Electric vehicle charging has become one of the central talking points in the convenience and fueling industries over the past few years, as retailers face pressure to install charging ports and the threat of fuel depreciating in value looms.
Many retailers have concerns about profitability, consumer adoption and infrastructure of EVs, while others don’t even know where to begin regarding the installation and maintenance of charging stations in their forecourts.
C-Store Dive spoke with convenience and fuel operators at different stages of their EV charging journeys about how their experiences with electrification have gone so far. Those interviewed were Eunice Bridges, senior advisor, external communications for Phillips 66; Erica Komoroske, director of public affairs for Stewart’s Shops; and Chris Barnes, director of communications for Alimentation Couche-Tard. The interview also features insight from Greg Parker, CEO of Parker’s Kitchens, from the most recent roundtable discussion from Convenience Leaders Vision Group.
The retailers discussed how often customers use their charging stations, the type of maintenance the chargers require, lessons learned, challenges tackled and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C-STORE DIVE: Have the charging stations been profitable up until this point?
PHILLIPS 66: It is meeting our modeled expectations.
STEWART’S: [Our] chargers are subsidized by Tesla and the New York Power Authority; we are a community partner.
PARKER’S (via CLVG roundtable): We were paying Tesla a dollar for everybody that used our charger… So when we were talking to [Tesla], negotiating for the next stores…We were able to get those costs down. We’ve got 50 cents in one store, and now we’re at zero.
How often have you noticed customers using your chargers since the rollout? Has it been a slow process, or were customers engaged from the start?
PHILLIPS 66: When we rolled out the pilot in the U.S., we noticed a period of adoption where customers might not have realized we had commissioned new chargers, and then a noticeable uptick thereafter.
STEWART’S: In most locations, we only see a few charges per day. But in our busiest location, we see up to 40 charges per day.
COUCHE-TARD: As we roll these sites out, we’re seeing engaged customers who are pleased with our integrated offer. We’re providing them fast charging services at attractive locations on routes where customers are traveling and commuting, and where they can enjoy our in-store experience as they charge their cars. And we continue to look at ways to further enhance that customer journey.
What sort of maintenance or modifications to your forecourt did installing charging stations require?
PHILLIPS 66: The two FreeWire Boost 150 chargers that we deployed at our flagship station in Houston required minimal construction work and were connected into the existing utility panel, making it a relatively pain-free process. This experience differs by site and equipment type, for sure.
STEWART'S: All of our shops are EV-ready. Being a strategic company, we place chargers in market areas they best fit. There are roadblocks with infrastructure, demand charge, range anxiety, etc.
COUCHE-TARD: Introducing and maintaining EV charging at our stations often entails increasing the electric capacity of the site, which requires coordination with local providers and utilities, and our chargers are set up on separate meters.
What sort of upkeep requirements come with having charging stations on site? What do you do when/if they need fixing?
PHILLIPS 66: Daily upkeep generally doesn’t differ from normal c-store processes for keeping fuel islands clean and clear of obstructions. Every original equipment manufacturer is going to have standards for regular maintenance, and we currently receive this as part of our service agreement with the charger manufacturer.
No extra staff has been required for the chargers, and our customer support is provided through a third party, including all consumer support and handoff to escalated tech support. Some issues will occasionally require a tech to come onsite.
STEWART'S: We don’t do the maintenance on these EV chargers — that is up to New York Power Authority and Tesla. We are only the landlords to the EV chargers.
COUCHE-TARD: Maintenance and repairs aren’t very different from our fuel equipment, and our longstanding experience sets us apart from other providers in keeping EV chargers online and reliable. We monitor uptime centrally, and if repairs are needed, we try to fix remotely before dispatching a crew. Meanwhile, all stores receive training on supporting customers with the most common issues.
Can you provide a timeline of when you plan to roll out more charging stations across your store network?
PHILLIPS 66: We rolled out the pilot in the U.S. in October but also have experience with EV charging stations in Europe. We have multiple sites in various stages of development in the U.S. and are working to progress them.
STEWART'S: We will continue to add EV charging stations where and when it makes sense. We can’t disclose anything definitive until contracts are in place.
COUCHE-TARD: In Europe we have close to 1,400 fast chargers across 300 locations, and we are able to bring this experience to the U.S. while adapting it to local needs. We’re beginning to build our EV charging network in North America, expect to have 40 sites active in the U.S. and Canada before the summer and are aiming to have 200 sites next year.
What would you say are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far in this process when it comes to EV charging?
PHILLIPS 66: I think it’s difficult to generate too many lessons learned from a single installation. There haven’t been any major surprises or significant issues that could not be remedied in a reasonable timeframe.
STEWART'S: Two words: demand charge. When EVs plug in, the demand for electricity spikes, and the cost of all electricity a business uses spikes. This can dramatically increase a location’s power bill for the month while only charging a few EVs. The current costing structure penalizes charging providers for EV customers to charge during business hours when they need it the most.
COUCHE-TARD: The competitive landscape is different for EVs than it is for traditional fueling. We’re competing for share of charging occasions not only with other traditional fuel retailers but also private businesses and property management companies who install charging capacity on their premises as well as with our customers’ home chargers.
But we and other fuel retailers already occupy sites where drivers want to fill up, and the opportunity for customers to grab a drink or snack, refresh and recharge themselves while charging their vehicles gives us a clear advantage.
So, we take a disciplined approach to site selection that accounts for local and regional EV market penetration, local infrastructure and the room and ability to scale on the forecourt to accommodate increased capacity over time.
If I owned a c-store chain and was considering putting EV chargers in my forecourt, what would be some things I should consider before getting started?
PHILLIPS 66: I think every site owner needs to decide if they really want to be in the charging business, or if they simply want to generate some passive income by leasing space to a third-party charge point operator and generating some incremental foot traffic in their store. There are lots of business models to consider, and there is still time to test and learn before finalizing your ultimate business strategy.
STEWART'S: Is there enough grid infrastructure to handle the energy demand? Does this location help EV drivers with range anxiety?
PARKER’S (via CLVG roundtable): My advice would be something like wait and see where things fall out. I don’t think that this is a great opportunity for the smaller operators right now. I think other people need to figure this out and see if we can make this work and then figure that out. I think I would be a slow adopter if I was a small operator.
What would be something you’d warn me of when it comes to EV charging?
STEWART'S: EV networks don’t make sense everywhere. Grid infrastructure is key, [but] can the grid handle the demand?
PHILLIPS 66: If you decide you truly want to bring EV charging to your property, resist the urge to install those chargers at the least desirable location. You are likely to undermine much of the benefits you hope to gain. C-store owners are well-positioned to leverage the great things they already offer consumers today and to retain those consumers as they transition to electric vehicles — if they feel they are treated right.