Cleantech Market Intelligence
Examining EVs and Their Impact on the Retail Refueling Industry
I recently presented at NACS Show, the annual conference for the national association representing the convenience and fuel retailing industry. And by fueling, I of course mean liquid fuels. The more than 20,000 attendees of the conference included the operators of retail gas stations that help fuel the vehicle market, as well as the petroleum companies that supply them.
I spoke about the future of fuels in the United States, mostly related to electric vehicles (EVs). The primary message of my presentation was that EVs will be a significantly growing segment of the US passenger car market, but that petroleum will still be king in terms of total fuel consumed in the country through at least 2025.
While retailers operate because of our need to fill our tanks with gas or diesel, that is not what drives profit—that task falls to convenience store sales. Attendees emerged from the conference expo laden with samples from exhibitors showing the huge array of snacks, beverages, and other goods sold to drivers stopping for gas.
A New Model Needed
This model doesn’t work for most of EV charging. EVs fundamentally disrupt the fueling landscape since they shift the fueling dynamic away from centralized retail locations. Not only will most drivers just charge at home, but any away-from-home charging will only occur at places where the driver has already planned to go for an extended time. Basically, EV drivers refuel wherever they park for 2 or more hours. This means never—or in the case of plug-in hybrids, rarely—having to drive somewhere like a gas station to fuel. Once consumers are used to this new dynamic, it’s going to be a feature, not a bug, for potential EV buyers.
High-power fast charging networks are the one application where the retail fuel industry’s insights are highly relevant. Long-distance driving will require stopping for at least 10 minutes (or potentially 20-25) to recharge. Right now, fuel retailers are not focused on this as a market, as it’s much too small. But this is where their business model is most likely to be adopted, as fast charging stations will need to provide services to occupy drivers during their 10-25 minute wait. Food service seems the most likely option. And it doesn’t need to be the grab-and-go style of service found in most convenience stores—instead, it could be more akin to a coffee bar or café.
Although the fast charging network is still in its early genesis in the United States, it’s an inevitability. Automakers are committed to creating such a network, which can be created with as few as 722 sites, as Navigant Research found in its DC Charging Map for the United States report. While OEMs may well fund this network initially, that seems unlikely to be a permanent solution. These stations will need a viable long-term business model such as the one today’s fuel retailers have worked out. They could be valuable partners for this effort.