Driving to net zero: An interview with Max ter Horst

In Europe, the topic of clean mobility has recently gathered significant regulatory interest. Some highlights from the past months include:

  • In April 2023, the new framework for CO2 emission performance standards for new cars and vans mandating that from 2035 on, all new cars that come on the market cannot emit any CO2 entered into force.
  • In September 2023, the rules on the deployment of alternative fuel infrastructure (AFIR) were published in the Official Journal of the European Union. These rules aim to expand the deployment of electric vehicle (EV) charging and hydrogen refueling stations and will apply from April 13, 2024.
  • In October 2023, the European Commission launched an anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese subsidies to EV makers in China which will cover both Chinese and non-Chinese EV brands produced in China. The investigation will conclude within 13 months.

Cleantech for Europe recently sat down with Max ter Horst, Managing Partner at Rockstart, global early-stage VC-accelerator. Max discussed the role of clean mobility in the cleantech transition, investment trends that will shape the future of clean mobility and how soaring battery demand will affect clean mobility solutions.

Cleantech for Europe: In 2023, mobility is on the move. Some highlights: More and more electric vehicles are on the roads, new charging points are being installed, an EU wide ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035 was introduced and a new law to decarbonise aviation was agreed. What are some of the most current investment trends in the field of clean mobility?

EV charging has become a mature field, but there are ongoing developments aimed at optimising charging processes to preserve batteries and balance grids. EV charging holds the potential to serve as the gateway to home energy management, as EVs will become the biggest energy asset within households. At Rockstart, we see several startups exploring this avenue and if they win, the prize will be big. Other startups are developing new types of chargers. We see innovative solutions based on induction technology, that are more robust and significantly reduce operational costs for EV fleet operators.

There is an ongoing debate about the role of hydrogen in road transport. It's true that there is an energy loss of more than half when converting electricity into hydrogen and back. However, there are valid arguments in favor of hydrogen, particularly when it comes to large electric trucks. These vehicles face challenges related to their excessive weight, which limits cargo capacities, and the need for high-capacity chargers. In some cases, there may not be sufficient grid connections to support these chargers. Hydrogen-powered electric trucks offer a potential solution to address these challenges.

Micromobility faces challenges due to capital-intensive models and high interest rates, but with congested cities and limited grid capacity for electric cars, the long-term need for micromobility is still very much there.

Cleantech for Europe: What kind of infrastructure or physical assets are most needed for the wide uptake of clean mobility?

Clean mobility relies on power generation from additional wind turbines and solar panels, with EV chargers to facilitate vehicle charging. But the biggest infrastructure bottleneck will be the grid. In big cities, it’s simply impossible to tear up all roads to install the necessary cables for charging the expected number of EVs. Or, at the very least, it will require decades to get there. When hydrogen gains traction in the mobility sector, a substantial expansion of electrolyser capacity will be essential, alongside the logistical infrastructure necessary for delivering hydrogen to customers.

Cleantech for Europe: Can electric vehicles put the brakes on Europe’s climate emergency?

Transport is a significant source of GHG emissions. It represents 28% of global emissions. EVs are a good place to start curbing GHG emissions, but EVs alone won’t get us to net-zero. Having said that, EVs also are a catalyst for other developments in the energy transition. Battery producers have achieved economies of scale thanks to EVs and as a result, batteries have become cheap enough for stationary applications. This, in turn, lowers the costs of integrating renewables, leading to an increase in wind turbines and PV panels that can be connected to the grid. There are several knock-on effects that make EVs crucial in the broader energy transition.

Cleantech for Europe: Can you share with us one new development in clean mobility that you are most excited about?

One thing we are excited about at Rockstart is vehicle-to-grid (V2G). With an increasing number of EVs on the road, we will have massive battery capacity available to help stabilize the grid. V2G technology can play a pivotal role in integrating intermittent renewables into the energy system. People have been talking about this for 15 years, and it’s finally becoming a reality!

Cleantech for Europe: How big of a challenge battery supply will be in the uptake of clean mobility?

Battery supply will be a challenge. Production capacity can be built relatively quickly, but access to metals and minerals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese will be the bottleneck. Supply of these materials is often limited and concentrated.

Circularity could be an important part of the solution. In other words, giving batteries a second purpose or recycling batteries into raw materials. It is better for the environment, and it reduces our dependency on the import of raw materials. And that is key, as commodity prices for metals and minerals could become volatile if geopolitical tensions increase.

This interview is part of our ongoing series Voices of Innovation, where we convene cleantech investors to discuss challenges, opportunities and trends of the cleantech transition in Europe.

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