Testing, testing…

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Testing: Zenobē will test individual systems and their integration with other charging infrastructure to ensure maximum lifetime reliability. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch attended the opening of Zenobē’s new testing facility in Portsmouth

In late January, CBW was invited to attend the launch of Zenobē’s new Innovation Centre, which the electric fleet and battery specialist says will place Portsmouth at the forefront of zero carbon transport innovation. The company welcomed Portsmouth North MP and Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt to open the new centre, which offers a test facility for EV charging solutions to help fleet operators make more informed and optimised choices when it comes to switching to an electric fleet.

Located in Portsmouth’s Railway Triangle industrial estate, the official opening took place on 27 January, with speeches from both Penny and Zenobē founder and Director Steven Meersman before Penny symbolically plugged in an Alexander Dennis Enviro400 double-decker, one of a batch destined for National Express West Midlands, and in doing so lighting up a flashing neon ‘Testing’ sign on the wall.


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Zenobē will use the centre to test the latest electric vehicle (EV) charging systems within a ‘technology-agnostic’ setting to identify the most cost effective and optimal charging solutions for fleet operators, as well as to help further innovation in the electric transport sector. It has been designed to simulate the intricacies of depot charging with the ability to charge multiple buses and electric cars at one time while connected to a ‘Powerskid,’ a 100kW battery storage asset made from second-life batteries.

The Powerskid, a portable temporary power source made from refurbished EV batteries, will enable Zenobē to assess how innovations such as vehicle to grid charging and grid enhancement services to support the additional power required for vehicle charging can be scaled up and implemented for a fleet operator. The Innovation Centre will also allow the company to trial and interface different models of charger and electric vehicles to provide real-world insight into the relationship between the charger and vehicle.

The charging specialist has also integrated its fleet charging software into the testing facility, which is able to take into account real-world, site-specific challenges such as grid limitations and battery degradation, and how these can be managed; after the launch, guests were shown some of the features of the software, which proved to be a reminder of how far the industry has changed operationally, and will continue to change, beyond the simple fact of switching from a diesel engine to an electric motor.

By investigating and testing the software and charging infrastructure within the Innovation Centre environment, Zenobē expects to further expand its fleet electrification capabilities and knowledge base, which it plans to use to work with fleet operators and help them make better informed decisions when tendering for electric vehicles, chargers and supporting infrastructure.

Welcoming guests from the public, private and transport sector as well as the press, Steven highlighted the importance of working together as the industry moves forwards into an electric future.

Opening the centre, local MP Penny said that it was exciting that the new centre was located in Portsmouth, and congratulated Zenobē on the effort it has put into developing the Innovation Centre. “Everyone here will be aware of the environmental challenges,” she said, highlighting not just the need to move to net zero, but also the speed of change and the need to adapt to keep up as the technology develops. “What you are doing is not just helping us meet our net zero targets,” she said, “but also helping us meet our economic targets. The only way we are going to make that adaptation, whether it’s businesses or individual, and the only way we’ll be successful is if what we’re doing actually works. It’s not a choice between net zero and the economy, it’s all part of the same, but we’re only going to achieve that if we have places like this that allow innovation to be tested to scale.”

She acknowledged that while there are grants and funding in place, there is an ongoing need for the infrastructure to back up that investment and ensure it can be implemented successfully, and noted that centres such as this will not only help Britain’s shift to net zero, but can also act as a catalyst for the export of that technology and know-how to a much bigger world-wide marketplace.

Portable battery packs can be a solution where grid supplies are poor, says Zenobē, as well as providing a vital second life to batteries. JONATHAN WELCH


“At Zenobē, we span across the energy and transport sector,” said Steven, as we believe these two are merging into one thing, and we need to look at them as an integrated system to really accelerate that path to net zero in the most ecologically and financially sustainable way.” Whilst attendees may be aware of the number of buses which Zenobē already supports, Steven highlighted that the company also already has over 400mW of batteries supporting those fleets without the need for expensive grid upgrades.

