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photo: eVgo

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Houston, we have an opportunity.

The nation’s oil capital is making a bid to become the first city to deploy an electric car infrastructure. NRG Energy, a power provider, announced Thursday that it will finance the installation of personal and public charging stations throughout an auto-dependent metropolis synonymous with sprawl.

“The service station of the future is your garage,” David Crane, NRG’s chief executive, said on a conference call Thursday morning. “It’s our strongly held view that if given a choice, Americans want to make a difference. They want to make a difference with respect to the environment and with respect to national security.”

Called eVgo, the $10 million network will feature 220-240 volt Level 2 chargers for Houstonians’ garages that will charge electric cars like the Nissan Leaf overnight.

“Freedom Stations” and “Convenience Stations” will be dispersed around the city and offer Level 2 charging as well as fast-charging that lets drivers top off their batteries in about 10 minutes to get a 30-mile boost.

NRG, working with electric infrastructure company AeroVironment and General Electric, plans to install 50 Freedom Stations by the middle of next year, building them at shopping centers and along freeways in a 25-mile radius from downtown Houston.

Charging posts will be installed at Walgreens drugstores, at Best Buy outlets, and at H-E-B, a chain of Texas supermarkets.

“Our goal is that anywhere in Harris County, Texas, you’ll be within five miles of a charger,” said Crane, who added that NRG’s plan was to eventually deploy around 100 Level 2 and fast-charging stations.

EVgo will offer three-year contracts with monthly subscription packages ranging from $49 to $89. For $49, drivers get a home charger. The more expensive subscriptions offer home chargers and unlimited access to the entire charging network.

Crane said Houston’s suburban sprawl and maze of highways actually makes the city more suitable for an electric car infrastructure than greener-than-thou West Coast cities.

“The advantage a city like Houston has over places like San Francisco and New York City is that the great majority of people have garages,” he noted. “And people understand energy down here.”

He said the goal is to sign up 1,000 eVgo customers during the project’s first year.

Four electricity providers have joined the eVgo coalition, including TXU Energy and Reliant Energy (which is owned by NRG).

While NRG operates fossil fuel-fired power plants, it has also made investments in renewable energy, including taking a $300 million equity stake in BrightSource Energy’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah solar project, now under construction in the Southern California Desert. NRG also has a joint venture with solar power plant developer eSolar to build solar farms in the desert Southwest.

Still, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked Crane, “Why are you starting this in Houston? Are you taunting the oil industry?”

Crane chuckled and then said, “Let me state for the record we’re not taunting the oil industry.”

But making a buck at Big Oil’s expense is another matter.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The landscape of Silicon Valley is littered with technology pioneers who were a little too ahead of their time and failed to cash in, either because the market wasn’t ready or because competitors swooped in and commercialized their breakthroughs.

As the first mass-market electric cars hit showrooms, the question is whether Think, the Norwegian electric automaker, has now been early to the party twice.

Back in the late 1990s, Ford acquired a majority share of Think, invested $100 million, and produced a two-seater urban runabout called the City. The car was sold in Norway and was a familiar sight on San Francisco Bay Area streets at the turn of the century, where it was leased to residents as part of a pilot project that allowed drivers to charge up at Bay Area Rapid Transit stations. (Among those who drove a Think: Google co-founder Sergey Brin.)

We all know the rest of the story: Low oil prices and California’s abandonment of its zero-emission mandate killed off the electric car. Ford ditched Think, which eventually filed for bankruptcy.

In 2006, a Norwegian professor and entrepreneur named Jan-Olaf Willums and a group of investors revived Think to manufacture a next-generation battery-powered City. When I visited Think in Oslo in 2007, Willums promoted a vision of the electric car as not an isolated hunk of metal (or plastic, in the City’s case) but as an internet-enabled transportation service that interacted with the power grid — and you — through your mobile phone.

“We want to sell mobility,” Willums told me. “We don’t want to sell a thing called the Think.”

Production of the new City began in late 2008, and there are now some 2,500 of the highway-ready cars on the road in Norway and elsewhere in Europe.

But as Think prepares to enter the United States market — the company plans to assemble the City in Indiana — it’s searching for space in a parking lot crowded with competitors which have embraced, to varying degrees, Willums’ vision.

When I test-drove the Chevrolet Volt in May, General Motors executives proudly showed how you could check on the car’s battery charger and communicate with the vehicle through your iPhone or Blackberry. The Nissan guy riding shotgun in the electric Leaf I drove in July did the same.

