The government’s vision for the future of the road travel, which was outlined in the Queen’s Speech, contained both reassurance and potential threats for the forecourt sector. The good news is that the government is clearly confident about the future of the forecourt sector, as it features in a pivotal role in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. The threat is posed by the major changes the government is planning to introduce in its determination to develop the electric and hydrogen-powered sector, and questions over who is going to pay for them.

In the last Parliament, the government introduced the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which would have mandated a minimum provision of electric charging points and hydrogen refuelling stations at motorway service areas and "large fuel retailers". It appears that these clauses have been incorporated into the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. However, a clear definition of what constituted a ’large fuel retailer’ had not been provided before the earlier Bill was killed off by the calling of the General Election.

"The PRA has raised concerns directed at the government’s announcement that large retailers and motorway service areas will be required to install electric charge points," said PRA chairman Brian Madderson. "Clarity over the definition of ’large retailers’ is urgently needed.The measure forms part of a government push to increase the number of electric vehicles on UK roads. However, the PRA is concerned this could place an unreasonable financial burden on independent fuel retailers who feel there is insufficient market demand to justify the investment at this time."

Sales of alternatively fuelled new cars climbed to an all-time record level in May, and were up 46.7% on the previous year, but the 8,258 vehicles sold still only accounted for 4.4% of the overall market. However, Alison Bell, marketing director of fleet management specialist Venson Automotive Solutions, said: "Research we conducted recently found that 85% of motorists would consider buying an electric vehicle, however 69% said that the lack of charging points across the UK would be the biggest deterrent." She added: "Easy access to charging points is crucial to the successful take-up of electric vehicles in the future and the new Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill is set to ensure this is addressed."

Madderson said: "The PRA recommends that the government introduces a centralised, monetary fund allowing for private businesses to apply for grants which will underwrite such speculative investment in rapid-charge equipment."

While refuelling with hydrogen clearly requires a forecourt environment, another concern for the forecourt sector is whether the owners of electric vehicles (EVs) will use any charging points they install, or whether they will choose to charge their vehicles at home. However, Tim Payne, CEO of InstaVolt, which is installing rapid electric vehicle charging units at forecourts across the UK, said: "Forecourt traders play an even bigger role than I think any of us have given them credit for in this bid to increase use of electric vehicles and, ultimately, improve air quality. People don’t fill up their cars with petrol or diesel each night they stop in to fill up as and when they need to. Forecourts hold the power to make it just as easy to do so with electric vehicles.

"They have the potential to become the backbone of ’location charging’, enabling quick top-ups that fit around EV drivers’ lives, boosting range and providing more consumer confidence. At present we’re caught in a chicken and egg situation where people simply won’t buy an electric vehicle until the infrastructure is there. At the same time, companies are hesitant to install charging units until they know there’s a buoyant market to use them. That’s why we’re doing something different and installing rapid charging points at forecourts and other locations for free. We install and maintain the units so there’s no cost or hassle for the forecourt trader. In fact, we pay them rent for allowing us to use the space, and instead make our money from the sale of electricity.

"It’s a win/win for us, electric vehicle drivers and those who host the charging points who benefit from increased footfall and dwell time. In my opinion increasing the number of charging points at forecourts will play a significant part in creating a better charging infrastructure. That in turn will give consumers confidence and boost EV sales."

This view also appears to be shared by Shell, which earlier this year announced that it will introduce battery charging points at selected petrol stations across Europe, including Britain. The oil company has also been at the forefront of introducing hydrogen as a fuel, launching its first hydrogen refuelling station in the UK at its Cobham service station on the M25 in February, with two more planned to open this year.

At the launch, Matthew Tipper, vice president, future fuels, at Shell, said: "Hydrogen has the potential to become a clean and versatile transport fuel for the future, and the Cobham hydrogen site is one of the ways Shell is encouraging the use of alternative fuels to contribute to the energy transition."

Sinead Lynch, Shell’s UK chair, commented: "We believe the journey to a low-carbon economy requires a coordinated and collaborative approach among organisations, including providers of energy and transport vehicles, users of transport vehicles,local authorities as well as government. "The Cobham site is a small but significant first step towards developing infrastructure needed for increased usage of hydrogen vehicles."

UK aiming for zero emissions

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill follows on from the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, which was killed off by the calling of the General Election.
In its consultation document for the original Bill, the government proposed a three-stage development plan to bring hydrogen into the mainstream:
a market seeding phase to 2020 where high cost and low usage will mean facilities are not commercially viable and public funding will be required;
an investing-in-growth phase to 2025 during which the number of vehicles grows, but not sufficiently to make stations profitable;
the emergence of a developed market during 20252030 where demand will be strong enough to make investment in hydrogen refuelling infrastructure a commercial proposition.