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A renewable energy company in Thailand has electric vehicle dreams

Many people expect electric vehicles to be fixtures in a future world that relies on renewable energy. But not many EV companies started out as renewable energy companies.

One company trying to pull off that feat is Bangkok-based Energy Absolute. The biodiesel producer and renewable energy company branched into the commercial EV business in 2019.

In March of this year, Thailand set a goal of 1 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2025 — and it hopes that figure will grow to 15 million a decade later. That would include not just private automobiles but commercial vehicles — delivery vans, trucks, buses and the like.

A former securities trader, Somphote Ahunai, started Energy Absolute in 2006. He took the company public in Thailand in 2013 and began expanding into energy storage in 2016, when the company acquired shares in Taiwan-based Amita Technologies, an energy storage manufacturer. It’s now in the final stages of building a $3 billion battery gigafactory project to make lithium-ion batteries.

Ahunai told CNBC’s “Managing Asia” that the government’s efforts to promote EV adoption in Thailand have helped him to start the project, and now he says he’s urging the government “to open up the market and create a favorable policy for the EV market.”

However, the pandemic has affected the company’s foray into EVs. An order for 3,500 five-seater hatchbacks was canceled by a local taxi company as tourism dried up. Ahunai made a quick pivot to focus on commercial vehicles and battery storage instead.

“Many manufacturers, they are focusing on the passenger car. Not many people are focusing on the commercial vehicle yet, because they cannot overcome how to make the vehicle charge faster and make the battery last longer,” Ahunai said.

Ahunai’s plan is to install 1,000 charging stations nationwide in the next few years.

A charging sign sits at an Energy Absolute Anywhere charging station in Bangkok, Thailand, 2019.

Nicolas Axelrod | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“We have rolled out almost 500 charging stations nationwide, mainly in Bangkok and vicinity,” Ahunai said, adding that the company holds almost 80% market share for charging stations in Thailand.

His focus on commercial vehicles is in line with Thailand’s policy to put some 70,000 commercial electric vehicles on the road annually.

“If we successfully secure [the commercial electric vehicle] segment … then we create economies of scale for us to go into the other segments,” such as passenger cars, Ahunai said.

Japanese, American and German automakers all have manufactured vehicles in Thailand, but despite the country’s auto-making expertise, it doesn’t have an internationally recognized vehicle brand of its own. Ahunai said he believes EVs could change that. He wants Energy Absolute to be front and center on that effort.

“We believe that by using [our] technology and Thailand’s [auto-making] infrastructure, we can use that to be the springboard to the global market,” Ahunai said. “At least, we can go into the ASEAN market, which has almost 600 million population. So, that is a good market for us at the beginning, to start with.”

Right now, the bulk of the company’s revenue still comes from renewable energy such as wind and solar, but Ahunai said his foray into commercial EVs will be an important source of future revenue.

“If you look at what we are investing [in] now,” he said, “it will totally change the revenue structure of the company in a few years’ time.”

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