The Road to Zero strategy is nothing short of the government’s blueprint to phase out two of the bed rocks of the forecourt sector petrol and diesel. While the ’zero’ it refers to is emissions from road vehicles, its method for achieving this is prohibiting the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars (excluding hybrids) by 2040, and aiming for close to nil on the roads by 2050.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling said: "The coming decades are going to be transformative for our motor industry, our national infrastructure and the way we travel. We are expecting our economy and society to experience profound change, which is why we have marked the future of mobility as one of the four grand challenges as part of our modern Industrial Strategy. The Road to Zero strategy sets out a clear path for Britain to be a world leader in the zero emission revolution ensuring that the UK has cleaner air, a better environment and a stronger economy."

But while the strategy is going to have profound implications for the fuels sold by the forecourt sector over a 30-year timeframe, one of its main initiatives could have a much earlier impact. The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act, which was given Royal Assent on July 19, will give the Transport Secretary the power to force ’large petrol retailers’ and service area operators to install charging points and even hydrogen refuelling facilities. He also gets to prescribe what times these facilities will be available this could be round the clock and even that the facilities receive and transmit information.

What’s more, if forecourt operators are situated in metropolitan areas with an elected mayor, the mayor can apply to the Transport Secretary to apply his powers over ’large petrol retailers’ in their area. And just to add more uncertainty into the mix, the government isn’t letting on what constitutes a ’large petrol retailer’. The Act leaves it up to the Transport Secretary to come up with a definition by statutory instrument. This means he has to consult with persons he ’considers appropriate’, and then get a draft approved by both houses of Parliament, but he appears to be in no hurry to do so.

Reacting to the publication of the strategy, PRA chairman Brian Madderson, commented: "The PRA accepts the White Paper’s ambition of ending the sale of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040 and seeing at least 50%, and as many as 70%, of new car sales and up to 40% of new van sales being ultra-low emission by 2030."

He added that the PRA accepted other initiatives in the strategy such as:

use of the VED (Vehicle Excise Duty) regime to incentivise reductions in emissions;

an Electric Vehicle Energy Taskforce to bring together the energy and automotive industries;

charge points in new homes and on new street lighting columns where appropriate;

a £400m investment fund to encourage charging infrastructure to be installed;

making a common minimum method of accessing public charge points mandatory; and

allowing recharging without a pre-existing contract.

However, Madderson raised a number of concerns about measures in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act. He warned that forcing charge points to be made available at motorway service areas (MSAs) may not be appropriate for the cars, vans and lorries using those service areas.  He added that it was wrong for the Transport Secretary to try to second guess the market, and that it represented unfair interference in the business of the MSAs.

He also condemned granting powers to mayors to direct ’large fuel retailers’ to provide electric charging points as wrong. He said: "It should not be down to government to decide how a fuel supplier chooses how much of a particular fuel to supply. The fuel supplier needs the freedom to adapt to market circumstances."

Madderson highlighted that the definition of ’large fuel retailer’ is not given in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, and warned: "This gives even more arbitrary power to Metro Mayors and will most likely hold back investment in new technologies from the owners of larger sites while they wait to see if they are going to be dictated to. Smaller sites may also find themselves identified by politicians as big enough to be forced to put in charging points which the politicians not the demands of car users deem suitable.  Some could be driven out of business."

He added that it was not clear whether the £400m investment fund included in the Road to Zero would be accessible for forecourt operators wanting to include these facilities at their sites. With demand so low, he said, they needed an incentive to invest.

The Association of Convenience Stores backed up these arguments with chief executive James Lowman saying: "There are potentially thousands of petrol forecourts in the UK that could come under the government’s definition of ’large fuel retailer’, many of which will not have the facilities in place in store, or the space on their forecourt, to be able to meet the needs of customers that need to stay for prolonged periods of time. Instead of focusing on an arbitrary definition of ’large fuel retailers’, the government should incentivise electric vehicle charging infrastructure at strategic points across the road network to ensure sufficient coverage. The £400m investment fund included in the Road to Zero should be accessible for forecourt operators wanting to include these facilities at their sites."

While the strategy seeks to eliminate fossil fuels in the longer term, it also aims to reduce emissions from vehicles already on the roads, and this too could impact on forecourts. One way suggested in the strategy is increasing the bioethanol content in petrol by introducing E10, and a consultation on this has been launched by Transport Minister Jesse Norman. But this drew an angry response from Madderson, who said PRA members were strongly opposed to the introduction of E10 unless it is mandated by government.

Both in the short term and looking decades ahead, it looks like the forecourt sector will be facing major challenges as the UK strives to develop a zero emissions transport sector.

Road to Zero key policies:

Development of extensive electric charging infrastructure to drive take-up of EVs. In addition to a £400m Charging Infrastructure Investment Fund the Transport Secretary has power to require ’large petrol retailers’ to install electric charging and/or hydrogen refuelling facilities.
By 2030: a minimum of 50%, and up to 70%, of new car sales and up to 40% of new van sales will be ultra low emission.
By 2040: the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be prohibited. By then, the strategy forecasts the majority of new cars and vans sold will be 100% zero emission and all new cars and vans will have significant zero emission capability.
By 2050: most cars and vans will be zero emission.