The framing problem in adding EV charging to existing fuel stations

Both Indian Oil and Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) have announced, in the first week of November 2021, their intent to add electric vehicle charging stations in their existing fuel stations.

Bharat Petroleum intends to add EV charging stations at 7,000 of its existing fuel stations while Indian Oil intends to add them at 10,000 of its fuel stations that currently offer petrol and diesel. Both have mentioned that this is plan will be a new business opportunity as well as a hedge against the risk of displacement of fossil fuels.

On paper, this is a fantastic idea to help existing fuel stations transition to electric charging. But, there are quite a few intricacies that may need a closer look.

1. Charging times

This is the most obvious point to note. On average, a car or a two-wheeler needs about 5 minutes (maximum) in and out to fill either petrol or diesel. This is applicable for CNG refuelling too. But EV charging is a completely different segment.

There are a lot of parameters when it comes to EV charging. On average, a typical electric car with a 60kWh battery takes about 8 hours to charge fully with a 7kW charging point. With a 50kW rapid charger, it could add a range of about 150 kilometers with a charge of about 30 minutes.

Most of us have already experienced battery charge waiting times with our mobile phones at public places (like airports). When we keep our phones for charging, we take a seat nearby (understandably) and do something else to spend the time. Or, as many others do, we talk/use the phone by placing ourselves as close to the charging station as possible 🙂 The crux is this: electric charging takes time. It is not an under-5-minute job that can be quickly done away with.

The infrastructure in most Bharat Petroleum and Indian Oil fuel outlets is suited to serve fossil fuel delivery. This means that they are built for an in-and-out movement, in terms of design. They are not designed for a 30-minute wait time that includes space for physically parking the car and leaving it on charge for that duration.

So the plan of adding EV charging needs to incorporate a completely different approach – one that needs to add physical space for cars to be parked and for the people in the car to do while they wait. If an existing fuel station is located in a busy area that is near shopping malls and restaurants, that solves the waiting time problem, but it still needs to address the physical space constraint.

On highways, this presents an excellent opportunity, however. For instance, in our Bengaluru-to-Coimbatore drives, we love stopping at the Bharat Petroleum outlet in Chinnar on National Highway 44 (Dharmapuri-Bengaluru road). However, that’s the wrong framing – we love stopping at the A2B outlet near the Bharat Petroleum outlet and time it in a way that we have breakfast there after spending 5 minutes to fill fuel. We park at the larger parking space offered outside A2B. Our magnet is the food, not refuelling.

A simple tweak could solve multiple problems – convert the A2B parking lot into a charging station operated by Bharat Petroleum. In fact, the world over, there is more interest in converting parking areas into charging stations than adding EV charging to existing fossil fuel filling stations.

Obviously, this will pose a problem for BPCL and IOCL outlets in crowded areas within the city. Another way to approach this problem is to look at battery swapping as an option instead of battery charging. But this depends on the kinds of vehicles that allow for battery swapping – for example, Ola’s famed electric scooter does not allow for battery swapping.

For context, here’s how public charging stations at parking spaces work in Norway, where 69% of all cars sold in 2020 were electric! Norway also has 9% of all charging stations in Europe, despite making up only 0.7% of the total population of Europe.

2. Safety

This is a lesser-addressed concern but is crucial as well.

You may have already seen signboards in most petrol stations that we are not supposed to use our mobile phones while filling fuel. The logic is simple – a fuel station deals with highly flammable liquid fuel. Batteries are containers that store energy and need electricity as input. Placing them side-by-side, in the same complex, presents a danger that is magnified because of the sheer number of people who may be charging both kinds of vehicles at the same time in the same spot.

3. Power requirement

An average fuel station by IOCL or BPCL, right now, barely has any specialized need for a high power connection. They run the standard electrical equipment and hence would be using a standard power connection. But when they morph into charging stations, they need a completely different power connection. This could, obviously, be a part of the infrastructure upgrade that both BPCL and IOCL are referring to. But the infrastructure changes needed to offer petrol refuelling to more vehicles is vastly different from what is required to offer EV charging to more vehicles, in every conceivable way.

While BPCL and IOCL do need to find a way to convert their existing fuel station business to take advantage of the EV shift (impending, and inevitable) and avoid becoming obsolete, looking at the challenge from their existing network of fuel stations may not be the best framing of the problem.

Instead, they could focus on places near their existing fuel stations that allow for the parking of vehicles in large numbers. Such parking lots could be converted into charging stations under the BPCL or IOCL brand names using infrastructure initiated and managed by them, with a revenue-share function managed between them and the owners of the parking spaces.

There is historical evidence that talking about new technology in the language of the existing problems it solves is both useful and productive to help convince more people. The most famous example is the term ‘horse power’ invented by James Watt, who did not invent the steam engine. Here’s that fantastic story as an excerpt from the book ‘Creative Blindness’ by Dave Trott.

The other famous example is that of Steve Jobs, who famously explained the iPod’s potential in terms of the number of songs it could hold so that we could compare that with our existing technology, at that point, and feel amazed (and buy the device).

To some extent, we are already using fossil fuel terms to explain and understand EV technology. For instance, we equate ‘mileage’ to ‘range’ because both explain the distance a vehicle could move after a full fill/charge. The approach to aid existing fuel stations to also offer EV charging is on those lines – viewing the EV world through the lens of the petrol and diesel vehicles ecosystem. But this is not the zone that deserves such a simplistic connection – the charging infrastructure demands a completely different thought process.



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