The Australian founder of a successful electric vehicle technology company says he is hopeful the 47th parliament will finally give the local sector the backing it needs to scale, after he felt forced to move to the United States.
Tony Fairweather, the chief executive and founder of SEA Electric, which has grown rapidly to be worth almost $US1 billion ($1.4 billion), said he was relieved to see a change in government, saying the hostile Coalition attitude towards EVs forced him to move offshore five years ago to grow his business.
Speaking to The Australian Financial Review from his base in Miami, Mr Fairweather said he was hopeful the change in national leadership – along with the slew of climate-focused independents and Greens sitting on the crossbench – would lead to government interventions that would enable him to expand manufacturing facilities back home in Melbourne, while encouraging more Australian companies to manufacture the components needed for electric vehicle systems.
“For the first time I’m actually excited about what the next few years will bring in the climate change space and in the electric vehicle space,” Mr Fairweather said.
“I’ve been very, very disappointed to be in this industry in Australia up until now.
“Electrification has not only not been acknowledged, it’s actually been mocked in government over the last couple of years.”
In late 2021, former prime minister Scott Morrison backtracked on his claim that EVs would “end the weekend” as they were incapable of towing trailers, boats or reaching a family’s favourite camping spot.
Labor has since promised to make it cheaper to buy EVs (which will be exempt from import and fringe benefits taxes), expand charging infrastructure and develop policy settings to encourage Australian manufacturing of EV components.
SEA Electric was founded in Melbourne in 2012, and makes electric power systems for delivery vans and trucks. After five years of research and development, Mr Fairweather said he decided to leave Australia in 2017 when orders started coming in, but he couldn’t secure the funding locally to buy the necessary components.
“We needed to fund the growth of our business. We couldn’t get anything in Australia. We tried banks, we tried government support, we tried ARENA [the Australian Renewable Energy Agency] and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation,” he said.
Mr Fairweather said a big four bank gave him a small trade finance facility, which it later pulled.
“Their excuse was effectively they didn’t believe in the electrification of commercial vehicles. We were debt free, but we had no funding to grow,” he said.
“It became clear that the only way I was going to be able to raise the capital that this business needed was to come to the US, to a country that recognised electrification.
“Australia was a tough place to start an electric technology business.”
Since migrating to the US, SEA Electric has raised $US70 million, has an order bank approaching 2000 units and has struck partnerships with major OEMs.
Its electric power systems have driven more than 2.5 million kilometres.
Mr Fairweather said the new government would have numerous levers to encourage the industry in Australia, such as customer rebates and mandating that commercial fleets have a certain percentage of zero-emission vehicles.
“If the current government supports and recognises [electrification] then the banks, the capital markets and investors and new components suppliers will get on board,” he said.
Behyad Jafari, chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Council, said Mr Fairweather’s optimism was shared by the sector, who were happy to have “a more electric vehicle-friendly” government in power.
“The electric vehicle industry is certainly very enthused and excited about the change of government,” he said.
Mr Jafari said the government’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050 would provide much more certainty for clean energy and electric vehicle investors.
Continue reading the full article at The Australian Financial Review by Tess Bennett published on June 6, 2022.