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What's the future of the UK's fuel stations?

Published 14 June 2021

The electric revolution isn’t just coming - it’s here. With manufacturers including Jaguar, Volvo, Fiat and Ford committing to making their car line-ups all-electric between 2025 and 2030, the tide is already turning. But what will happen to the UK's fuel stations?

We know the Government is planning to ban the sale of new cars powered solely by petrol or diesel from 2030 and we know the infrastructure to support the move to electric is in full swing.

But what we don’t know just yet is where that leaves the millions of drivers who’ll still own petrol or diesel cars in 2030, especially considering that the numbers of petrol filling stations across the UK have already dwindled by 35 per cent since 2000.

On top of which, many fuel station operators are struggling financially after long stretches of pandemic-related lockdowns during the last year or so.

Are petrol stations doomed?

As the coronavirus pandemic has battered a fair few industries across the UK, a recent report has emphasised the importance of the convenience shop offering within forecourts. Fewer than one-in-ten forecourt shoppers actually cite fuel as the main reason for their visit, according to Lumina's UK Forecourt Market Report 2021.

When it comes to the number of petrol stations, the UK is home to 8380, according to Statista — a figure that’s fallen significantly from 13,107 in 2000 — with BP, Esso and Shell being the only companies to operate more than 1000 sites.

While the figures look bad on the face of things, fuel stations aren't closing down in droves. In fact, there were only six less petrol stations in the UK in 2020 than in 2019. 

"Resilience is certainly the word for those 8384 remaining," says Chairman of the Petrol Retailers and Car Wash Associations, Brian Madderson.

Lumina’s research showed that less than 1 in 10 of forecourt users shopped for fuel only, with convenience store, food-to-go, cash machine, coffee experience, laundromats and automated car washing all providing much needed services.

With ever more petrol and diesel vehicles on our roads, it is unlikely that a sudden and irreversible switch to alternative fuels will happen this decade: cost, range anxiety, ease of recharging are all factors said to be hampering market growth says Madderson.

"Fuel retailers are watching technological developments closely and will invest in electric charging points when they can see opportunity to make a financial return. By and large this is sometime off for the majority."

Are fuel stations converting to become electric vehicle (EV) charging stations?

It isn’t inconceivable to think that fuel station operators won’t shift to cater for electric vehicles in the near future. In fact, some are already starting.

Shell unveiled its first 50kW EV rapid-charging post, capable of recharging a battery from zero to 80 per cent in 30 minutes, in 2017. In 2021, it plans to have a combination of 200 rapid (50kW) and ultra-rapid (150kW) chargers on forecourts located on major routes across the UK. 

EV Charging

But Shell isn’t the only energy retailer looking to make moves in this sector either. BP Pulse is working with local authorities across the UK to upgrade public charging points with faster, more reliable systems - meaning electric car drivers will be able to charge in more places, more easily. The charging company, formerly known as BP Chargemaster, has committed £2m in total.

The company has already agreed to more than £400,000 in infrastructure investment to replace more than 50 charge points, which are typically owned by local authorities and were originally installed with Government funding a decade ago as part of the Plugged in Places scheme.

>>> Electric cars with the longest range

There aren't that many electric vehicles though, right?

Let’s do a quick stocktake. At the end of December 2020, there were 38.6 million licensed vehicles in Great Britain, according to the RAC. Currently, pure electric, hybrids and hybrid electric vehicles have a relatively small market share versus petrol and diesel. However, with that said, things can change quickly — just look at the decline of diesels.

 E -golf

The BBC recently ran an article, which stated: "Electric cars are going to send the petrol station business into a death spiral over the next two decades, making electric vehicles the default option for all car owners. Why? Because charging electric vehicles is going to become much more straightforward than refuelling petrol and diesel cars."

In May 2021, pure-electric car sales in the UK increased by 441 per cent compared to the same month in 2020, but this was also when dealerships were closed to the public during the first lockdown.

