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.