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The transformation at the petrol station: from petrol pumps to charging stations?

The days of the combustion engine are numbered, it would seem: due to climate change and political goals, major car companies soon only intend to manufacture vehicles with electric engines. New car buyers are already increasingly opting for battery-driven vehicles. But what will become of traditional petrol stations in this electric future?

Whether car or lorry: going to a petrol pump is quite simply a fact of life. After filling up, you might grab a snack, get a coffee to go – and get back on the road. But given that petrol and diesel will shortly no longer be a fuel we use in our cars, this routine may soon be a thing of the past, or at the very least will change a great deal. To limit global warming, people want to reduce CO2 emissions and convert from combustion engines to alternative energies. And this shift to electromobility will have a particular impact on the traditional petrol station business. After all, the federal government aims to have 15 million electric vehicles on German roads by 2030. Are traditional petrol station operators prepared for what’s coming their way?

Joachim Jäckel
Joachim Jäckel, Chair of the Federal Association of Petrol Stations and Commercial Car Washes in Germany, sees some problems ahead for petrol stations in the transition to electric drives.

‘In the petrol station sector, the change to e-mobility has not yet sunk in to the extent it needs to’, says Joachim Jäckel, Chair of the Bundesverbands Tankstellen und Gewerbliche Autowäsche Deutschland (BTG - Minden, Federal Association of Petrol Stations and Commercial Car Washes in Germany). Despite political statements and announcements by major car companies that they will soon no longer be manufacturing vehicles with combustion engines, it is still unclear how the electric charging market will develop. Jäckel does not believe that petrol pumps can simply be replaced by electric charging stations everywhere. ‘That requires a great deal of investment and small operators cannot do this so easily.’

High investment requirements

Aral spokesperson Eva Kelm
Aral spokesperson Eva Kelm says that her company wants to become the largest provider of charging facilities for electric vehicles at petrol stations.

With new equipment, staff training and above all the expansion of the electricity infrastructure, costs can quickly mount up to over 100,000 euros. ‘And even then, there's still no guarantee that the local energy supplier has the capacity to supply the required amount of electricity.’ Members of his association, which includes small operators and major corporations alike, are not too concerned about their existence at the moment, he says. On the contrary: new petrol stations are still being built to cater for both petrol and diesel vehicles and there is still a flurry of investments being made in them. ‘SMEs are good at forecasting and aim to carry on operating profitably for the next 15 to 20 years’.

The operator of the largest petrol station network in Germany, which comprises around 2400 stations, also does not believe that there will be an overnight change in the drive trains we use. ‘We estimate that there will still be more than 30 million vehicles with classic combustion engines on German roads in 2030’, says Eva Kelm, spokesperson for Aral. However, if CO2 emissions caused by road traffic must still be reduced by a quarter by this point, she says, this can only be achieved by other decarbonisation options for liquid fuel, e.g. bio components, synthetic production (e-fuels) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) in heavy goods traffic.

From petrol station to mobility hub

Despite this, Aral is still expecting there to be a revolution in the drives we use. ‘We have therefore set ourselves the goal of becoming the leading provider of charging facilities for electric vehicles at petrol stations’, says Kelm. Furthermore, Aral assumes that the business model will need to be adapted to suit the new conditions of our climate-focused era: ‘The petrol station will be transformed from a place to refuel into a mobility hub where customers can get the full range of their individual mobility needs met.’ At such hubs, for example, there could also be supermarkets, car sharing options and parcel collection points. A trial project is currently underway in Berlin. 

Dr Julia Jarass from the DLR Institute of Transport Research
Dr Julia Jarass from the DLR Institute of Transport Research carried out a study investigating the petrol stations of the future.

In order to analyse the needs of the petrol station customers of the future in more detail, Aral carried out a study together with the Institute of Transport Research at the German Aerospace Centre. What were the results? ‘Charging stations for electric cars could certainly take on the role of an intermodal hub in future, for example as a transfer point for regional and long-distance transport’, says Dr Julia Jarass, research associate at the DLR Institute of Transport Research, who co-authored the study. But, she says, there is a distinction to be made between urban and rural development.

In large cities, the offer will be complemented by quick charging stations, battery exchange stations for bicycles, micro depots for parcels and intermodal mobility offers. ‘Air taxis are also conceivable as they enable particularly short travel times to important hubs such as airports. In the country, there will be less need for charging stations because people can charge their cars using their home’s power supply, says Jarass. She assumes that there will be a particular need for charging stations in places where people are not able to charge their vehicles at home or work. ‘And this will be more the case in big cities and on motorways than in rural residential areas.’

