It will take some time. Generally, it’s reckoned in the car world that, once a new technology is introduced, it needs about 20 to 30 years to become widespread throughout the national car park. Electric cars are not like that, though – they’re being driven by legislation, and fears over the growing climate crisis, so it’s possible – likely, even – that they will propagate through our streets much faster than is the norm. The Government’s 2030 target for an end to sales of new diesel and petrol cars adds an extra impetus.
What happens, though, to your local filling station when the great electric day dawns? It won’t be in 2030 – by then there will still be hundreds of thousands of petrol and diesel cars on our roads, and no one has suggested a specific timeline for an ending to fuel sales yet. Eventually, though, it will happen and pumps that dispense liquid hydrocarbons will dwindle and disappear. Will they all simply be replaced with plugs and chargers? Or will the often fragile nature of the retail fuel market (the number of fuel stations in the country halved between 2000 and 2008, long before any climate crisis hit) mean that we’ll simply see more and more overgrown and weed-strewn spaces that once were forecourts?
The industry, in general, is rather more bullish than that gloomy image might suggest. Speaking to The Irish Times, David Blevings, a spokesman for the Irish Petrol Retailers Association (IRPA) said that: "Our members are well aware of Climate Action Plan 2019 and the proposals set out by the last Government. We believe they are highly ambitious and we would be sceptical of the targets set for the number of EVs on the road by 2030 but we are not against change and ultimately we recognise the need to 'decarbonise' transport to deal with air quality and carbon emissions.
“This sector has not relied on fuel income as a mainstay for profitability for over 10 years. It has long been recognised that fuel sales are often a loss leader to entice custom into the ‘mini supermarkets’ that forecourts have evolved into over the past 10 years in response to consumers’ needs for smaller and more frequent purchases. Many forecourts have sit-in restaurants, deli counters, off-licences and other franchise operations. We see this increasing as customer expectations continue to rise and demand a customer experience that is delivered in a seamless and convenient way. Ultimately, the goal must be to create an environment where consumers visit service stations because they want to, not because they need to. To achieve this, fuel retailers need to focus on a customer-centric model rather than a vehicle-centric business model and invest in customer relationships that generate more than just occasional visits.”
That seems to be an industry-wide hope; that the steady decline of reliance on actual sales of petrol and diesel, and the growth of filling station retail, has already insulated station owners and operators against the coming electric storm.
Eugene Moore, director of development at Applegreen, said: "In our most recent interim results, the gross profit mix from non-fuel sales was 75 per cent, and that figure would be higher for some of our larger stations." Moore believes that not only will the Applegreen network not shrink, as a result of encroaching electric power for cars, but that the move away from liquid fuels creates a distinct opportunity. "Our network won't shrink," he told The Irish Times.
“Okay, we might move in and out of some current locations, but we won’t reduce our network, I can guarantee you that. We’re already in good, resilient locations, and what you might find as we go through is that there might be a bigger role for us in urban locations, providing fast-charging for customers who maybe don’t have a driveway or anywhere at home to charge.”
Moore also believes that it's crucial that filling stations become "agnostic, and open access when it comes to chargers. We're developing our own charging points now, and we have one up and running at our Birdhill site in Tipperary. That's actually free to use right now, but what we want to provide is simplicity for customers. No messing about with cards, etc, just download an app, roll up, tap in, and charge up."
Applegreen's main rival, Circle K, is taking a slightly different tack, and working with the major charging point providers to serve electric customers. Senior director of fuel, Jonathan Diver, said: "We have also sought to develop further relationships and deepen our EV offering by partnering with market leading companies such as Tesla and IONITY and to that end Circle K was the first retailer to host a Tesla Supercharger in Ireland.
Fastest charge points
“ Our partnership with IONITY, Europe’s leading high-power charging provider has seen us introduce the fastest charge points in the Irish market strategically located in four of our sites at key motorway locations across the country. We’ve already started on our journey to meet electric demand and we want to play our role in facilitating a smooth transition to electric vehicle usage. This has been a key area of focus for Circle K in recent years and will remain a key priority in the years ahead.”
One still can’t shake the feeling that fuelling stations may fall by the wayside, though, especially when smaller, independent retailers see the costs of installing the sorts of multiple high-speed chargers that will be needed to meet demand. Then there is the issue of making sure filling stations and service areas have sufficient power to meet demand.
Nevertheless, Blevings is adamant that Ireland’s petrol stations have the means to meet the coming challenges, saying: “There is no doubt that over the next decade, the number of electric vehicles on the road will grow but there is a huge amount of work to do so the infrastructure for charging is widely available and at a cost that makes consumers ditch the internal combustion engine.
“The jury is still out on whether electric is the future or a stop gap before hydrogen comes on stream and technology continues to advance at a rapid pace. Autonomous vehicles, electric cars and car-sharing could transform urban mobility over the next decade. Fuel retailers will embrace the changes as an opportunity and not as a crisis and refocus their businesses to operate successfully in an increasingly electric, digital and autonomous world.”