Is the Gas-Station Model for EV Charging Ahead of Its Time?

Why current lack of a business case may not define future opportunity: Navigant analyst
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO  For traditional fuel retailers who have added electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, the business case can be tough to define. Among the pros, adding charging puts them into position when EV adoption truly takes off, as some analysts predict it will. And it gives them an opportunity to sell more highly profitable food and items from the store to EV owners, who today can expect about a 30-minute wait to gain an 80% charge.

But in the meantime, that fuel retailer is dedicating a couple of parking spaces to a service that few of its current customers can use. And with EV owners typically charging up at home about 80% of the time, even they have limited use for the service.

Is the gas-station model for EV charging ahead of its time? CSP Fuels recently spoke with Scott Shepard, a London-based senior research analyst of energy for Navigant Research, Chicago, about the development of EVs and the charging infrastructure. Shepard would argue that there is a business case for EV charging at gas stations—but it’s one that requires some patience and foresight to be realized. What follows is an edited excerpt from the conversation.

Q: What has surprised you about how the EV market has developed?

A: That the gas-station model has not really been that attractive to EV owners. There’s always been this issue that people need to see charge points out in the wild, and they need a solution to get them out on the road quickly. But by and large, they don’t use that solution. It’s the security blanket that’s there, but they’re ultimately going back home or charging at home or at a workplace where they can charge for a very long time.

Q: Where do you see EV charging developing?

A: There is a lot of innovation occurring in the market, and the surprises we’ve seen to date are very minimal compared to the transformations that will occur in the industry, and how it will change how people interact with the concept of energy and vehicle—being this thing from maintenance to not a thing anymore.

Ultimately, in an automated world where people don’t own their cars but use them from a fleet, the best charging solutions are going to be automated ones like battery swapping and wireless, and the two will probably share space: battery swapping for emergency needs and wireless for on-the-go needs. I don’t see them as stepping stones one to the other. But they are the sort of technologies to look at as the most mature form of charging and energy management for EVs.

Q: Today, gas-station owners struggle with the business case for EV charging. What should they consider?

A: Don’t take what has happened with the EV charging market to be what will be the case moving forward. The reason the gas-station model hasn’t really worked out is that EVs have only been attractive to those who own their own garage and can install their own charging infrastructure in their garage. That in itself is painful for anyone setting up a public charge point, unless can they bundle it into managing the EV owners’ home charging.

That aside, the EV market is progressing past the EV owners who have a garage to being those who park on the street. The reason is the development of more infrastructure generally—at workplaces, apartment complexes and in the public sphere. As more people adopt EVs who are parking off-street, they’re going to have greater demands for gas stations, or gas-station charging.

Q: So what opportunity do you see for traditional fueling locations?

A: There is an opportunity for gas stations, but it’s got to be calibrated over time—it’s got to follow the market. Different stations will have definitively different opportunities for charging. Stations on a corridor location along the highway would want to deploy a fast-charging solution, whereas those in the inner city are better served by something that takes longer to charge and be used more as a top-off; those station owners can benefit from having customers at the store longer, and make revenue from the more traditional c-store business model of selling other items beside fuel.

For more on wireless EV charging and how it could transform the fueling experience, see the June issue of CSP.


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