Of the 156,737 new cars registered, 13,120 (8 per cent) were pure-electric cars, 9855 (6 per cent) were plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) and 13,000 (8 per cent) were full hybrids. Plug-in hybrids jumped by a whopping 1092 per cent since May 2020.

Pure-petrol cars accounted for 48 per cent of last month’s total, but mild-hybrid petrols made up 12 per cent of total registrations for the month. Diesel and mild-hybrid diesel models accounted for the remainder of sales, at 10 per cent and 7 per cent respectively.

Yet, none of the cars on the top 10 best-sellers list for May 2021 were pure-electric. The Vauxhall Corsa (which is available in electric form as the Corsa-e) came in second behind the Volkswagen Golf (available in both eHybrid and GTE plug-in forms). In fourth place was the Mercedes A-Class, which is also available as a plug-in hybrid.

Vauxhall Corsa 2019 (1)

So, still a reasonably small market. However, when millions of us want to recharge, there will be a boom in charging stations — like the new Braintree Electric Forecourt in Essex, operated by Gridserve (with plans for 100 more) — just as there was a surge in petrol station construction a century ago.

Can the UK energy grid cope with a big increase in the number of EVs needing charged?

There are two aspects to whether we have the capacity to manage lots of electric cars being plugged in at once, according to the National Grid – whether there’s enough energy and then whether there’s sufficient capacity on the wires that carry that energy to where it’s needed.

Due to improved energy efficiency, such as the installation of solar panels, the nation’s peak demand has fallen by roughly 16 per cent since 2002. Even if the unthinkable happened and we all switched to EVs overnight, the National Grid predict that demand would only increase by around 10 per cent. So we’d still be using less power as a nation than we did in 2002 and this is well within the range of manageable load fluctuation.

Petrol Pump

However, there remains the issue of when that power demand actually happens. The traditional evening peak of electricity demand is between 6pm and 8pm, and this might well coincide with people returning from their commute and plugging in their cars.

With this in mind, recently the Government’s EV Energy Taskforce recommended that all future car chargers should be ‘smart by design’. This means that no matter what time you come home and plug your car in at, it will charge when you need it but will pause during that evening peak when energy is most expensive and demand on the grid is highest.

With that said, the National Grid says some targeted investment is likely to be needed to ensure there are appropriate places where drivers can access sufficient high power charging away from home.

This particularly needs to be on the motorway network to give confidence to those travelling longer distances. Fortunately, there’s already a lot of electricity infrastructure right next to motorways as power lines are often run beside them for practical reasons.

>>> Why are electric cars so expensive?


   on 14 June 2021

Putting charging points on the motorways is the easy bit. What about the remote locations in the UK, of which there are many. It’s no good going from the south of England to north west Scotland, if the last charge point is on the M74 in Glasgow!

Paul Jenkinz    on 14 June 2021

wonder how many of these ev owners are going to regret buying them though and switch back to fuel i bet some do

Malcolm Probert    on 14 June 2021

BP, Esso and Shell do not operate over 1000 sites. They supply those sites.

George Newell    on 14 June 2021

We’ve bought our first EV, a Fiat 50E La Prima after having sold our two year old Diesel Volvo XC90. It’s a brilliant little car to drive and so far we are very happy with it. However we have also bought a used Toyota Prius to use if we want to travel further away but we believe it’s a step in the right direction.

4caster    on 14 June 2021

The government is NOT going to ban the sale of all cars powered solely by petrol or diesel.
It is only going to ban the sale of NEW cars powered solely by petrol or diesel from 2030.
We shall still be able to buy and sell USED cars powered solely by petrol or diesel.

