Electric cars are coming, and gas stations will have to adjust
Convenience retailers and gasoline stations now have a monopoly in gassing up cars. But that’s going to change with the growing sales of electric cars.
Chris Deephouse and Donna Hunt, married since 2003, enjoyed many pre-pandemic road trips from their Elkins Park home to such places as Washington, Rehoboth Beach, and Saratoga Springs.
Unlike most travelers, however, they found that a refueling stop at convenience stores was not on the itinerary. Since the couple drove their new 2019 Kia Niro EV off the lot, the road-trippers have noted that convenience stores may not be ready for the rising prominence of electric vehicles.
“Convenience stores — they’re the worst place” to charge, Hunt said. “Because, you’re usually in and out of them, and there’s no place to sit. And charging, if it’s a level 2 charger, it’s going to take three hours.”
Convenience stores still have time to catch up. Electric vehicles remain a niche market. But the push is on from automakers and the Biden administration to expand the U.S. automotive fleet further into electric power. Carmakers are planning to sell nearly 100 EV models by 2024. Volvo, for example, has vowed to sell only electric cars by 2030, while GM aims to eliminate gas and diesel vehicles five years after that. Several other automakers have made similar predictions.
The fuel-selling convenience store could someday become obsolete if it doesn’t keep pace with the fast-evolving tech transforming U.S. roadways.
“For convenience retailers, right now they have a monopoly in selling transportation energy,” said John Eichberger, executive director of the Fuels Institute, a nonprofit research arm funded by the National Association of Convenience Stores, or NACS. “If you want to move your vehicle, you have to go to a gas station. That’s going to change.”
As of January, there were 150,274 convenience stores nationwide, with 81% of them, or just more than 121,000, selling motor fuel, according to the NACS. The trade organization finds that convenience stores sell about 80% of the motor fuel purchased in the United States. According to the latest NACS data, convenience stores saw fuel sales tumble 26% last year to $292.6 billion, compared with 2019, as the pandemic kept motorists at home. Convenience stores tallied total sales of $548.2 billion.
Of the 4,698 convenience stores in Pennsylvania, 77%, or 3,613, sell fuel, the NACS said. New Jersey is home to 3,012 convenience stores, with 52%, or 1,552 selling fuel.
Eichberger said that motorists generally visit gas stations once or twice a week to refuel and that those transactions — pandemic aside — provide about two-thirds of the average convenience store’s sales and one-third of profits.
Convenience store operators are not the only ones who stand to lose if motorists skip the pump. For every gallon of gas sold at retail, consumers support industries that refine, transport and sell motor fuel and a mix of local, state, and federal taxes.
The electric vehicle could take away that business. The PlugShare app shows 284 charging locations roughly from Interstate 78 south to the Chesapeake, and from the Susquehanna east to the Jersey Shore. These stations are at car dealers, banks, the King of Prussia Mall, parking lots, and even health-care facilities.
» READ MORE: With $5,000 rebate and tax exemption, New Jersey poised to become electric vehicle leader (from January 2020)
Charging time is critical
Deephouse and Hunt, however, use a 32-amp charger in their home, which takes about five hours to add 140 miles of range — basically from “empty” to “full tank.” Since the pandemic, the retired couple, in their 60s, have done all their charging at home.
That five-hour wait is among the reasons convenience stores may hesitate to get into the EV charging business, at least for now. Charging is not nearly as simple as filling up a gas tank.
Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer for the Los Angeles-based, fast-charging network EVgo, explained that chargers can provide different kilowatts, and electric cars accept different kilowatt charges.
A 50-kilowatt charger can add 90 miles of range in 30 minutes, while a 100-kilowatt charger adds more than 100 miles of range in 15 minutes. Different EV models are limited to certain charging rates, which have been rising as electric vehicles technology quickly advances.
“EVgo is the first network to put out a 350 [kilowatt] charger even though none of the cars today take a 350 kw charge,” Levy said. “The [Porsche] Taycan is the fastest at 270; it takes it for a little bit and then tapers.
“Right now if you plugged in most cars to a 350 or a 50 kw, it doesn’t make that big of a difference yet but it will.”
