OKLAHOMA CITY -- Natural gas is synonymous with the state of Oklahoma, which ranks among the top five producing states in the country. For OnCue Express, it also has been a key differentiator. The Stillwater, Okla.-based c-store chain sells compressed natural gas (CNG) at 20 sites, making it one of the leaders in the business.
Low gasoline prices have put some pressure on that business; Oklahoma has frequently boasted one of the lowest state retail averages in 2016. And with two more CNG sites set for 2016, OnCue Express has approached the saturation point in the Oklahoma City market.
But it hasn’t blunted the chain’s appetite for testing new fuels. Case in point: the electric-vehicle (EV) chargers OnCue is installing at two of its newest stores.
“From broad adoption, we’re probably a good decade away from having enough [EVs] to have a major impact on our chain,” Scott Minton, manager of CNG market development for OnCue Express, told CSP Fuels. “But if you go a decade from there, it could offset 30% to 40% of our business. We do think there’s a reason to be looking at it and a way to design the future of infrastructure that benefits both drivers and the c-store industry.”
OnCue partnered with Oklahoma Gas & Electric (OG&E) on adding the two DC fast-charging stations, one at its new store in Yukon, Okla., off Interstate 40, and a second planned for a new location under construction on Interstate 35 just north of Oklahoma City. OG&E is paying all of the costs associated with the two charging stations, while OnCue is donating a parking space for each.
The Yukon charging station is behind the store, next to a nearby dog park. As a Level III DC fast charger, it can charge an EV battery up to 80% within 30 minutes.
“We’re not convinced we’re going to have a great deal of utilization yet,” said Minton. “But we wanted to ensure we had the best opportunity for a successful pilot to see if we’re getting a great deal of utilization along the interstate.”
For now, OnCue will not charge EV drivers for using the charging stations. Oklahoma forbids reselling electricity for anyone other than a utility. OnCue and OG&E intend to discuss the issue of how to monetize public EV charging with the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the state’s energy regulator.
“We want to see how much people will use it, because there’s no use installing something that won’t be used,” said Minton. “If it gets used and there’s a market for it, we’ll definitely find some way to monetize it.”
The store’s inside offer also could be up for change. OnCue’s foodservice program for now is limited to roller-grill items, and the stores do not have a seating area for anyone who wants to linger. This would change if EV charging takes off.
“What we want to do is give a customer two reasons to be there,” said Minton. “If they’re going to be there for 30 minutes, we might as well give them an offer to buy food.”
For now, Oklahoma’s EV market is very small. The technology represented only 0.03% of the gasoline gallons displaced by alternative fuels in the Oklahoma City area in 2015, according to Central Oklahoma Clean Cities. CNG displaced the largest share, or 85% of gallons. And the state ranks 32nd in number of EV registrations, although this figure jumped 27% from 2015 to 2016.
Oklahoma does offer incentives that could offset up to 75% of charging infrastructure costs, Minton said, although consumer incentives favor fuel technologies such as CNG and propane. Meanwhile, OEMs have focused more on states with bigger EV markets.
“We’re a natural-gas state, and I can see manufacturers wanting to focus on larger markets with a quicker payback,” said Minton. “However, as infrastructure develops and retailers such as OnCue get on board, put stations in, I can see manufacturers saying there’s a market here.”