“This is a transition period. It’s a journey not just for the sector as a whole, but for each individual vehicle, each individual depot, each individual electricity line. You have to think about how you plan ahead, and how you get all the different equipment to work,” he said, pointing out the need for power supplies, charging infrastructure and vehicles as well as depot systems to operate seamlessly and consistently in order to be successful. “That’s what this centre is about,” he explained, “making sure all these different pieces provide a seamless, smooth user experience for the operators, not just on day one but for the next 15 or 20 years, every day.”

He also highlighted the need to ensure that as well as ensuring that batteries had the optimum lifespan, local re-use and recycling once their use for powering vehicles was over is key to ensuring sustainability. Talking about the size of the challenge ahead, Steven pointed out that one bus takes 10 times as much power as an electric car every night. “The scale of the problem is a lot larger and I think people often underestimate how you plan for that in a depot environment whilst operating your current fleet,” he said.

Backing up his point, he cited Coventry as an example of a city where second-life batteries such as the Powerskid can make a huge difference. “Coventry has real grid issues,” he explained. “after the rebuild of the infrastructure 50 to 70 years ago, so getting power to the city centre is really challenging.” Instead of installing around eight miles of cables to the nearest substation, Zenobē was able to supply a large 1.4mWh battery pack, which uses recycled Swedish bus batteries, to enable the operator to reduce it’s demand on the grid but still have the capacity to charge buses overnight when needed, at a much lower cost than laying cables.

Furthermore, he highlighted Zenobē’s belief that rather than see a battery as ‘dead weight’ during the day, operators should be able to ‘sweat their assets’ during the day as a means of bringing down costs and allowing them to recoup some of the initial outlay: “The way you do that is by interacting with the energy grid. We can use these batteries during the day to provide services to stabilise the grid which provides income and brings costs down. As a result, we hope that can accelerate further electrification by bringing costs down.”

Steven also highlighted the importance of using portable power packs and chargers to allow companies across the transport sector to trial electric vehicles, be that buses or HGVs. Data is another key aspect, he said, and by harvesting data from vehicles and infrastructure, operators can make significant savings on energy bills, as well as increase the range of a vehicle; he cited the saving of up to 40% on an Alexander Dennis Enviro400 through understanding its energy use and adapting to maximise efficiency; this not only reduces costs, but reduces the amount of power required to charge overnight, and in turn the demand on the grid infrastructure.

Zenobē founder Steven Meersman and Portsmouth North MP Penny Mordaunt plugged in a bus to officially open the centre. JONATHAN WELCH

Tested to destruction

Turning to the new centre more specifically, and its role in the shift to e-mobility, Steven explained that the team will bring in charging infrastructure and test it to the point of destruction. “How do you know it’s reliable in the field?” he asked. “You need to know how it breaks, and you can’t do that in your customers’ operations. We can do continuous testing here with new vehicles, new chargers, new batteries and new software versions to improve the products and drive down cost.”

He pointed to the test benches where things can be disassembled, but also to the supply of spare parts available so that should operators have a problem, Zenobē can react as quickly as possible. Steven recognised that as with any new technology, no matter how reliable the data might show it to be, faults at an operational level will be noted and make its acceptance all the harder; reliability is a must.

Among those at the launch was Simon Goff of First Bus, which is set to introduce 34 Wrightbus electric vehicles in Portsmouth next year, who was enthusiastic about meeting Zenobē and finding out about the company’s experience elsewhere.

After the opening, many attendees gathered for a presentation showing the vast amount of data and analytics available through Zenobē’s software, highlighting both the need for, and pace of, change within what is traditionally a very conservative sector. If the transition to zero-emission vehicles is to be a success, operators need to know they can trust the data and the infrastructure to optimise availability, and that it is reliable. Zenobē’s new facility should go a long way towards proving that it can not just ‘talk the talk’ but ‘walk the walk’ as well.

Zenobē is now inviting operators interested in electrifying their fleet to book in a visit to see the real time benefits of integrating smart charging technology into their fleet. Fleet operators can also take the opportunity to meet with its specialists and discuss how they can take the first step towards fleet electrification and achieving zero carbon and clean air targets.