How Brisbane electric charger company Tritium came to the White House, selling ‘gold rush pickaxes and shovels’
It was an announcement from the White House complete with stars, stripes and the US President in a sharp black suit: an Australian company was building a factory in Tennessee.
The start of a “return to American manufacturing,” Joe Biden told reporters on February 8, alongside the Australian CEO in a rare show of support for a private company.
And what was the company at the center of this announcement? Who had won the ear of the American president?
Back in Australia, the news generated only a weak wave of interest.
Tritium? Who the hell is Tritium?
It turns out that Tritium might be the most important Australian company that most Australians have never heard of – an example of a successful local company that exports a high-tech clean energy product, rather than cargoes of ore, sheep or gas.
Founded by three engineering graduates in Brisbane, it has quietly secured much of the global market for electric vehicle chargers.
If you use an electric vehicle in Australia, you will probably use a Tritium charger.
The story of its origin begins in 1999, with a solar-powered car race from Sydney to Melbourne.
“The Biggest Supplier in the Smallest Industry”
Built by UQ students, the SunShark was one of the best solar runners in the world.
Teardrop-shaped and three-wheeled, it ran on the power of a two-slice toaster and could travel thousands of miles with a top speed just below the legal highway limit.
In 1999, he took third place in the World Solar Challenge.
David Finn was in charge of designing the car’s electronics.
“When I finished my undergrad in 2000, I thought, ‘There’s all this technology that solar car teams around the world want to buy,'” he says.
“It was a bit of a cottage industry to begin with. We just started selling.”
In 2001, he and two other SunShark team members, Paul Sernia and James Kennedy, founded Tritium, a small business operating out of a shed in the southern Brisbane suburb of Tennyson.
“We have become the biggest supplier to the smallest industry in the world,” says Dr. Finn, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering.
Over the next decade, they plugged into specialist systems, but kept their eye on a bigger prize: mainstream vehicles.
In 2008, Tesla built its first Roadster sports car, which was the first all-electric production car to travel more than 320 km per charge.
The battery technology that would disrupt the auto industry and spell the end of the internal combustion engine was slowly taking shape, but the big automakers weren’t listening.
“All the while we’re trying to market the 120kW motor inverter for use in vehicles,” says Dr. Finn.
“It was a bit of an insurmountable challenge.”
A change of fortune
Then, in 2012, after years of hard work, their luck changed.
The company’s 93rd product (the first being solar car motor controllers) turned out to be a winner.
Alan Finkel, who would later become Australia’s chief scientist, worked for a California-based electric vehicle charging startup.
He asked Tritium to make a DC fast charger.
DC chargers take electricity from the AC (alternating current) mains and convert it to DC (direct current), which is the type of energy that EV batteries use.
In general, AC chargers are the small boxes that many EV owners have in their garages, and DC chargers are the biggest and fastest for public use.
“He said, ‘I’ve traveled the world, I can’t find any DC charger that I really like,'” says Dr Finn.
“Three months later, we had a working prototype.”
The good years
Tritium got into making electric vehicle chargers at the right time.
The promise of electric vehicles, which had been soaring since at least the 1970s, finally came to life around 2012, and with them came the need for safe, fast and robust charging systems.
Out of nowhere, an entire industry has sprung up.
From 2012 to 2020, global electric vehicle sales have increased by around 50% each year.
In some countries, such as Norway, the increase was even greater, with electric vehicles dominating new car sales at the end of the decade.
“We’ve done well in Norway,” says Dr. Finn.
“At Christmas 2014, I received our first purchase order for 50 [EV chargers]as a Christmas present.”
Tritium has now sold over 6,700 chargers in 41 countries and is the second largest fast charging company in the world.
It has around 20% of the European charging market, 16% of the United States and 75% of Australia and New Zealand.
For Finn, the rise of electric vehicles came as no surprise.
Knee-deep in the electronics of solar cars in 2008, he and others could see the potential – the problem was that too few other people could.
“People say, ‘Isn’t it so amazing what happened?’ And I’m like, ‘I can’t believe it took this long.'”
“That was one of the biggest challenges – I probably underestimated the inertia of the auto industry.”
Is Tritium the EV equivalent of an oil company?
Not quite, says Jane Hunter, who was named CEO of Tritium in 2020.
From 2022 to 2026, Tritium estimates, all these new electric cars, buses and trucks (outside of China) will need 120 billion kWh of charging.
Tritium’s projected revenues for this period are $12 billion.
Unlike oil companies, its customers aren’t just gas stations, but anywhere with the space to house a charger, from burger franchises to malls to local councils.
Late last year, Hungry Jacks installed an EV charger in Victoria. The manufacturer? Tritium.
That same month, in November, Ms Hunter told an Australian trade conference that fuel retailers would soon face their own ‘Kodak moment’ – a reference to the camera giant that went bankrupt with the switch to devices digital photos.
The comments caused a stir, with fuel retailers bristling at the idea that the chargers would kill the bowser.
Ms Hunter says change is coming whether they like it or not.
Automakers from Volvo to Toyota are rapidly phasing out petrol and diesel models and governments are tightening emissions regulations.
“Everyone believes that [the shift to EVs] might come, or might not come, while we’re out there saying, “It’s happened before.”
“Whatever you decide to do, the decision was made without you. It was made by the automakers and other governments.”
Does Australia lack green jobs?
While tritium has risen, electric vehicle sales in Australia have mostly stagnated.
During the 2019 federal election, as the Tritium factory in Brisbane filled orders for electric vehicle chargers from around the world, Prime Minister Scott Morrison campaigned against policies promoting electric vehicles, saying they could not towing a boat and that they would “end the weekend”.
The government’s EV strategy, published in November last year, promised additional funds for charging stations, but has been criticized by industry groups for failing to include purchase incentives to boost sales.
Uptake of electric vehicles in Australia is lower than in the US, UK and most European countries, which offer generous purchase incentives.
Our sales target for 2030 (30% of new car sales) is also less ambitious.
Australia’s low uptake compared to other countries begs the question: will it be left behind in the move to electric vehicles?
Tritium’s success shows that there are economic opportunities to be first and outpace the competition.
That’s why, on February 8, Mr. Biden appeared alongside Ms. Hunter to celebrate the announcement of an electric vehicle charger factory in Tennessee and the creation of 500 local jobs.
“The benefits are going to ripple thousands of miles in every direction and those jobs are going to multiply,” Biden said.
Until now, most Tritium chargers were made in Australia.
The US plant will change that – it has at least three times the capacity of the Brisbane plant.
There are no plans to build another Australian plant, says Ms Hunter.
“If Asia-Pacific took off, we would go and take a larger facility immediately.
“Australia has the best sources of renewable wind and solar energy in the world… [and] Australian engineers are top notch.
“I would hate for us to waste the opportunity we have.
“I don’t think the opportunity is missed yet. But I think it could be missed.”
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