So how does Think compete against those deep-pocketed competitors offering four-and-five-seat sedans?

I recently talked to Barry Engle, Think’s newest chief executive, about the company’s strategy now that the electric auto age has at last arrived. (Like his immediate predecessor, Richard Canny, Engle was a longtime Ford executive.)

“This is a company that for many years was this lone voice in the wilderness trying to convince people that they had a better idea,” says Engle. “I don’t know if the world was quite ready for what we have. But wow, a lot has changed here over the past year or so.”

Engle stresses that Think is not out to compete with GM and Nissan in the U.S., but will focus on a niche market — urbanites who want a small, easily maneuverable electric car.

“We don’t delude ourselves that we are a full-fledged manufacturer with a full line of products,” he says. “We’re uniquely positioned in the marketplace as few have expressed interest in what we do well, a city car.”

Such cars are popular in Europe’s densely packed cities, where electric cars are exempt from high registration and congestion charges. Then there’s a huge potential market in Asia’s megacities.

And if American city-dwellers start to downsize their rides and go electric at the same time, then Think will have arrived right on time.

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photo: Ford

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

Bummed that you don’t live in one of the select cities that will be the first to get the electric Nissan Leaf or the Chevrolet Volt next month? Or you do live in one of those early-adopter municipalities and want an electric ride but don’t like either car?

Well, if you’re willing to wait another year, the electric Ford Focus will be rolling into town. Twenty towns, to be exact. Ford on Monday announced that in late 2011, a battery-powered version of its compact car will be sold in — drum roll, please — Atlanta, Austin, and Boston as well as Houston, Chicago, and New York.

Denver, Detroit, and Orlando will get the Focus along with Raleigh and Durham, N.C. and Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C. Out West, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and Tucson are on the list.

Then there are the usual suspects: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.

“Markets were chosen based on several criteria, including commuting patterns, existing hybrid purchase trends, utility company collaboration and local government commitment to electrification,” Ford said in a statement.

“Ford wants to build on this enthusiasm by making our first all electric passenger vehicle available in as many pilot markets as possible,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, said in a statement.

“This is the first step in rolling out the Focus Electric. As the country continues to build up its electric vehicle infrastructure and demand for the Focus Electric grows, Ford will continue to evaluate additional markets and consider making this vehicle available in more cities across the country.”

The electric version of its existing Focus will be powered by a lithium ion battery that will give the car an estimated range of 100 miles. That’s the same range that Nissan is advertising for the Leaf. The Chevrolet Volt will travel about 40 miles on a charge before a small gasoline engine kicks in to generate electricity.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

With the first mass-produced electric cars set to hit American streets next month, there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the media about whether consumers will actually buy the vehicles once they’re in showrooms.

But as General Electric made clear this week, some big corporations are certainly in the market for battery-powered rides, and that alone could help spur the market.

GE announced that it would buy 25,000 electric cars between now and 2015, including 12,000 Chevrolet Volts. (Which will help General Motors pay back that taxpayer-financed bailout.)

Now, 25,000 cars might not sound like all that much. But it’s the largest corporate buy of electric vehicles to date. And if GE’s move inspires other multinationals to follow suit and electrify their fleets, the numbers could really start to add up. Just imagine if the Fortune 500 made a similar commitment — 12.5 million electric cars would be on the road in a few years.

(GE chief executive Jeff Immelt just needs to start bragging about how big his electric fleet is at cocktail parties; before you know it, the CEO next door will be putting in an even larger order for EVs.)

As Immelt has made clear on more than one occasion, this is all about business.

“We basically touch every part of the infrastructure,” he said in a video press release. “From the smart grid, to our WattStation, to electrical distribution products, to everywhere in between.

“We’ve always believed clean energy is about commercialization. It’s not a novelty,” Immelt continued. “Broad-based commitments and broad-based strategies are what’s going to make clean energy a reality.”

GE unveiled the WattStation, its electric charging station for the street and garage, this past summer, and in September inked a deal with Better Place to deploy the iPodish charger in the Silicon Valley startup’s electric infrastructure network.

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photo: GE

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

General Electric on Wednesday gave a jump-start to Better Place, the Silicon Valley startup developing an electric car infrastructure in several countries.

