EV Charging Vs. Rolling Gas Stations: Shell Spots An Opportunity

In a true story ripped from the pages of The Onion, Royal Dutch Shell is bringing all the convenience of EV charging to the gasoline-buying public. The company is pilot testing a fleet of rolling gas stations that will deliver fuel to wherever your car is. The idea is to mod out a tanker truck with pumps, and bring it to convenient spots like restaurants and shopping malls — and perhaps to gasmobile drivers who run out of gas on some lonely road miles from the nearest gas station.

No, really. It’s really real. Do the google yourself — Shell launched its “Shell TapUp” service in Rotterdam last year and is now launching a new pilot program for the service in Houston.

So, is this a super smart strategy to sell more gas in a shrinking market, or does it point to a deeper problem in the retail fuel industry?

Before we get into that, let’s clarify that we mean convenience in terms of the number and type of locations where you can juice up your car. EVs can be charged at individual homes, workplaces and many other locations where gas pumps just don’t fit.

Yes, There Is A Huge Problem

Actually, there is a problem. The retail fuel industry is eating itself. Here in the US, the gas station business has been consolidating since the number of stations peaked in the 1970s. More pumps are clustered in fewer locations, and driver convenience is suffering.

Part of the problem can be traced to consumer preference for gas stations with elaborate convenience stores, clean bathrooms, and plenty of room at the pumps.

Fuel deserts” are also becoming common in urban areas, where small scale neighborhood gas stations are giving way to more lucrative uses for valuable real estate.

CleanTechnica first took note of the shrinking retail gas trend — and the EV charging counter trend — back in 2013, when the Department of Energy launched a new EV charging initiative aimed at encouraging more workplace charging.

In 2016 the trade publication CSP News painted a gloomy picture for retail fuel stations on the national scale:

The number of fueling stations (including c-stores with fuel, traditional gas stations with kiosk-style stores or two-bay autocare facilities, hypermarkets, etc.) declined by 25% from 1994 to 2013 nationwide, plummeting from 202,800 to 152,995 sites, according to the now-defunct National Petroleum News Market Facts.

By c-stores they mean convenience stores, btw.

Last year our friends over at The Boston Globe raised the alarm:

The number of gas stations across the state has plummeted over the past decade, with an even sharper decline in Greater Boston, making a quick fill-up harder to find.

The city’s downtown area, in particular, has become somewhat of a gas station desert, forcing motorists to range farther afield to fill up their tanks.

Shell Has A Modest Proposal

Into this forbidding landscape steps Royal Dutch Shell. Here’s the plan, as described by The Houston Chronicle:

…Shell will pilot its new “Shell TapUp” app-based program in Houston where it will take fueling trucks to its customers to fill their tanks. The program started in the Netherlands and is now coming to the U.S.

Shell will start offering the service to its employees and to other businesses so vehicles are filled up in their company parking lots. Then, Shell aims to eventually expand to all customers so people can get fuel while they’re shopping at the grocery or dining at a restaurant.

That’s it!

EV Charging Vs. Rolling Fuel Trucks

So, is Shell TapUp fuel service a last gasp? It could certainly catch on in some markets, but there are at least two major drawbacks compared to EV charging stations: fleet maintenance costs and labor costs, as each truck would need a driver.

Unlike EV charging stations, Tap Up trucks would also be limited to outdoor locations, or locations with proper ventilation.

Parking availability would also be an issue for locations where space is limited. EVs can pull into a standard parking spot to charge up. In contrast, fuel trucks would take up valuable slots.

The Death Of The Gasmobile

Come to think of it, the real value of retail fuel delivery may be in building up Shell’s name recognition, enabling the company to populate more locations with Shell-branded trucks.

With the TapUp app, Shell can also hook up with gasmobile drivers before they take the EV plunge. The ultimate goal would be to grow brand loyalty for Shell’s EV charging business.

Just think about the possibilities and it all falls into place. Let’s say your gasmobile is running out of gas. You pull over, do a couple of clicks on your cell phone, and a cute little Shell TapUp truck comes to you in short order.

So, who are you going to trust for EV charging services when you ditch the gasmobile and get an electric vehicle?

That seems to be the idea. Shell rolled out TapUp as a way to digitize — or Amazon-ize — app based fuel delivery for consumer convenience, and its TapUp team already has the future in mind. Here’s the managing director of TapUp, Erik Miedema, with the big picture:

Miedema hopes to expand the pilot across the Netherlands and then to other countries. His team is already working on ways to provide a wider range of fuels like biofuels, hydrogen or electric in the future.

“We don’t intend to be a petrol site on wheels. We’re really trying to build a new energy infrastructure,” he says.

Just last summer Shell invested in the “stealth” startup Ample, as part of a deep dive into the EV charging market. Here’s the workup from Shell:

Shell is excited to launch our electric vehicle program that will advance adoption of electric vehicles in California through the deployment of EV charging infrastructure at commercial, retail, public and government locations as well as multi-unit residential dwellings.

Do tell!

Shell is supporting the transition to electric vehicles by looking at how EV charging can be successfully integrated to the power grid. We have developed a new EV smart charging service called Shell RechargePlus that allows the charging of vehicles to be shifted to times when it would be most beneficial for the power grid and that will provide cost advantages for customers.

Shell better act fast. Diversified energy companies like Enel are already establishing a firm EV foothold with charging-as-a-service products, and other legacy oil companies — BP, for example — are also getting into the EV charging game.

As for Shell’s bottom line interest in EV charging, if all goes according to plan RechargePlus will bring in the big bucks. Drivers subscribe to the service through the electric utility, and Shell gets a piece of the action with every charge.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to TapUp for some more details about the EV charging aspect of its future plans, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo (cropped): via Royal Dutch Shell.

 

Tina Casey

Tina writes frequently for CleanTechnica and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.