David Charman: It may not be my best decision, on the other hand it might be

Trailblazer forecourt operator David Charman is preparing to start selling hydrogenated vegetable oil (HVO) fuel from his West Malling site in the next few months, in what he admits will be “a bit of a punt”.

The multi-award winning Parkfoot Garage stopped selling low-tax red diesel, used by agricultural vehicles, last summer after tighter restrictions on who could buy it came into force in April 2022 and made it a less attractive proposition.

It left him with one of his eight tanks empty and so after researching the potential of the more environmental HVO, which can be used as a substitute for diesel in any vehicle, he set about his plan. He estimates it will cost him anywhere from £15,000 to £20,000 in infrastructure to implement.

With David anticipating that most of his HVO business will likely come from heavy goods vehicles, as haulage companies sell their green credentials to potential clients, he is planning to install a fast speed pump which can dispense at a rate of 70 or 80 litres a minute. It will cost between £10,000 to £15,000.

Motorists are likely to be slower to come on board, he predicts. “With HVO costing anything from 20p to 50p a litre more than diesel recently, I think there will be limited take-up from diesel car drivers. Some people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint will embrace it, but I think realistically it will come down to price and sales will only really pick up when prices come down,” said David. “It’s a very uncertain market.”

As part of introducing HVO, he has also had the former red diesel tank emptied, cleaned and checked for faults by Southampton-based Eurotank Environmental, as part of a maintenance review across his eight tanks.

“Our tanks are around 40 years old and so we knew that we had some build-up of sludge and we decided it was a good time to get them cleaned to remove debris, and surveyed to check for possible dents, rust, leakage and thinning of metal,” said David.

“All of them were sound and you cannot under-estimate the value of the peace of mind it has given us that we are ready for the next decade or however much longer we will be selling fuel,” he added. Also, the procedure which took three or four days for each tank, was much cheaper at “the thick end of £50,000” than replacements. And there was the benefit of the business being able to trade throughout the procedure.

David is currently talking to possible HVO suppliers, including Certas Energy, as he is unable to get supplies from his preferred and current fuel provider BP.

In other parts of his business David has taken risks which have paid off and he says as an early adopter there could be benefits.

His decision to be what he claims was one of the first forecourt operators in the UK to put unleaded petrol onto every island, at the time that four star petrol dominated, was one example of reading the potential market well.

Introducing an instore locally-supplied butcher’s counter into the site’s Spar shop 12 years ago is another example. “People warned against it and thought I’d gone mad, but revolutionary change is good and it is now the most important part of the business and sells more than cigarettes, sweets and drinks combined,” said David, who now employs nine staff for this department.  

If HVO does well, David says he will give it more tank space at the expense of BP Ultimate Diesel, a high-grade fuel which has been losing momentum for the business.

“We like to do things a bit different. I think it is good to be seen as looking to the future and we will use Instagram and Facebook to let everyone know what we are doing,” he said.

“It is one of those times in a petrol retailer’s life that you have to take a bit of a punt. It may not be my best decision, on the other hand it might be. With only one nozzle it will not need to work too hard to be reasonably successful and if initially I have a few customers buying it a day I will be very happy. I currently have a tank standing empty doing nothing. At least with HVO it will be doing something.”

BP is piloting the sale of HVO for its HGV customers at four UK sites: Brampton Hut on the A1, Reading West Services on the M4, Michaelwood North Services on the M5 and Stafford Services on the M6. It says these pilots are in early stages, and cannot comment on where and when it may make HVO available more broadly.