Niall Riddell is the co-founder and CEO at Paua, a company committed to helping all with the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). The focus is on building a business to support the decarbonisation and electrification of transport through the provision of electric vehicle solutions for business and residential customers.
Niall’s career has been based on they decarbonisation of the economy based on a foundation of knowledge gathered with the Climate Change Committee in 2007. He went on to spend 15 years working hard in the energy sector while fitting in the odd endurance event including a marathon and an Ironman event.
During his time at EDF Energy, he was introduced to public electric vehicle charging and this went on to form the basis of his knowledge. He went on to become the smart systems director at SSE before starting Paua that he co-founded with André Pinho.
With Paua, the duo aims to simplify public electric vehicle charging to encourage more people to drive electric cars. Ultimately, they want to use the power of technology to simplify the driver experience.
EDs: Tell us about your sustainability journey. What got you interested in being green?
I grew up surrounded by nature. My father was a conservationist and ornithologist. I was lucky enough to be involved in some small conservation efforts where my brother, father and I re-introduced the Peacock butterfly to Highland Perthshire.
Later in 2007, I had the good fortune to undertake a secondment into the Committee on Climate Change secretariat before the Committee was fully formed. We prepared the worlds first legally binding carbon budgets. During this period I realised that the future of our economy required the decarbonisation of electricity and then the electrification of everything.
EDs: What first brought you to the emobility sector?
My role at EDF Energy involved an increasing amount of activity around energy innovation. I was approached with an investment opportunity in 2017 in my role in the mergers and acquisitions team assessing investment into a public electric vehicle charging network.
We assessed an investment of £100 million into the then GeniePoint network but the investment was considered too risky for EDF at the time. This was my first introduction to public electric vehicle charging and has formed the basis of my knowledge.
This early involvement took me into my role leading the electric vehicle team at EDF Energy.
EDs: What did you do in electric vehicles at EDF Energy?
The electric vehicle team was part of the Blue Lab innovation incubator. We had three key areas we assessed having determined public charging wasn’t for us. We investigated a business-to-consumer (B2C) solution, business-to-business (B2B) solutions and vehicle-to-grid (V2G).
The B2C went on to form an early market-leading TV campaign placing electric vehicles central to the EDF Energy brand and mission. The B2B team went on to win the Royal Mail electric vehicle infrastructure tender.
As part of my role, I also assessed investment opportunities for EDF. PodPoint scored well and with this on the horizon, I chose to leave.
EDs: What stage do you think are we at in the electric vehicle evolution?
We have gone from a tiny fraction of people driving battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to just over one percent. This is still early in the adoption of a new technology, a period called innovators. Innovators are well known for handling the discomforts associated with adopting new technology.
As we accelerate towards higher proportions of ownership the discomfort associated with these early innovators problems need to be removed. This is probably the single biggest shaping force of the next three to five years of change in the electric vehicle industry.
Crucially, we see the behaviours of more mainstream adopters within the world of fleet drivers, where often the driver has been placed in the vehicle by their fleet manager rather than adopting it themselves. This experience means that we get first-hand feedback on early adopters from these drivers.
EDs: Having spent 15 years in large energy companies you left to start your own business. Tell us about that transition?
I have worked for four huge energy utilities. I started with the RWE Group before joining British Energy, which at the time was coming out of its special administration under government control.
This business was later acquired by EDF Energy where I spent the best part of 10 years. Most recently, I was the smart systems director at SSE before taking the jump to start my own business.
EDs: How was it making such a big jump?
I had been preparing for this decision since I completed my MBA in 2010, so it only took 10 years to make the transition. The change was dramatic despite spending 10 years trying to prepare.
Stepping away from salaried employment into the world of the unknown is a challenge, particularly with a young family but we are in the midst of an opportunity and a crisis.
I had read one of the best ways in the modern era to scale an idea is to build a business around it. I knew that whilst big companies do big things slowly, I wanted to make things happen faster, so I jumped into this new ecosystem of startups and a hand-to-mouth existence.
It helped that I had networked heavily during that period. One particular conversation stood out. I had an opportunity to chat with Roger Atkins about his career. He told some incredible stories and I walked away knowing that I wanted some of those stories for myself also. Plus, if they could be in the pursuit of a cleaner future then this was a good thing.
