The demise of the combustion engine, signalled by recent announcements from almost all of the major car manufacturers, means in no uncertain terms that electric is the fuel front runner for the next generation of passenger cars. This creates a complex set of challenges but also exciting opportunities, both for the fuel suppliers such as Certas Energy and the UK’s forecourt retailers. Other fuels will have their place, particularly with regards to HGV traffic going forward, but the car manufacturers seem to have made up their mind that electric, either hybrid or exclusively, is the fuel they are backing for passenger cars.
I have no doubt that forecourt retailers will make the most of the electric revolution, continue to find their niche and develop ways of engaging with consumers. After all, we are a resilient and innovative bunch who have survived and prospered through hyperinflation, fuel shortages, supermarket dominance, business rate hikes and anything else that has been thrown our way.
With the speed of technological change and environmental concerns over particle pollution, electricity may not be the end-game but there are no doubts that this is the most serious challenge the industry has faced. The infrastructure to provide electric charging to hybrid or electric vehicles is significantly different. Collectively we need to see this as a new fuel for the industry and take the bull by the horns. Forecourts must become the destination of choice for a ’re-juice’ and, further down the line, battery sales and leasing. We have already heard of some electricity companies planning for standalone facilities with coffee shops and other sources, including property developers, hotels and councils, installing charge points. If we don’t grasp the nettle, motorists will start to change their purchasing behaviour. Currently, the biggest bugbear for drivers of electric cars is that they have to over-plan their journeys due to the short mileage range and the limited availability of rapid charge points. The forecourt industry can eliminate this mindset through availability and accessibility. Let forecourts continue to be the obvious and preferred top-up destination for all road-going vehicles, whatever their energy needs.
How the balance between electric, diesel and petrol will evolve in the coming years is not an easy one to predict, especially when planning for forecourt investment and redevelopments. Diesel is now coming under pressure and Adblue, which provides great margin and Certas Energy is delighted to supply it is fine for commercial vehicles, but not a user-friendly move for most motorists who previously just had to think about fuelling one tank and now have two! The government pronouncements on combustion engines and diesel may have little real substance, but they create huge uncertainty and it’s difficult not to foresee a fall in the price of sites from today’ s highs of 10 or 11 times multiples, as long-term revenue projections become muddled. It will be interesting to see how private equity money views roadside assets going forward. The next few years are clearly uncharted territory and it would be brave to assume that current valuation models continue to prevail.
On the positive side, we now believe that it is time to act on electric charging for profit and we are already in discussions to bring electric charge points onto our Gulf forecourts. There are a number of operating models currently available to retailers, either through a commission arrangement or lease, although I do expect some retailers will look at doing it themselves. Unlike the rest of the electricity market, vehicle charging does not face the same restrictions on trade, and margins are currently available. This should help encourage a network of charge points and there is quite literally no mileage in free charging!
If you are one of those people who seem to think that 2040 is the trigger point as combustion engines are phased out, think again. There may only be around 4,500 charge points in the UK at present with electric-powered cars accounting for less than 1% of all vehicles on the road, but it is projected that by 2020 there will be 250,000 electric-powered cars in the UK. By 2025 that accelerates to over one million.
In my considered opinion the ’tipping point’ could be as little as five years away, coinciding with advances in battery technology. Toyota, for example, is expected to introduce a solid battery by 2022. The arguments over size and output will evaporate as these charge in minutes yes minutes not the eight hours it can take currently. The long-range version of the Tesla Model 3 already has a charge range of 350 miles.
The biggest worry that I foresee is government. We know that as consumption of fossil fuels reduces, the government will waste no time in taxing electricity to boost its coffers, but can we trust government to do its bit on the supply side? It has a poor track record within the electricity industry since privatisation in terms of management, regulation and ensuring a coherent and long-term plan to safeguard future consumption levels. You only have to look at the Hinckley Point C nuclear plant project and more generally the lack of progress over two decades to improve our infrastructure.
As a nation we barely produce enough electricity for our current consumption needs, imagine the requirement for electricity when 30 million households are running electric cars?
It’s impossible to see where technology will be in 20 years, but having witnessed the advance of smart technologies over the past decade, nothing is off limits. Today it’s charge points, eight years down the line it’s probably dynamic charging with hardware embedded into the forecourt surface with the vehicle recharging seamlessly as it comes to rest on it. I read with interest that in June, 100 yards of road outside of Paris with metal coils embedded into the asphalt was tested with dynamically charged electric vehicles, creating an electro-magnetic field as cars ran over it, transmitting energy to the battery. And then there is the generation of electricity on forecourts through wind turbines and solar panelled canopies to create a seamless integration. Exciting stuff!
In Holland, forecourt electricity is currently priced at around 35 cents per kilowatt. Our prediction is that in the UK it will settle in 2018 at around 50p per kilowatt. At an average charge of 6KW per vehicle the forecourt industry is ideally positioned to drive the electric revolution both commercially and in terms of its availability. Certas Energy is ready to work with any of its Gulf dealers who wish to progress this. As the largest fuel supplier to the UK’s independent forecourts, as we progress we shall use our leverage to ensure that the most competitive rates are passed on to Gulf dealers as and when we select our official ’charging’ partner or partners.
We need to make an early effort to reassure motorists that Gulf forecourts are ready to welcome them, whatever their fuelling requirements. Filling stations perhaps we shall be calling them Juice Bars in the future remain the ideal space to charge a vehicle while doing everything else that one does on a forecourt: buy a coffee, wash your car, check your tyres, pay bills, pick up parcels, eat, top up with cash, choose a bottle of wine for dinner or undertake the weekly shop. In other words, through investment, sheer hard work, great customer service, personality, location and layout, forecourts are already ’wired’ for the opportunity.