The exact development trajectory is uncertain

Joachim Jäckel thinks that petrol stations serving combustion engines have good opportunities in rural areas. ‘In the country, classic petrol stations for petrol and diesel are in a better situation than those in large cities because there is a much less dense network of them’, he says. In urban areas, however, traffic is increasingly being pushed out of city centres. ‘The other issue is that space is becoming ever more expensive in cities, making the petrol station business not as attractive as it once was.’ He knows an operator in Munich, for example, who had to give up his business because of this, despite brilliant sales. And the argument that petrol stations could offer other services because charging electric batteries takes longer than fuelling with liquid fuel, is something that Jäckel has not seen confirmed in real life so far. ‘Often, drivers will buy a takeaway coffee in the shop and wait in their electric car, which is increasingly becoming a mobile entertainment centre with its large displays and internet access.’

And there is also the fact that due to developments in technology, charging electric cars will soon be as quick as filling up at a classic petrol pump, say the authors of the DLR study. At Aral, they are already working on this goal. ‘In the past year alone, over 500 new quick charging stations that can charge compatible electric cars with up to 350kW of green electricity have gone into operation’, says spokesperson Kelm. This is the equivalent of 350 kilometres of range in ten minutes. The total number of these ‘Aral pulse’ charging points has increased fivefold compared to last year.

But how can smaller petrol station operators manage the shift in drive systems? ‘The situation is a bit different for every location, which is why it is not possible to give generalised advice’, says BTG chair Jäckel. In principle, he says, it is good if operators of a petrol station business can combine their business with special niches to make them attractive to customers. Models with a kiosk or snack bar have proven successful in practice. ‘One operator in northern Germany, for example, has been very successful as a provider of equestrian products’, he adds. Above all, it is important not to let the current debate drive you crazy. ‘At the moment, all we are doing is merely talking about e-mobility.’ But CO2-neutral synthetic e-fuels might soon be back in the spotlight, says Jäckel, adding: ‘In which case, petrol stations will need to change less than previously thought.’

Stephan Zieger, CEO Bundesverband Freier Tankstellen e.V. (Federal Association of Independent Petrol Stations)

‘Independent petrol stations are generally open to the change in drive systems. As electromobility has a huge amount of support from politicians, traditional petrol stations also need to make the shift. However, the high levels of investment needed to convert from liquid fuel to electric charging stations are often insurmountable for small operators. When it comes to energy infrastructure in particular, we would like to see the public sector supporting operators in a more targeted way.’

Stephan Zieger, CEO Bundesverband Freier Tankstellen e.V. (Federal Association of Independent Petrol Stations)

Thomas Voigt, CEO of FLACO GmbH

‘CO2-neutral e-fuels will also make an important contribution to climate-neutral road transport in future. As an expert partner for AdBlue® refuelling concepts, we support petrol stations in this because today’s customers expect this kind of economic and convenient service. With diesel vehicles, leading car manufacturers rely on the injection of AdBlue® to reduce nitrogen oxides in the SCR catalytic converter. The tightening of standards for nitrogen emissions means that AdBlue® is increasingly being used in diesel cars. This will lead to a massive increase in consumption volumes and refilling processes.’

Thomas Voigt, CEO of FLACO GmbH

Prof. Meike Jipp, Director of the DLR Institute of Transport Research

‘Petrol stations will play an important role for autonomous fleet vehicles in future because they require services that can be offered as a package at petrol stations. In urban areas in particular, where there is less space than in rural areas, petrol stations could become service stations for autonomous fleets where vehicles can be serviced and charged.’

Prof. Meike Jipp, Director of the DLR Institute of Transport Researc

Alexander Junge, member of the board at Aral

‘We are pleased to be offering ultra-fast charging to an increasing number of customers. In our view, this is an important service for the mobility of the future. Surveys have shown that the issues of range and charging infrastructure are still used as arguments against buying an electric car. With our ultra-fast charging stations, vehicles can be charged in a matter of minutes, showing that drivers of electric cars no longer have to make sacrifices when it comes to charging speed and therefore convenience.’

Alexander Junge, member of the board at Aral and in charge of the electromobility division




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