Frank Reig had a problem back in 2019. The CEO of Revel, a New York City-based electric moped-share startup, was trying to expand the concept to other cities, but he was having trouble finding places where he could access enough power to charge his scooters. The real issue, he soon realized, though, was much bigger. In order to phase out gasoline vehicles in America’s dense urban centers, hundreds of fast charging sites, the electric equivalent of gas stations, would be needed. Those sites would draw huge amounts of power, and it wasn’t clear where they would get it. “Everyone's talking about an [electric vehicle] transition where in 10 years every bus, truck, and car is going to be electric,” Reig says. “And I can't find power to charge moped batteries.”
For the past decade or so, the pitch to ditch gasoline has mostly been directed at America's suburbanites. Sure, public charging infrastructure was far from ubiquitous and often poorly maintained. But that didn’t matter so much if you lived in a house with a driveway or garage. All you had to do is plug in your car at home, and you’d wake up every morning with the equivalent of a full tank of gas.
Many people living in cities have no such luxury. They might park their cars in charger-less garages owned by their building, or else keep them on the street wherever they happen to find a spot. It’s a situation that will affect about 10% of the country’s electric vehicles once the U.S. switches over from gas power, according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s 29 million cars that will have to find juice somewhere other than a house, which means we’ll need a lot of public fast charging stalls. The problem, though, was that few companies were focused on building them in cities. Then Revel came along.
Over the past two years, the one-time scooter company has quietly remade itself into perhaps the most important new player in the urban EV transition. Its blue mopeds are still a common sight in New York City. Since 2021, they’ve been joined by a steadily expanding fleet of electric ride-hail vehicles, mostly Tesla Model 3s and Model Ys, all painted the company’s signature bright blue. But the roving EVs are just the most visible part of Revel’s transformation. Over the past two years, the company has built 40 electric vehicle fast charging stalls in New York City, for use by both Revel’s fleet and the general public. The company is on track to build at least another 90 by the end of this year, and it says it’ll have more than 300 chargers in the city by the end of 2024. That buildout, Reig believes, will give him control of 90% of the city’s universal fast charging market (though that’s not counting Tesla’s more than 80 supercharger stalls in the city, which are increasingly becoming open to vehicles from other automakers). The company is also planning to build 200 fast charging stalls in the San Francisco bay area by the end of next year.
The effort has garnered enthusiastic support at the highest levels of municipal and federal government. New York City Mayor Eric Adams gave a speech at the opening of Revel’s newest charging hub in the garage of a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, office building in April. The U.S. Secretary of Energy, Jennifer Granholm, made an appearance at the June 2021 opening of Revel’s first public charging hub in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, then the largest universal charging hub in the country. “On behalf of the Biden Administration, and on behalf of [the] 330 million people in America who want to see us lead again in clean energy, thank you to Revel,” Granholm said.
Reig’s plan hinged on a bit of clever economics. Between the price of equipment, construction, and urban leases, it can cost millions of dollars to build the fast charging stations that cities need. That creates a chicken-and-egg conundrum: With few EVs on city roads, (about 1% of New York City’s vehicles are electric) there’s little incentive for developers to pour funds into building charging stations, since it would take years for there to be enough demand for them to recoup their investment. And without public fast charging, drivers will continue to have few options to charge their vehicles, keeping the transition from taking off.
But there’s also opportunity. There are a few choice spots where preexisting power infrastructure—built to service a shuttered factory, for instance, or for a building whose residents ended up using less electricity than expected—lines up with enough space to charge a stream of power-hungry EVs. Whoever develops those sites will be sitting on a gold mine when residents and cab drivers start switching to EVs en masse. The question, though, was whether you could keep from going bankrupt as you waited for enough drivers to buy EVs and start paying to charge.
That’s where Reig’s big idea came in. He wanted to build chargers. But instead of waiting on city residents to switch to electric vehicles and use them, he would generate his own demand by launching a fleet of EV ride-hail vehicles, which would use the electricity he was providing. With money from those app-based rides, he could finance a headlong rush to develop the best urban charging sites before anyone else got to them. “Whoever wakes up two years from now [will find] we've already picked over an entire city,” Reig says.
In December 2019, Reig texted his co-founder and COO Paul Suhey, then 28, to pitch him on the idea. Suhey says that it sounded like Reig was preparing for a long sell to win him over. It wasn’t necessary—he was thinking about something similar himself. “That thumbs up, ‘let’s do it,’ him bringing that optimism to that situation, literally changed the trajectory of the company,” Reig says. Revel’s electric scooters were still on the streets. But in the minds of the founders, the company was on its way to being something much bigger.
The pair had met as colleagues at consultancy GLG in 2016. In 2017, Reig took a trip to Buenos Aires and returned convinced that he could replicate that city’s profusion of motorized scooters to improve transit in New York City. Suhey was planning to go to graduate school to study battery chemistry, but Reig persuaded him to help start the company with him, and the pair set about raising $1 million from friends and relatives to get the business off the ground. Then they went to venture capitalists to get another $4 million. It wasn’t easy, Reig says. “A lot of [potential investors] are going to tell you your idea doesn’t make sense, or it’s not going to scale, or it’s not going to work. Or they’ll just ghost you,” he says. “So you better have optimism.”