The quick charging speeds mentioned by Levy are DC Fast, or level 3, chargers. Some commercial chargers and almost all home chargers are slower level 2, which run on 240 volts — similar to a home dryer or range. Level 1 chargers simply plug into standard outlets around the home or garage. They can take 20 hours or more to fully charge an electric vehicle, and are more useful for plug-in hybrid vehicles.
‘The whole fueling model changes’
As for price, that varies, as well. Among commercial fast chargers, Levy said, EVgo’s average session today runs about $8.20; rates are 30 cents a minute in Pennsylvania and 35 cents in New Jersey. Some charging locations also add on their own fees. Home charging rates are based on the retail cost of electricity.
Finding chargers is almost as easy as looking for a “gasoline” sign along the highway. Motorists use such apps as PlugShare, PlugIn America and ChargeHub to locate chargers. Charging companies such as EVgo and ChargePoint also provide locator maps with their own apps; Tesla provides its own proprietary chargers and a locator app.
Charging companies contract with a wider variety of locations — grocery stores, malls, hotels, workplaces, parking garages — generally places where people can pass the time waiting for a quick charge, said Bill Loewenthal, senior vice president for product with northern California-based ChargePoint. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, as of February there are 40,759 public charging stations nationwide representing 98,886 charging outlets.
“The whole fueling model changes. We’ve been trained for 50 years that we drive somewhere to fuel,” Loewenthal said. With electric vehicles, “you onboard fuel while you’re parking.”
But that doesn’t mean that charging companies and convenience stores aren’t forming partnerships. ChargePoint, a publicly traded company with more than 850 employees, was founded in 2008 and now has more than 110,000 chargers in the U.S., Canada and Europe. Loewenthal said ChargePoint has installed chargers throughout Southern California 7-11 stores and in IGA convenience stores in Canada.
And one small convenience store firm in southern Chester County is among ChargePoint’s hosts, as well.
Kennett Square-based Landhope Farms has had a pair of charging stations at two of its three locations in southwestern Chester County since October, and it plans to have them in a fourth location in Cochranville.
Landhope Farms doesn’t charge for the privilege — drivers pay just the ChargePoint fees.
Gerard DiBona, corporate operations project manager for Landhope, said the company is well-positioned for an EV future, with spacious parking lots. DiBona said ChargePoint helped the store secure state funding. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection provides money to government offices, businesses, and nonprofits to help install chargers in public spaces, workplaces, and multi-unit residential buildings.
The Landhope chargers have seen little use. Data show that the chargers have had three unique customers and about 50 charging sessions since installation in October. But that could change.
“As the development of the electric car starts to progress and things start to move along, we expect to see more use of them,” DiBona said. “We positioned them in that area [of the parking lot] in the event that things do pick up, we can actually build additional stations.”
Lisa Dell’Alba runs Square One, a Bethlehem-based chain of seven convenience stores in the Lehigh Valley, Poconos and Berks County. With smaller footprints for her stores, Dell’Alba said she considered installing chargers while the company was upgrading for chip card readers, but ultimately decided against cutting into pump space. The $30,000 fee to install the chargers also made it seem premature, she said.
“It just didn’t seem like the right moment,” said Dell’Alba, who also serves as vice chair of member services for the NACS board of directors.
Dell’Alba said Square One needs to consider what customers will do while they recharge their cars. “As a small company, we don’t have as compelling a stay-and-eat food service offering as some of my larger competitors do,” Dell’Alba said.
With more and more automakers vowing to produce electric vehicles and the Biden administration pushing to ramp up the placement of chargers, the EV future is clearly on the horizon.
But that moment, just as clearly, has not yet arrived. Automotive sector watcher edmunds.com released a January study reporting that although the industry is poised to have its strongest sales ever of fully electric vehicles this year, the segment will make up just 2.5% of total sales, up from 1.9% last year.
The convenience store industry figures the fledgling EV sales trend buys it time.
Eichberger said that even if 60% of vehicles sold in 2040 were electric, gasoline-powered cars would likely still make up the majority of cars on the road.
“It’s going to take a very long time to turn over the market,” he said.