Better Place plans to deploy a network of urban charging posts and swapping stations where drivers can exchange depleted company-owned batteries for fresh ones when they need to make trips that exceed their car’s range. GE has agreed to help finance up to 10,000 of those batteries in Better Place’s first two markets: Denmark and Israel. That’s no small matter, given that Better Place faces huge capital outlays for battery purchases.

The global conglomerate will also make its WattStation, a sleek electric car charging post that it unveiled in July in San Francisco, compatible with Better Place’s network.

In addition, GE and Better Place will collaborate on an effort to persuade companies to electrify their vehicle fleets and plug into the electric car charging networks that Better Place plans to build in the San Francisco Bay Area; Ontario, Canada; Australia; and Europe.

It’s not the first time GE has dabbled in the nascent electric car industry. In 2008, the company invested $4 million in Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker.

In yet another deal involving a multinational conglomerate and a California startup, Sharp late Tuesday said it had acquired Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar developer, for $305 million in cash.

While most people may associate Sharp with televisions and other consumer electronics, the Japanese company is also one of the world’s biggest solar panel makers. Recurrent builds small-scale photovoltaic power plants. It has signed contracts for projects that would generate 330 megawatts, and has another nearly another 1,700 megawatts’ worth of deals in development.

During a conference call on Wednesday, Recurrent’s chief executive, Arno Harris, said Recurrent would retain its name and become a division of Sharp and that he and his team would remain in place.

While the buyout is another sign of the consolidating solar industry, it also indicates that big solar panel makers like Sharp feel pressure from the fast rise of low-cost Chinese manufacturers to diversify their business.

Acquiring Recurrent gives Sharp another source of revenue but it won’t necessarily provide a market for Sharp’s own solar panels. In a telling provision of the acquisition, Harris said Recurrent won’t be compelled to buy Sharp solar panels and can keep its current suppliers. Those include Yingli Green Energy, a Chinese company that captured a third of the California market last year thanks in large part to a big deal with Recurrent.

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In Wednesday’s New York Times, I wrote about two experimental projects in California to store solar energy produced by photovoltaic rooftop arrays:

In the garage of Peter Rive’s San Francisco home is a battery pack. It is not connected to Mr. Rive’s electric Tesla Roadster sports car, but to the power grid.

The California Public Utilities Commission has awarded $1.8 million to Mr. Rive’s company, SolarCity, a residential photovoltaic panel installer, to research the feasibility of storing electricity generated by rooftop solar arrays in batteries.

As rooftop solar systems provide a growing percentage of electricity to California’s grid, regulators and utilities are increasingly concerned about how to balance the intermittent nature of that power with demand.

One possible solution is to store energy generated by solar arrays in batteries and other systems and then feed that electricity to the grid when, say, a cloudy day results in a drop in power production. And when demand peaks, electricity generated from renewable sources could be dispatched from batteries rather than fossil-fuel burning power plants.

“As soon as distributed solar starts providing 5 to 10 percent of demand, its intermittent nature will need to be addressed,” said Mr. Rive, who is SolarCity’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

SolarCity is teaming with Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric car company run by Mr. Rive’s cousin, Elon Musk, and the University of California, Berkeley, to study how to integrate solar arrays and off-the-shelf Tesla lithium-ion battery backs into the grid. SolarCity plans to put such systems in six homes.

“We think in the years ahead this will be the default way that solar is installed,” Mr. Rive said. “Getting the costs down, though, is not going to be an easy task.”

Homeowners could potentially benefit by tapping batteries at hours when electricity rates are high or using them to provide backup power if the grid goes down.

The research has just begun, and at the moment SolarCity is testing the impact of charging and discharging electricity from the Tesla battery pack in Mr. Rive’s garage. His roof sports a three-kilowatt solar array.

“We’re at the point now where we can direct the battery to charge and discharge at specific times by sending a signal over the Internet,” Mr. Rive said.

Included in the $14.6 million awarded for solar energy storage research by the utilities commission was $1.9 million to SunPower for a project that will store in ice and batteries electricity generated by solar arrays at Target stores.

SunPower, a Silicon Valley solar panel manufacturer and power plant developer, will work with Ice Energy, a Colorado company that makes systems that use electricity when rates are low to form ice. When rates are high, air conditioning refrigerant is cooled by the melting ice rather than by an electricity-hogging compressor.

The Ice Bear system and a solar array will be installed at one Target store while battery packs will be used at two other stores in California.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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