The scooter business boomed in the early days of the pandemic, with commuters wary of crowds taking Revel’s mopeds instead of using mass transit. The business “seemed like a goldmine,” says Mike Granoff, one of the company’s early investors. But problems also started showing up. Bills to pay parking tickets for improperly parked scooters and to replace stolen batteries were accumulating. In July 2020, two people died riding Revel scooters, and the company shut down the service. New York City’s then-mayor Bill DiBlasio said that it would need city approval to start up again. Granoff, a veteran in the electrification space, was despondent. “I'm supposed to have been the one telling Frank that you can get through this. I'm older, [and] more experienced,” Granoff says. “It was the other way around. He reassured me.” With the blessing of the city, Revel restarted the service the next month, now with helmet safety checks and traffic safety tutorials in their app.
Reig and Suhey likely picked a good time to start moving beyond mopeds. When the duo founded Revel back in 2018, micro mobility was all the rage. San Francisco-based Bird had reached a jaw dropping valuation of $2 billion, and new startups with names like Blue Duck and Scoobi were trying to get in on the action, bringing zippy electric contraptions to cities from San Antonio to Pittsburg. These days, though, the sector is facing a reality check. Blue Duck, Scoobi, and other small micro mobility startups are no more, while the bigger players like Bird have gone through layoffs and retreated from aggressive expansion plans.
Revel, by contrast, is expanding its charging business as fast as it can. Speaking outside a Williamsburg coffee shop, Reig outlines his business strategy in crisp, emphatic phrases. He’s polished and eager, all clean lines, good attitude, and big bold vision, like some kind of theoretical entrepreneur dreamed up by the wonks who wrote the Inflation Reduction Act. “We realized there is a first-mover advantage for a company like Revel,” Reig says. “Not to talk about 2030 like everyone else, [but] to actually build now, and move now, and execute now.”
When it comes to visionary businesspeople promising to change the world, many of us have experienced a few too many unadvertised consequences to be entirely unskeptical. Municipal officials still harbor memories of Uber’s relentless venture capital-fueled expansion in the 2010s, which used grey-area tactics and vast lobbying efforts to fend off local regulation.
Revel has sought to distance itself from the Uber model. For one thing, it pays its drivers as employees, rather than bringing them on as contractors. And Reig says the company is focused on working with city governments, not trampling them. Still, some officials have painted Revel with the same brush. The company provoked a backlash from the New York City government when it tried to launch its first 50-car ride-hail service back in April 2021. New York City had enacted a limit on new ride-share licenses, but with an exception for new EVs. But then-Taxi and Limousine (TLC) Commissioner Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk excoriated the startup, saying that the exemption was intended to allow existing for-hire companies to switch to EVs, not to permit a new player to enter the market. Revel, she said, had deviated from “the spirit of [the] rules,” and she promised that the regulator “will not cut corners in doing its full diligence.”
Matt Daus, a former chair of the New York TLC, says that response wasn’t fair. “[Revel] has the right business model. They’re taking care of the drivers, and they’re building infrastructure for everyone to use. What’s not to like about it?” he says. “I was scratching my head.” Reig, for his part, casts the run-in in diplomatic tones. “That partnership feeling was missing,” he says.
In 2022, Eric Adams took over as New York City Mayor, and he appointed a new TLC commissioner, David Do, who previously served as director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles. (Jarmoszuk had resigned earlier that year, after a video of her berating employees was released to the press.) Do is a big fan of Reig. The city wants all ride-hail vehicles to go electric by 2030, and Do says Revel is critical to making the transition happen. “We need infrastructure,” Do says. “No one else…has been putting infrastructure in the ground like Revel has.”
Last year, Reig and Suhey raised $126 million from major investors like Blackrock, and they’re plowing the cash into their plan to build out charging infrastructure. The amount of work ahead, though, is enormous. Revel expects New York City will need about 5,000 fast chargers to switch over all cabs, Ubers, and Lyfts to electric, over 10 times more than the company has in the pipeline out to 2024. To decarbonize all of the city’s 2 million vehicles, the city will need even more chargers than that. “It’s going to take investment partners. It’s going to take city relationships. It’s going to take potentially regulatory changes. It’s going to take the utility continuing to step up,” Reig says. “Or else it’s not going to happen.”
At the same time, though, Reig and Suhey are already thinking through a new company transformation: from power user to power provider. Revel is on track to become a major player on the grid, with hundreds of charging stations and thousands of EV batteries. But if it plans ahead as it builds, the stations won’t just be set up to draw power—they can also put it back. It’s a new way to make money if electricity prices spike. There could also come a day when Reig could pull vehicles off the road to prevent a summer blackout. Talking through the possibilities, his excitement is palpable. “It’s awesome,” he says. “I’m just raring to go.”
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