Houston, a city with deep ties to the petroleum industry, is embracing an electric future by rolling out a $10 million EV charging network that could put everyone within five miles of a charging station.
The privately funded system, dubbed evGo, being developed by NRG Energy will provide home-charging equipment and public charging stations to subscribers throughout Harris County, Texas. Subscribers will pay as little as $49 for unlimited access and the ability to “fill up” in as little as 30 minutes.
The announcement comes as automakers, led by General Motors and Nissan, start bringing cars with cords to market. One of the biggest challenges to the mass adoption of electric vehicles is their relatively limited range and the question of where we’ll charge them when we aren’t home.
NRG, the second-largest power generator in Texas, joins startups like Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality in answering that riddle by selling access to a charging network. The goal, said CEO David Crane, is to “make the electric vehicle more convenient and practical to own.”
“One of the huge advantages the electric vehicle has over other alternative energy vehicles, such as hydrogen or compressed natural gas, is that the infrastructure for electric-car fueling already exists.” he said. “It’s called the home electrical system. The service station of the future is your garage and all we need to do to extend that to the transportation system is the last three feet of extension cord in your garage. We’re here to get after it.”
Subscribers will pay a flat fee of $49 to $89 a month for unlimited access and all the juice they need. The fee, which would be added to the customer’s monthly utility bill, includes a 220-volt “Level 2″ home-charging station with a dedicated smart meter. Such a station, which uses the same voltage as a dryer, can charge a typical EV in six to eight hours. NRG expects customers will charge primarily at home, but they will can plug in at any public station at any time.
NRG plans to install between 50 and 150 public charging stations throughout the Houston metropolitan area by the end of 2011. They will be located in shopping centers, supermarkets and business districts along the city’s vast web of freeways. They’ll also be available in some apartment complexes, condo communities and the like.
Those stations will include both Level 2 and Level 3, or so-called DC quick-chargers, that can have a dead battery ready to roll in as little as 25 minutes. Crane said access to a charging network will “significantly close the decision gap” between buying an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid and a conventional automobile by replacing range anxiety with “range confidence.”
Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, with a population of more than 2.2 million people. NRG hopes to eventually blanket the region with enough charging stations to put everyone within five miles of one. Crane said he is confident the system will have 1,000 subscribers by the end of next year, then grow “at warp speed” as the number of EVs on the market grows. “2011 is a year of transition,” he said. “By the end of 2011, there could be 12 to 15 models on the market.”
That’s a bit optimistic, but several automakers have promised to have electrics on the road by the end of 2012. There is no doubt the cars are coming, and EV advocates applauded NRG’s plan even as they expressed some reservations.
“I see it, overall, as a good thing,” said Paul Scott, a founder of the advocacy group Plug In America. “Anything that encourages the adoption of the EV is a good thing.”
But Scott and others expressed concern at the flat fee, “all you can eat” approach to NRG’s plan because it does little to encourage people to plug in at off-peak periods. There is concern that having everyone plug in during peak times could strain the grid. It would be better, Scott said, if NRG encouraged people to charge up at night, when utilities have excess capacity.
EV advocates also expressed reservations that NRG is proposing a walled garden where only subscribers can access the public stations. Other companies, like Coulomb Technologies, allow “point of purchase” access where anyone can plug in by simply swiping a credit card or calling an 800 number. NRG said it is exploring point-of-purchase sales but said the system will be available only to subscribers when it launches next year.
Those concerns aside, the breadth of the proposal and the list of companies backing NRG impressed some in the EV community. Aerovironment and General Electric have signed on to provide charging-station hardware and smart meters. Best Buy, Walgreens and the H-E-B supermarket chain will install public stations. Direct Energy, Green Mountain Energy, Reliant Energy and TXU Energy will provide the electricity. Nissan and Smart are among the automakers supporting NRG, as well.
“We think is a very good program that is unique in the country,” said Keiichi Kitahara, senior manager of corporate planning at Nissan. “We’re supporting a lot of government-backed projects, but this is the first privately funded project. We think we’ll see more of this.”
The Department of Energy has invested more than $140 million to develop EV infrastructure with partners like Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality. NRG is footing the bill for evGo itself, and Kitahara said private investment will be the fastest way to build infrastructure.
“Government money can kick off the infrastructure, but unless there is a business case for it and the possibility to make it profitable, it’s not going to take off,” he said. “If they prove this model will work in Houston and the rest of Texas, it’s something that NRG or anyone else could replicate elsewhere.”
Crane said NRG decided to start in Houston, in part because it has a deregulated electricity market. He was quick to add the model could be adapted to suit “less deregulated markets” with municipal utilities. NRG already is in discussions with utilities in San Antonio and Austin, and bringing its model to a regulated electricity market is “not at all insurmountable.”
Photo illustrations: NRG Energy