4caster    on 14 June 2021

In Norway 54% of new cars sold in 2020 were pure electric ones. Norway is far more spa***ly-populated than Scotland, with much longer distances between large towns. You will be able to buy electricity in the remoter parts of Scotland, just as you can buy food and drink. Supply will meet demand. That's how the economy works.

davethesteam    on 14 June 2021

I am concerned about the cost of electricity away from home. Domestic supply is circa 15p/kWh. Outside charging is up to 70p/kWh. I reckon at that level, electric is actually dearer than ic and of course a lot slower and supply of working charging points less reliable. Those are the reasons I have a PHEV for now. Pure electric becomes interesting when realistic range exceeds 500 MLS for an affordable (sub £30k) new SUV sized vehicle.

jchinuk    on 15 June 2021

I think that many forecourts will convert to charging stations, especially if they have room for a coffee shop, selling an expensive latte while you wait to recharge will aid profits.

The decline in filling stations is fuelled (excuse the pun) by every large supermarket selling petrol & diesel at competitive prices rather than the rise of EVs. Of course, those same supermarkets might install 'free charge pints' (or at least cheap ones) as an incentive to shop at their store.

I would predict that ICE cars will be priced off the roads sooner rather than later, with increases in VED, widespread congestion charging, low emission zones and increasing fuel taxes.

RJP41    on 15 June 2021

The brother inlaw has just got a new Vauxhall mokka e he drove over to us last week around 50 miles he used 37 % of battery charge ,he has had numerous charging problems AA called out ??.
A friend of ours bought a new VW id4 when 2 weeks old they went away and left it on a charge point overnight next day no charge AA called out towed back to VW been there for 2 weeks although they have an identical hire car with no problems its certainly no very inspiring, then to read some of the green facts of ev s the battery alone in manufacturing creates 15 tons of co2 the equivalent of 10 years driving for the average petrol car it puts me off ,evs are fine in towns but not distance.

   on 15 June 2021

Charging infrastructure is the key to the success of the whole venture if we are to ban IC engines at a date in the future.
The problem with the infrastructure does not lie in the filling stations or in the garages and driveways of houses that have them it lies with the millions of homes that do not have such potential. By this I mean that if an EV owner lives in a house where they cannot get the vehicle off the road to charge it, for example they have a pavement between the roadside (perhaps the only opportunity to park for so many) then they cannot lay a cable across the path to the car. Nor indeed can a person who lives in a tower block without designated parking charge the vehicle at home.
New builds, flats with allocated parking, houses with drives and or attached or nearby garages are all fine.
So food for thought, according the ONS only about 42% of dwellings in the UK are either detached or semi detached (not that this guarantees that you can get the vehicle off the road)
This leaves an awful lot of folks who cannot realistically charge a car at home.
Make all the deadlines and targets you wish but without the focus on this problem the project will fail.

hissingsid    on 15 June 2021

Whatever the motoring journalists may say, the electric revolution is not here, and it will not be here until range goes up and prices come down.
The much publicised date for the ban on new ICE vehicles will be at the whim of whatever government is in power in 2030. Politicians of any party can and will break their promises when it suits their agenda.
Stop worrying and motor on while you still can.

   on 15 June 2021

There is a simple answer to the problem of charging. Vast numbers of people just cannot charge at home as they cannot get their car near to their house. Recharging during a journey is a bind because of the waiting time. The answer? All cars should be fitted with a common design battery tray that can be removed for charging. This allows owners to take the battery in home to charge it, leaving the car parked remotely. But this would not be allowed because there is a money implication. Charging stations would replace petrol stations where drivers would go to have their depleted battery tray replaced with a fully charged one, probably a 10 minute job. The cost for this service would include the electricity, a rental charge for the tray (no large cost of buying replacement batteries at end of life), fuel tax, road tax and any other taxes that the government decides to add on.

a-lister    on 15 June 2021

It always makes me smile when the swappable battery "idea" rears it's head again. For a start these battery packs weigh several hundred kilos and are connected with fat high voltage cables which need to be removed and attached with care (and pretty chunky bolted terminals). The battery packs are also (very sensibly) buried within the vehicle where they are lelss like to get crushed in an accident and catch fire which makes extracting them quite difficult. Then there is the issue of swapping your nice new battery for a much older one - who takes the hit when a battery fails??

