Currently reading: What happens to petrol stations when every car is electric?
The rise of EVs is causing demand for petrol and diesel to drop - we ask how small, rural businesses are adapting

Just over 100 years ago, the UK’s first petrol station opened in Berkshire, much to the joy of many motorists at the time.

It was in Aldermaston, Berkshire, and was owned by the AA. Motorists liked the convenience of having fuel pumped into their cars so much that by 1923, just four years after that first station opened, there were 7000 pumps in operation. 

Fast forward to today and that Aldermaston filling station is now just a lay-by. With the market transitioning to electric cars, are more filling stations likely to follow suit and disappear?

Platts Garage, in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, and barely 20 miles from Aldermaston, was one of the first garages to pump fuel, and they’re still doing so. Platts does it the old-fashioned way, too, by an attendant.

Customers drive onto the small forecourt to the side of the new car showroom (Platts is also a Ford dealer) and from a side door an assistant pops out to ask which fuel and how much of it they would like. Tank replenished, the customer pays from the comfort of their car seat before driving off. It should be popular, and indeed it is – or at least it was, until Marlow’s citizens began buying electric cars.

“I’ve noticed a decline in pump sales because of EVs,” says Tim Platt, managing director of Platts and grandson of the garage’s founder. “Demand for diesel fuel in particular fell overnight as customers who used to buy it for their Range Rovers and other SUVs changed them for Audi Q8 E-trons and suchlike.”

Despite this, Platt says he will continue to sell fuel. It’s not his only business (there’s the workshop as well as the showroom) and he doesn’t have the large overheads of a stand-alone filling station – but there’s another reason.

In his other role as a Ford salesman, Platt speaks to customers who own EVs, some of them Mustang Mach-Es that they bought from him. “Many of them say to me: ‘Don’t sell me another electric car. It’s great for commuting and for local journeys, but for long drives charging is too uncertain and takes too long. I’m going back to petrol.’”

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Assuming that enough EV drivers feel the same way, Platt is confident about his pump sales holding up, at least for the next 15 years or so.

His optimism, at least for the short to medium term, is shared by the boss of one of the UK’s biggest independent filling station groups.

“By 2030, the car market could be about 20% EV, which means there will still be a huge demand for fossil fuel,” says William Bannister, CEO of MFG, which owns more than 900 sites. However, by 2035, he expects EVs to represent 60% of the market, and the figure will be rising.

That’s why he’s already beginning the job of adapting MFG sites to offer rapid charging beside fuel, with the potential for the former to replace the latter as demand increases.

“We’re spending £400 million in the next few years to deliver this dual-fuel strategy,” says Bannister. “We’ve looked at 700 of our sites that we know can take dual fuel straight away, with 250 of them awaiting ‘energisation’. Our strategy is to do hubs: multiple, well-maintained chargers with good uptime – typically over 98% working – and which are safe and well lit.”

With a charging hub costing around £1m, many independents, unable to afford such an investment, will close. Still, like pubs, filling stations have been shutting up shop for a long time. In 1979, there were 40,000 filling stations, but that same year Tesco started selling fuel. Other supermarkets followed, and by the early 2000s around 400 independent and rural filling stations were leaving the industry every year.

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Today, there are just 8400 filling stations, including around 1000 small independents – what the industry calls white-pole stations – in rural areas. BP reckons there’s still a 25% contraction to come.

You’d think their proximity to the stores would protect the supermarket filling stations, but even they are feeling the squeeze as the discounters increase their market share. In fact, MFG is in talks to buy Morrisons forecourts and establish more EV charging hubs as the supermarket seeks to raise cash and pay off debts.

The pace of change is taking even the experts by surprise. “Just a few years ago, who would have known the indies would be buying supermarket sites or that Covid would [make] demand for fuel fall as more people worked from home?” asks Petrol Retailers Association executive director Gordon Balmer.

“One of the biggest changes has been in shopping habits. For example, more frequent, top-up shops have replaced the big Saturday-morning shop for a lot of people. This is affecting supermarket sales but is an opportunity for filling stations.”

Anyone who has sat waiting on a forecourt for the driver of the car in front to do their shopping before paying for their fuel knows how that ‘opportunity’ feels.

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“Twenty years ago, every street had an off-licence, but many have gone, and now we have them on forecourts,” says Bannister. “So now we’re the local off-licence – and the local Costa or Starbucks, and even the dry cleaners.”

As EV take-up grows, drivers can expect more of this diversification. And all the more so with people being able to recharge their EV at home, at their destination or at other locations: filling stations will no longer provide all the miles.

“Already, for some of our members, 50% of their revenue is non-fuel,” says Balmer. “We might one day change our name to the Roadside Retail Association to reflect the changes ahead.”

What the future holds for Shell

We speak to Bernadette Williamson, general manager, Mobility UK, at Shell, who shares with us the oil giant’s plans for the future.

How will Shell’s fuel stations change?

“By the end of this year, we aim to have more than 700 fast and ultrafast charge points, but globally, by 2030, 200,000 charge points. Meanwhile, we will continue to offer traditional fuels, so by the end of 2023 we will have around 15 hybrid hubs with all of our energy and retail services on one site.”

What will the customer experience be like? 

“Our site in Shenzhen, China, serves more than 3300 EVs daily and offers a range of services including a Shell Café, vending machines and a drivers’ lounge. In the UK, our Fulham EV-only hub offers a seating area, a Costa Coffee store and a Little Waitrose for waiting EV drivers.”

How will demands for electric power and petrol and diesel fuel change as we approach 2035? 

“Electric vehicle charging and alternative fuels are a rapidly growing part of our business, but petrol and diesel vehicles will still be driven for years to come.”

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Rik 31 December 2023
I think the same thing will happen as when petrol stations stopped selling 4 star, they will adapt and sell the fuels that motorists need, whether that be unleaded, diesel, electric, or whatever else comes along.

Personally, I don't think electric cars taking hours to charge will be a permanent issue as technology will advance.

artill 7 December 2023

We can still buy ICE until 2035. Even if these are hybrids, we are still going to need fuel until at least 2050. HGVs dont yet have a cut off date, so i would expect truck stops to be selling diesel well after 2050. There will probably be less filling stations, and the cost per litre will probably go up as they sell less fuel, but i dont think anything will happen quickly. Today the vast majority of cars bought new use petrol as their primary fuel. Anyone who thinks that petrol is going to be difficult to find in the near futue is in for a surprise. 

I actually think we are going to see the sales of EVs slow. Currently its driven by the fleet market, and whilst the tax breaks remain, i am sure that will continue, but i aslo think that most private buyers who want an EV now have one. I think its going to be hard to persuade those without off street parking they want one any time soon, and they will still drive ICE, and still need to buy petrol or diesel at a filling station for many years to come.

Chris C 7 December 2023

With synfuels and demand from trucks, etc, that may still require diesel due to the lack of viable and practical long distance EV technology, also classic cars where owners do not want to do EV conversions, the sale of liquid fuels may continue for longer than predicted. Traditional petroleum companies may find that their retail infrastructure/forecourt spaces do not suit vehicles where it is necessary to charge over a period of time while the driver goes shopping, etc, leaving them open to competition from coffee shop chains, supermarkets, etc.