Interview with Pierce Glennie, co-founder of Ember
What challenge was the inspiration for your project?
In many sectors there has been very little progress towards the UK’s 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target, and that’s particularly true with transport. There is a need for rapid action, and we felt the best way to encourage that was to show that electric vehicles are not only greener but can also be cheaper to run. The bus sector was an ideal entry point for our start-up business, since high-quality public transport is essential to the energy transition – creating less air pollution, less traffic, and of course lower carbon emissions.
What was your innovation that addresses this problem?
Ember has introduced the first long-distance, 100% electric bus services in the UK, from Dundee to Edinburgh in Scotland. The buses make the 125-mile roundtrip on a single charge. No other company has done this because there are complexities in terms of charging. For example, we need to charge multiple times per day and monitor batteries, so we’ve built a lot of technology to help us do this.
We heard a lot of scepticism about electric vehicles when we first started. However, in just the first few months of operation each coach has covered around 100,000km, providing really solid, data-driven evidence that electric transport at this level can actually work.
What impact has Triodos Bank had on your business?
Triodos was an essential partner in financing the vehicles. Most traditional finance companies are wary of electric vehicles since they're new – particularly in the bus and coach sector. Triodos clearly understood and shared our vision from the start, which led to a very different, positive conversation.
In particular, with Triodos' help we've been able to launch with two buses rather than one, accelerating our plans and giving us far more data on which to build future improvements. We plan to open up further routes in the future and continue to be a trailblazer in the sector.
We accessed funding through the UK government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS), which was set up to provide financial support to SMEs while offering lenders a government-backed guarantee. We met the criteria as we had been adversely impacted by the pandemic when delivery of our first vehicles was disrupted.
What impact has your business had on the sector you work in?
Despite the Covid pandemic and its impact on travel restrictions, we've already carried hundreds of people on the buses, including many essential workers.
We've also provided one of the first examples in the world of electric vehicles running at high-utilisation, which has the potential to act as a bit of an inspiration for the sector. For instance, we've already heard from operators, government and people in all four nations of the UK often asking why their local route can't be electrified and to see if we can offer some insight.
What impact has your business had on the community?
Our bus service is not only electric, reducing emissions and air pollution in the area, but we also think it provides great public transport. For instance, we offer low prices, flexible tickets, really comfortable vehicles, fast 5G Wi-Fi, and charging points at every seat – we're showing people that going green does not have to mean compromising in other areas – in fact it can offer a better experience. Passengers have shared amazing feedback so far.
In addition, we've hired six great drivers in Dundee (paying well over the living wage) and hope to add more in the near future. This is particularly important during the Covid pandemic, as it has hit the coach sector very hard.
The local council has also been supportive from the outset, with Dundee City Council providing a brand new ultra-fast charging point in the city centre as part of its mission to decarbonise transport in the city.
How does Triodos Bank share your vision?
We'd previously approached lots of finance companies who viewed electric vehicles with scepticism, often saying they wanted to take a wait-and-see approach – as if the switch to electric was some niche and uncertain thing.
By contrast, Triodos has immediately bought in to the idea of electrification – it aligns with its vision of financing not just energy-generation projects, but the entire energy transition. This made it much easier to get a deal done, since it was just about demonstrating we had a sensible business plan and meeting the bank’s necessary criteria.