In the unlikely event that all the manufacturers could agree on a standard battery format (and thus neatly inhibit future battery development) every manufacturer uses different battery sizes depending on the model and the variant (an SUV packs a higher capacity battery than a city car).

After all that, the logistics of keeping enough batteries fully charged for exchange on demand should be simple (not).

hissingsid    on 15 June 2021

The majority of petrol stations are operated by supermarkets. I cannot imagine that they will want to recruit and train staff to change batteries.

BILL MUIR    on 15 June 2021

This is not true. For example there is a charging point at the intersection of the A82 / A85 trunk roads in the village of Crianlarich which is 55 miles North West of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

John Dunwell    on 16 June 2021

While the sale of new CARS with petrol/diesel power may stop from 2030, what of commercial vehicles? The majority are diesel powered, surely ensuring the sale of the fuel for the foreseeable future, necessitating 'petrol' stations to sell it for a while yet.

Sir Kevin Parr, Baronet    on 16 June 2021

Will they give us top level deal on Diesel cars when this happens as electric cars are nearly 3 times price to change. Pensioners in rural parts have millions of miles and 56 years of skills in driving need a car to shop and visit friends. Can not afford to change unless help is there. I am starting to store Diesel fuel at home so can survive any way I can. Maybe even have too

focussed    on 24 June 2021

If you are going to stockpile diesel be sure to add an additive to stop any bacterial growth in it in the long term.

Just one example - Wynns is a reliable name in additives, there are others.

Tenchman7    on 17 June 2021

Getting towards 2030 i can imagine the price of petrol/diesel going through the roof to price many people off the roads.
Those like me running end of life vehicles because, although i need a car living in rural norfolk i always buy reliable used cars that i can own outright and do most of the servicing on myself.
Rather have the money in the bank than the latest overpriced gizmo laden cars that are made of cheese and painted with waterbased less than durable paint.
The car i've got now i have owned 15 years of it's 18 so far!.
Fuel prices concern me the most.

Tenchman7    on 20 June 2021

Example of where we are going with petrol these days!
Just put some in my Golf at the Fakenham Shell garage [Norfolk] and was alarmed to see Shell V-Power priced at £1.499 a Litre.
Thats £6.80 a gallon in old money!.
When the E10 petrol takes over from the standard E5 95 Ron Unleaded sometime this year and cause lower mpg because of the higher water content, i was going to say: Thankfully Super Unleaded petrol is staying at 5% Ethanol[E5]
But the petrol stations are edging the price of superfuels beyond their worth i feel.
E10 will also rot your exhaust system silencers for those that do many short runs.
Anyone got any good news for the motorist??

hissingsid    on 23 June 2021

Hydrogen could be good news, but it no longer appears in the debate.

My main concern about EV's is the cost of heating my home. I live in a village with no mains gas and heat my home electrically on the off peak Economy 7 tariff. When more people charge their EV's overnight, the supply will no longer be off peak and the Economy 7 tariff will disappear.    on 26 June 2021

In the 1950s we were told that people would be commuting to work in their personal helicopters. In the sixties, nuclear power would be so cheap that the energy companies wouldn't bother to meter it. In the seventies, the World was heading towards another Ice Age. In the eighties, because of increasing automation, humans would have a better standard of living with more leisure time. If "experts" tell you what we will all be doing in twenty, ten or even 5 years' time, don't believe them!

Edited by on 26/06/2021 at 03:46

aethelwulf    on 29 June 2021

I still run a 16 year old Mondeo petrol estate. The VED is dear but it does 34mpg and is easy to fix without going to a dealer. So why would I splash out , what, £30,000 or more for a equivalent EV to my Mondy? I also have a 400 mile range in the tank. I think EVs have some way to develop yet so will not commit my cash to something that will be super seceded in a few years. My car is worthless, except to me. Another year's MOT now , no issues.
That person quoting 15p per kw hr is lucky. Mine is over 18p!
Perhaps by 2030 there my be charging points around- I doubt it. This more to EV is meant to kill off private transport and make us all be subservient to public transport as in years ago.

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