The UK is lagging behind the rest of the world in terms of automotive hydrogen development, with countries such as China, Korea and Japan pushing ahead at a rapid rate, according to Charles Purkess, business development manager at ITM Power. He was part of the ’Fuelling the Future: On the Road to Zero’ session chaired by TV presenter and motoring journalist Quentin Willson, at last month’s Forecourt Show. The packed event featured PRA chairman Brian Madderson; BP Chargemaster CEO Dave Newton; TSG UK’s business development director of EV Solutions, Michelle Machesney; and petroleum manager of the London Fire Brigade, Clare Scawthorn.

Purkess said: "We are in a bit of a bubble in the UK, with the government just talking about plug-in electric vehicles (EVs). In China they’ve been rolling out EVs for some time, but they also have cities that are pushing ahead with fuel cell technology. There are companies looking at very large-scale developments, which means production costs are coming down. There are 10 companies in China already producing fuel cell electric vehicles including vans that are close to commercialisation. If we’re not careful we’re going to lose out. Hydrogen hasn’t had the profile it deserves government has put it to one side. It is in many ways a much more viable and easier source of power. All the car companies, in developing the electric power train, can move to fuel cell. They’re just waiting for government to give them the nod. If we’re looking at how to achieve clean emission transport, and decarbonise transport and energy at the same time, this is a solution that is easily adaptable."

Quentin Willson confirmed that during conversations with government ministers 15 years ago, electricity was seen as the stepping stone to hydrogen, but now that idea seems to have been ’parked’. "It seems unfair that it’s been decided the road to the future is going to be completely electric, while hydrogen is seen as too expensive and too difficult," he said. "It’s not the case at all. Every car manufacturer has a fuel cell in their back pocket.

"We are being held back by lack of infrastructure and poor range with electric cars. This is why consumers are not buying them in the predicted hundreds of thousands or millions. EVs are still a tiny drop in the ocean. Until we get to 300-350 miles and a short charge of about 10 minutes you won’t get mass electrification."

Echoing this last point, Dave Newton and Michelle Machesney both stressed the future for forecourts was in fast charging, providing a convenient 10-minute charge for EVs. But to do this requires chargers providing at least 100-150kW, which are not currently available to most forecourts, and significant numbers of EVs capable of handling such charging are only likely to reach the market towards the end of this year and into 2020. For this reason Newton warned: "In order to survive you need to do the right thing at the right time and that isn’t about investing in technology that could be redundant in a few years time. It’s about 150kW charging, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got to get there tomorrow. Don’t make rash judgements. There are options for 20-year deals in the market and I’d urge you not to do it. It doesn’t make sense because you are going to have redundant technology very quickly."

However, Machesney believed there were forecourts which could benefit from investing now. She said sites that had a strong convenience offering, coffee and wi-fi, where customers might spend a longer time, could differentiate themselves with a charging option: "Perhaps you can’t put a 150kW charger in, but you could put a 50kW charger in that’s upgradable."


Asked about the profitability of charging, Newton said pricing electricity would be very different to pricing fuel where the operator does a trading area analysis, comparing prices from everyone for that particular day.

"With electricity you will always have a reference point, and the reference point is the home. People know what they pay for electricity at home, they know it doesn’t change on a daily basis like fuel prices change.

"But how much can realistically be charged for convenience? People do pay a premium for convenience and we do expect the same sort of analogy to occur for charging, particularly where it’s faster charging. We do expect consumers to pay more for a more convenient opportunity, and that convenience is about the speed of charging, so the faster the speed, the more likely it is that people will pay more. That’s where the business model starts to get predicated on that assumption. Actual prices in terms of where that’s going to settle there’s a lot of work to do there.

"What you won’t see is an electron price on your MID that’s just not the way this business tends to operate. It’s very much through apps and cards."

The PRA’s Brian Madderson said that government policies had disrupted the fuel market, with the "demonisation of diesel" leading to severe decline in sales of diesel cars, and new changes were hindering take-up of EVs. He explained: "The Treasury has already reduced the rather meagre grants for buying new electric vehicles."

Regulatory installation guidance

Clare Scawthorn, petroleum manager, London Fire Brigade (right), gave an overview of the regulations regarding EV chargers on forecourts, and where forecourt operators should look for guidance.
She explained that while enforcement action regarding forecourts remained the responsibility of the petroleum enforcement authority, environmental health officers will be enforcing the Electricity at Work Regulations, which governs charging equipment, and these were the people who should be consulted about installing one.
She said operators were not legally bound to seek approval for installations, but urged them to speak to their local authority so they could seek advice, and also because they could advise the local fire authority so they would be aware of the EV equipment in an emergency.
Issues to be considered when looking at an installation, include:
Where on the forecourt it needs to be outside the hazardous zone.
Contractors they may have electrical qualifications but do they have credentials to work on a forecourt?
Emergency procedures everyone working on the forecourt needs to be aware of these (some installers provide an emergency plan).