready access to petrol stations is critical to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. The infrastructure that provides energy for ICE-powered vehicles has had over a hundred years to develop and optimise. This has resulted in some insane efficiencies.
The fact that ‘Big Oil’ can extract, refine and distribute a litre of petrol for less than 90p is an amazing feat of engineering and logistics. This combined with the cultural and institutional knowledge that exists around the ICE ecosystem means that we have a great deal of work to do to affect this shift to an electric future.
However, EVs do have a significant advantage over ICE vehicles. The fact that many people can charge them at home increases convenience and significantly reduces the cost. Waking up with a full charge and never having to go to a petrol station again can be a pretty compelling thought for many.
Continuing to develop both the infrastructure and the culture to compete with the century-long head-start that fossil fuels do have is a challenge, especially for cross-country journeys and those who cannot charge at home.
It is worth taking the time to reflect on the huge amount of EV infrastructure that has gone into the ground over the last few years. Ensuring that the right charging provision is in the right place and functioning effectively is critical to give people the confidence to make the shift to an electric future.
EDs: How do you see the electric vehicle space developing in the coming years?
I remain hopeful that the direction that the government has charted will continue. The work completed by some of the wonderful policy wonks in the background has been critical to developing a roadmap that can help to take transportation to net zero and beyond.
Of particular excitement is the convergence of the transport and renewable energy spaces. There will be an increasingly symbiotic relationship and that can only be a good thing. Demand side response has huge potential for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to be able to go some way to solving the renewable power intermittency problem.
From a personal perspective, I would like to see more sharing and electric micro-mobility in dense urban areas. EVs do not solve congestion. EVs do not make for more cohesive communities. The car and associated infrastructure has been responsible for a great deal of atomisation and fragmentation of communities over the last 80 years and the current situation does need rebalancing towards people.
EDs: Do you drive an EV and, if so, what model is it?
My daily ride is a Bullitt cargo bike. About seven years ago I fitted a mid-drive electric motor to it. It isn’t the most powerful thing in the world at 250 watts plus my muscular contribution, however, it is one of the fastest ways around south east London.