The challenges facing traditional forecourts with the rise of alternative fuels

The challenges facing traditional forecourts with the rise of alternative fuels

Posted 22 December, 2020 at 13:10

Author Eva Jones on behalf of Suresite Group


2020 has certainly been a year of change and reflection. According to a recent report published by the Global Carbon Project, emissions fell a record 7% in 2020, with emissions from transport accounting for the largest share - 10% from road transport and 40% from aviation.

The Global Carbon Project’s analysis showed that the UK saw one of the biggest drops in emissions at 13% due to major reductions in transport - the largest source of climate pollution for the country.

As a nation we have learnt that we need to be more environmentally conscious which has been reflected in not only how consumers are thinking, but also ambitious government targets when it comes to driving down carbon emissions and introducing greener measures in a bid to tackle climate change.

This month has been significant for the EV industry with the opening of the UK’s first electric-only forecourt - the first of 100 planned to be built over the next five years. Coupled with last month’s announcement that Boris Johnson was moving the goalposts yet again with the ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars brought forward to 2030 - are we really ready to embrace the electric revolution?

Can hydrogen-fuelled vehicles rival EV?

EV charging and battery technology has developed rapidly in the last few years, and no doubt this will continue to accelerate, meaning by 2035 charging will be faster than it is now. The government has already pledged to spend £500m over the next four years to boost the development of mass-sale EV battery production in the UK. However, concerns have been raised by the Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) that this will require the UK to be more dependent on Chinese battery technology, resulting in less investment in the development of alternative fuels such as hydrogen.

Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are still in the early stages of development, with a lower adoption rate than EV. However, there are benefits to hydrogen as an alternative fuel when it comes to implementation. Not only is it much more compatible with the current forecourt network, it offers faster refuelling with the ability to travel longer distances than electric vehicles. It also has the potential to use renewable electricity sources through its electrolysis process - offering a truly environmentally-friendly fuel alternative with zero carbon emissions.

For forecourt operators the challenge arises with space required for delivering, storing and dispensing of hydrogen. The pressure vessel containing the hydrogen has to be above ground, so the forecourt footprint must have sufficient space to accommodate this.  As with EV, it would mean greenfield sites would be the likely locations to offer these facilities.

How viable is EV for Joe Public?

Currently the rate that electric vehicle manufacturers are making cars does not reflect the number of charging points that are on offer, meaning there are concerns over not only how far a car can travel before it needs to recharge, but ease of finding a charging point to do so. With approximately 20,000 EV charging points in the UK, EV infrastructure certainly needs to improve if petrol and diesel cars can be successfully phased out.

Cost will no doubt continue to be a dominant factor when it comes to EV uptake, with current electric vehicles costing considerably more than their fossil fuel counterparts. Mass production may help to reduce costs - although Tesla is already a mass producer of electric vehicles and yet the basic price remains over £40,000. This indicates that manufacturers need to give more consideration to cost of purchase, cost of charging, and cost of maintenance. Currently only the latter is in favour as electric vehicles have fewer moving parts that can go wrong.

Acceptance by the public of ‘time-to-charge’ will need to happen, and be factored into people’s daily lives. Accessibility - whether that be at charging at home via off-street parking, or through ‘on the go’ charging at forecourts, supermarkets and hospitality venues - will also be influential in encouraging consumers to make the move to electric.

The challenge for forecourt operators

Electric vehicles are unlikely to reach critical mass until the mid-2020s. In the interim, forecourt operators will need to focus on compelling alternative revenue streams and boost their non fuel retail (NFR) offering to ensure profitability from their on-site retail. With changes needing to be made to the forecourt layout to ensure there is space to accommodate EV charging points, there could be a loss of additional revenue streams through services such as car washes.

The introduction of electric-only forecourts - purpose built sites offering lounge areas with fast and free WIFI for work or leisure, cafes, shops, children’s entertainment, etc. will undoubtedly prove to be popular. Offering superfast charging facilities delivering up to 350kW, with power generated through on-site electrical substations. Equally the rise of charging points at ‘destinations’ such as hotels, supermarkets, car parks and hospitality venues, will be the preferred place for people to charge their vehicles no matter how pleasant the forecourt experience becomes.

Traditional forecourts have no choice but to embrace cleaner fuels alternatives such as EV and hydrogen if they are to survive. Forecourt operators who plan to introduce EV charging should consider:

Ensure your customers have a comfortable space to wait or work whilst charging takes place, preferably with an outdoor space if at all possible.

A move from “forecourt operator” to service station provider, offering a wide range of convenience retail products and services. Customers are looking to use their time efficiently, therefore they want to make visits to forecourts multipurpose rather than the traditional ‘fuel and go’.

Provide quality food and beverage offerings to allow customers to enjoy a coffee or lunch break whilst charging. By associating a pleasurable experience with charging, it may encourage them to form a new habit where they regularly use your charging facilities as part of their daily or weekly routine.

Focus on the delivery of a superior Customer Experience. Customers will be spending a longer dwell time when using forecourt facilities. That experience needs to welcoming, safe, clean and convenient. Facilities such as clean toilets will be a baseline expectation and could be an influential factor in customer loyalty.

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