For many American car owners, on-street parking is their only option. When it comes time to buy an electric vehicle, “Where do I charge?” will undoubtedly be one of the first questions they ask.
Fast charging is an option, one that most closely mimics the way people fill up at gas stations. But fast chargers are expensive pretty much any way you look at them. They’re costly to manufacture, install and maintain. Because of that, and because such surges in demand can strain the grid, prices for fast charging are significantly higher than slower methods. Plus, even the fastest still takes longer than filling up a gas tank.
Fortunately, cities have an easy way to retrofit their infrastructure to accommodate EVs: the lampposts that support streetlights. Every street has them, and thanks to new energy-efficient LEDs, some even have electric capacity to spare.
Cities around the world have begun to experiment with lamppost charging. London already has about 7,000 run by Ubitricity, a German startup that was bought by Shell two years ago. Drivers bring their own plugs and jack into the outlet at the base of the post. Flo, a Quebec startup, is trialing several dozen with integrated plugs in Los Angeles.
Now, Voltpost, a New York City–based startup, is throwing its hat into the ring. The company closed a $3.6 million seed round led by RWE Energy Transition Investments with participation from Twynam Funds Management, Exelon Foundation, Good News Ventures and Climate Capital, TechCrunch+ has exclusively learned.
Voltpost is hoping that it has a few things that’ll give it an edge in a busy but not yet crowded market. The team did “a tremendous amount of customer discovery interviews,” co-founder and CEO Jeff Prosserman told TechCrunch+, talking with the mayor’s office in New York City, the electric utility ConEd, and the city’s Department of Transportation.
From those conversations, Voltpost soon realized that it’d have to design its own equipment. One bring-your-own-plug design that’s popular in Europe didn’t pass UL muster, Prosserman said. And conversations with drivers revealed that most didn’t want to wrangle with a cable if they were also corralling kids or schlepping groceries — doubly so if it was raining out, said Jörn Vicari, co-founder and chief product officer.
The result is a sleeve that fits around existing lampposts, tapping into their electrical feeds. The 20-foot retractable cable dispenses from about eight feet off the ground to prevent it from becoming a trip hazard, and the plug is docked below for easy access. Currently, the charger supports only metal posts and not wooden ones, though Vicari said that other sizes are on the roadmap.
By retrofitting lampposts, Voltpost’s chargers have an added benefit of not taking up additional space, Prosserman said. They can save cities both time and money by eliminating the need to dig and trench to add chargers, Vicari added. “New York has a mandate of 10,000 curbside chargers by 2030. Just imagine up to 10,000 additional construction sites in New York City and its communities. That’s just unimaginable.”
Voltpost’s charger pumps out 7.6 kilowatts of electricity per charger, and each post can have two. It’s certainly not DC fast speeds, nor is it intended to be. It’s slower, but if you’re parking overnight or even just a few hours, the speed doesn’t necessarily matter. The goal is to give people without access to private parking (and charging) the same convenience of being able to plug in at home. “Our mission here is to democratize charging access,” co-founder and COO Luke Mairo said.
The company plans to sell to cities and utilities interested in adding curbside charging. Installation, maintenance and operations are included in an annual fee. Voltpost is leaving pricing for charging sessions up to cities and utilities.
Prosserman said the company is in talks with cities and private hosts across the country. It’s hoping to launch with one partner each in the utility, public and private sectors. After it gains experience with those, it’ll raise a Series A to scale up.
It’s still early for the seed-stage startup, but the company seems to understand the sorry state of public charging these days. By owning, operating and maintaining the chargers, it’s taking responsibility for the entire network. While that doesn’t always lead to good results, it certainly gives it a better chance of success than if it were to leave it to third parties.
While Voltpost may not have stumbled upon a unique solution, it does appear to be on the right track. Curbside charging is certain to be in high demand in big cities. Smaller cities are likely customers, too, as drivers look to charge while they’re working or shopping. It’s facing a few competitors, but the size of the market is likely to be big enough for them all.
Selling to cities and utilities isn’t easy, which is probably going to be Voltpost’s biggest challenge. The sales cycles can be excruciatingly long.
Given the vagaries of the market, it’s likely that we’ll see different companies take the lead in different regions. Big cities will be first to adopt, and then suburbs and other nearby cities may follow as they learn from their colleagues. For drivers, that’s not a terrible outcome since most people tend to keep their trips to a few hours from home, meaning that the charging process should remain relatively familiar. And a little certainty in the EV charging world would definitely be welcome.