Quincy Edmund Lee is the CEO and cofounder of Electric Era, a startup on a mission to accelerate electrification with affordable and ubiquitous next-generation EV fast-charging technology.

What is Electric Era?

Quincy: Electric Era is solving the “grid infrastructure rebuild” problem for installing new EV fast charging stations by providing on-site storage systems behind the meter that augment the local grid and we use software to optimize the site’s power management, which decreases the required grid infrastructure for new EV fast charging stations by a factor of 3-4x.

What was your journey to founding Electric Era?

The company actually had an interesting beginning in the sense that it started with a focus and passion on a completely different topic from what we’re currently selling. So for me it was an obsession with solving the duck curve, which is a mismatch between when solar is generated in heavy solar penetration parts of the grid, and when that solar is used, which is later in the evening. So the sun shines during the day, but everyone uses power at night, and it creates this large peak of excess load that you need to shift to later times of the day. So I started by putting pen to paper to figure out if there was a viable business model using battery storage systems to shift to load shift that excess solar into the evening hours when the sun goes away and everyone turns on air conditioning. That would have been an adequate business, but what I found was that it wasn’t as big of a problem to solve and there wasn’t that much product differentiation compared to what was on the market. Fortunately, though, that got me started on smart battery systems and smart load profiles, which eventually led me to EV fast charging and the discovery of a subset of major problems in EV fast charging that in many ways reflected the challenges we originally faced in that initial go-to-market motion. During customer discovery calls and talking to people in our network, we found that there was a major challenge of quickly and affordably onboarding EV fast charging stations into locations where drivers actually wanted to charge it. So by talking with a lot of people we realized that batteries and software could advantageously augment EV fast charging equipment to provide on site storage-backed fast charging in attractive locations where there are amenities and services that people would want to consume while they charge their car. So we packaged a full turnkey solution—the PowerNode charging station—that allows us to deploy the fast charging equipment quickly and easily in areas where drivers want to be without upgrading the grid and without incurring a large incremental cost to install that equipment from the local utility. So ultimately we ended up finding a nice product market fit in the kind of EV fast charging station space with convenience stores, gas stations and quick service restaurants that are trying to modernize for the 21st century.

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Why is it so difficult to add fast charging to these locations? 

The core simple description of the problem is that EV fast charging consumes thousands of houses worth of power on one city block. So a single fast charging station will consume somewhere between 500 to 2000 Ohms worth of power instantaneously during certain times of the day, but it’s consuming that load in one concentrated location. So, in order to provide that load, you have to rebuild the entire local grid in many cases or install large very expensive transformers on site that can take years to build and years to install. We get around that problem by augmenting the local grid with energy storage systems that provide that load and supplement the local grid as opposed to rebuilding it entirely. 

The problem exists because the grid is a very large piece of physical infrastructure and it takes a large amount of effort and cost to get people on site for rewiring, installing new transformers, digging trenches, digging conduit and even silly things like filing permits. As a country we really have a hard time rebuilding our physical world and the best way to quickly transition to electric cars and bring the car refill industry into the 21st century is avoiding that rebuilding process as much as possible and instead providing a digital infrastructural solution using on-site storage systems. Our solution can be built on production lines and uses software that optimizes the load allocation throughout the day. In doing so we can decrease the amount of grid infrastructure needed by about a factor of 3-4x, which creates a large amount of business value for our customers. It decreases their time to market quite significantly, it lowers their capex, it lowers their opex such that we provide the best IRR for an investment in the fast charging industry of anyone in the market probably with the exception of Tesla. 

You’ve written before about how advanced software systems determine hardware outcomes. What do you mean by this and how has this viewpoint been incorporated into Electric Era’s product?

I think the mental shortcut here is if you look at the most advanced and valuable businesses in the 21st century, they’re all a mix of hardware and software. This is even true for seemingly digital businesses like Amazon or Google. Underneath the hood there is a lot of advanced hardware that is brought to life via advanced software. So why does this lead to larger, higher market cap businesses? I used to work at SpaceX and they’re a great example. They have pretty advanced rocket technology, but it’s not like it’s not like they’re making a warp drive. They’re basically just making an incrementally better version of what we made in the 70s. And yes, they pull it together with advanced manufacturing systems and they have a vertically integrated business model and that helps drive down overall cost of goods sold, but what really makes their company magical is the fact that they have software systems that allow the rocket to do things that are utterly unimaginable. So they’re taking pretty much the same kind of rocket technology that’s existed since the 50s and they’re adding a large amount of sensors and high speed, low latency compute to the vehicle, then they use advanced algorithms to make that rocket land itself on a barge tens of miles out in the ocean. That’s the magical part and none of that can happen with the incremental value add that we just discussed until you get to that software layer. So witnessing space SpaceX land rockets and have thousands of satellites on orbit got me to the point where I realized software control at the edge with advanced algorithms that oversee and bring performance capabilities to hardware systems is really the best way to create value in the 21st century. Another good example of this is Tesla. They have pretty advanced hardware, but electric cars actually were around a century ago. So their hardware is pretty advanced, but the fact that they have local inferencing self driving algorithms that run on the vehicle is actually what makes the car drive. So the magic is in the sophisticated software that’s running on that edge compute system. We take that same approach at Electric Era. We have pretty advanced hardware systems, but nothing that requires like a new physics or something. Instead, we put an edge compute system in the hardware stack and have software that runs on that system and brings enhanced product capabilities and reliability.

The Biden Administration just rolled out hundreds of millions of dollars for EV charging networks in the US. What role does federal support for EV charging play in Electric Era’s roadmap or how you think about the company evolving over the next decade?

I think that the capital that’s being brought in by the federal government will create a huge amount of surplus EV fast charging, much of which won’t get used and much of which will break down. The only changes we made in response to that funding was staffing a team that can go out and grab it, and work with our federal and state partners to deliver easy fast charging equipment that will be used and will be reliable and will be operational for decades to come. Our push to regulators, policymakers and government officials is to make sure that we’re approaching the stewardship of those taxpayer dollars with a high degree of intensity and ultimately making sure that the capital is allocated to companies that will deliver very high performing assets that are online 100% of the time. Our push will hopefully result in a vibrant infrastructural base that aspiring EV drivers can leverage as they go about their day to day and ultimately use it to convert from internal combustion engine cars to electric vehicles, which are fundamentally better products, but crucially lack a large amount of EV fast charging infrastructure. Electric Era was founded to make fast charging ubiquitous, affordable and reliable, and we’re hoping to put some of those federal dollars to work to go do that in our local community.