As health concerns, pollution and the energy transition spell the decline of gas stations, mobile fueling offers a more sustainable alternative
For decades, gas station infrastructure has held a prominent role in the life of the American consumer. In our notoriously car-dependent nation, the gas station errand is as common as hitting the grocery store. But with the push for sustainability and a greater understanding of the transportation sector’s behemoth contributions to overall United States emissions, the gas station’s role as a community fixture is crumbling.
Between 1991 and 2022, the number of gas stations in the U.S. shrunk by almost half – from about 210,000 to about 145,000. Now, a recent report from BCG estimates that by 2030, up to 80 percent of the fuel-retail network as we currently know it will be unprofitable.
The energy transition, decarbonization efforts, electric vehicle (EV) adoption, and growing recognition of the public health hazard posed by gas stations are all converging to spell the inevitable decline of traditional fueling infrastructure. But the demand for fuel isn’t going anywhere; at least not anytime soon. What comes next as gas stations phase out? Mobile fueling on demand (MFOD) may be a solution.
The Problem: Gas Stations are Harmful to Public and Environmental Health
Gas stations are responsible for significant pollution from spills at the pump or leaky underground storage tanks (USTs), which release toxic substances into soil, nearby waterways and the air. According to the Environmental Law Institute, a typical gas station dispensing one million gallons per year would see annual spillage of 70 to 100 gallons. According to the EPA, “the greatest potential threat from a leaking UST is contamination of groundwater, the source of drinking water for nearly half of all Americans.” As of March 2020, the U.S. confirmed 557,655 UST leaks nationwide.
Gas stations also emit the the carcinogen benzene, in addition to other toxic substances including toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which carry significant health risks including effects to the nervous system, cognitive impairment, eye and throat irritation, dizziness, hearing and kidney damage, impaired memory and more.
The Solution: Mobile Fueling
Despite the risks associated with gas stations, they’ve endured so long for good reason; the backbone of American transportation relies on gasoline and diesel infrastructure to move people and goods. But they don’t necessarily need gas stations to get it.
Eventually, the transition to EVs will progress and eliminate traditional fueling infrastructure in favor of a model that better fits the time commitment taken by electric charging. But we aren’t there yet. For now, many vehicle owners — from fleet owners and operators to individual consumers — are unable to make the capital investment needed to embrace electrification. On top of that, the EV market has a ways to go. For one, there is an issue with supply and demand, particularly given the shortages in batteries and the impending copper shortage. There also are barriers to medium- and heavy-duty fleet electrification and deepset challenges to expanding wide-scale charging infrastructure, from a lack of charging standards to the need for a smarter, more modernized grid that can enable the bidirectional flow of energy.
A bridge option — which happens to require no significant investment on the part of the vehicle owner — is to embrace mobile fueling. Primarily available to fleets at this time, MFOD offers both traditional fuels and sustainable alternatives without the need for gas station infrastructure.
In the MFOD model, fuel can be ordered via an app, website or phone call, and a fuel tanker arrives to the area where the vehicle or fleet is located to fill the tanks on-site. The tanker goes straight from terminal to vehicle, reducing spillage, need for USTs, and toxic emissions or pollution associated with traditional fixed gas station infrastructure.
Beyond the benefits of diminishing reliance on gas stations, MFOD can also contribute to the larger sustainability and decarbonization movements by expanding access to sustainable fuels and lowering overall emissions associated with fueling. Depending on the fuel stock, biofuels can help to reduce GHG emissions by 40% to 108% across the lifecycle of use, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University.
Gas stations rarely offer sustainable fuels: only 830 gas stations out of 145,000 (fewer than 1%) in the U.S. carry biodiesel, for example, partly due to low demand and partly due to costs associated with developing new or upgraded pumps and USTs. MFOD can easily offer sustainable alternative fuels without the need for new or upgraded infrastructure. By creating greater access to alternative options, MFOD can help bring the sustainable fuel market to scale and bring down costs, further generating adoption and demand for the cleaner option.
MFOD also reduces emissions by combining gas station trips by multiple vehicles into one trip by the fuel tanker. This helps to reduce tailpipe emissions and extra fuel consumption. Overall, MFOD can reduce fleet emissions by up to 14%. In fact, the Johns Hopkins University study found that in California’s Bay Area alone, mobile fueling has the potential to decrease annual carbon dioxide emissions from 97 metric tons — the average amount produced by a typical gas station — to 76 metric tons.
None of this is to say we should start ripping down gas stations left and right. Gas station infrastructure still offers a key commodity to American consumers; most Americans need gasoline or diesel to power their vehicles. The transition away will take time.
In the near-term, MFOD can be used to mitigate the pollution associated with gas stations, expand access to sustainable fuels and lower emissions for fleets. As the energy transition continues and internal combustion engine vehicles are phased out in favor of EVs, MFOD will be helpful in offering traditional fuels to lower income consumers who may lack the financial ability to transition to electric, and by offering low- and zero-emission fuels to alternative technology vehicles, like hydrogen fuel cell EVs.
Given the negative health and environmental outcomes associated with gas stations, their decline may be a welcome change, especially for communities directly impacted by gas station pollution. With careful investment and prioritization of community health, we can continue the transition away from gas stations and toward healthier, more efficient alternatives. In this effort, MFOD offers a solution to bridge the gap to large-scale electrification and even beyond, when a diverse fuel supply enables the net-zero transportation economy we currently strive for.