EDs: You recently co-founded Paua. What led you to do this?
Paua helps people find power everywhere. When I was at EDF Energy we were seeking a solution to enable our residential electricity customers to get out onto the highway with their electric cars and charge in public across multiple networks with a single solution.
Further, we wanted the costs of this charging to be reflected onto their home energy bill. We were unable to find this. This idea stuck with me for a significant period and formed the basis of what we are doing at Paua. We are building the smartest public electric vehicle charging solutions.
Most recently we have now enabled a capability for any energy company to include public electric vehicle charging across the network through integration into their software solutions. And just as I wanted to do at EDF, the costs can be placed back onto the customers home electricity bill.
This solution can also be used to support other industries including leasing, insurance or even the automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEM’s) themselves.
Alongside this, we have developed an electric fuel card solution for fleets. This enables access to thousands of chargepoints across multiple networks on a fully digital solution that’s backed up with smart fraud detection algorithms.
We help fleets solve the problem of public charging by placing public charging at the forefront of their electrification strategies, rather than as an uncomfortable afterthought.
EDs: Are you working alone at Paua?
I am very luck to have co-founded Paua with André Pinho. In 2014, during the middle of the solar boom. I wanted to understand more about the way that the solar industry was evolving. I took advantage of an opportunity to start volunteering with Repowering London.
André was one of the co-founders of the community energy group, Brixton Energy, that Repowering London had been born from. As a social enterprise, it gave me a real look at funding and developing community solar.
André’s background is digital meets energy. As a committed technologist and Aerospace Engineer turned energy engineer he has been able to build the cutting edge tech that we have developed at Paua.
André was the chief architect for a pioneering “plug & charge” technology that we recently won an award for. The award from the Department for Transport was for “Outstanding Growth Potential” and we are super excited about this because of the potential to simplify charging for the many drivers of the future.
EDs: What do you think the biggest challenge to the successful take up of electric cars is?
Simplification. It needs to be easy enough for your granny to switch. Beyond this, we have huge challenges with our infrastructure. We have built infrastructure for the one percent of the drivers we have today. Realistically, we need to develop a solution for the 99 percent that are yet to transition.
I believe that public charging has a huge role to play in this. We have been fortunate that many of the first drivers to switch had a private drive right on their doorstep. Despite this, there are huge chunks of people, particularly commercial drivers, who do not have this privilege and we should not assume everyone has this.
EDs: Is more infrastructure the answer?
More infrastructure helps but it needs to be the right charger, in the right place but crucially it needs to be accessible. Not just to the everyday consumer, but to fleet drivers, most of whom do not operate with credit cards.
Long term, I expect public charging to be cheaper than private charging on a total cost of charging basis. Too often people quote the marginal cost of the electricity supplied at home ignoring the cost of the hardware, maintenance, repair and the value of the existing grid connection and driveway.
Once you consider that public charging is shared infrastructure across many drivers, you can start to imagine a world where public charging costs decline where private costs do not. Plus, there is tax. That’s a topic for another day but one to watch.
EDs: What’s your vision for Paua?
We seek to simplify public electric vehicle charging. We do this to enable more people to drive electric cars. We also believe in the power of technology to simplify the driver experience. As we develop you will see this as more and more of a theme in our work.
EDs: From your story above you appear to have been lucky on a number of occasions. Do you believe in luck?
No, I don’t believe in luck. Instead, I say “yes” an awful lot, especially to the random requests on LinkedIn. Plus, I work hard. I have never been the brightest of students but repeatedly came towards the top of my class through sheer persistence.
I am annoyingly persistent when I think I can be successful at something. In 2008, I completed my first marathon in sub three hours. In 2009, I completed an Ironman. It was training for an even longer event I was taking part in later that year.
As part of my MBA admission, I was asked what I had done to prepare for two years of executive education whilst continuing my day job. I told them about the Ironman. It seemed to work because they let me in.
I have reflected a lot on the famous Steve Jobs commencement speech where he notes that it is only looking backwards that you can join the dots. The anecdotes above link together because I have joined some of the dots. There are plenty of dots that I have missed from this story that could paint a completely different picture.