Fueling Up for the Future

NRG Energy rolls out plans for the first plug-in vehicle-charging infrastructure to be deployed in a municipal area

NRG Energy, of Princeton, yesterday rolled out its plans to build the nation’s first privately funded, plug-in vehicle-charging network in the city of Houston. The system will consist of charging stations in the garages of owners of electric vehicles and 50 stations in and around the metropolitan area.

The project is a trial run for the type of network that could be deployed in New Jersey.

The $10 million investment by NRG, small by energy industry standards, may give consumers a hint as to what the new vehicle infrastructure looks like and a grasp of the convenience and costs associated with switching from a gas-powered car to one relying on the electric power grid.

NRG’s chief executive officer David Crane said it’s a “money-winning proposition” for drivers, with the company offering consumers a three-tiered pricing plan featuring unlimited miles ranging from $49 to $89 per month.

Unregulated Market

Houston and surrounding Harris County were chosen for the launch because of the unique nature of a fully unregulated electricity market in Texas and the fact that it has a high percentage of people who park their vehicles in garages, Crane said.

Eventually, NRG plans to expand the pilot to other Texas cities and other locations. Earlier this year, NJ Spotlight reported the Princeton company and Newark-based Public Service Electric & Gas (PSE&G) had held preliminary talks with the Christie administration about building the infrastructure for plug-in vehicles in New Jersey.

In rolling out its system in Houston, NRG has negotiated partnerships with a wide array of interests: auto companies, retailers, power suppliers and the broader business community to make convenient charging a reality. In time, NRG hopes to install up to 150 charging stations at retail outlets, malls and stores. If that’s done, drivers would be five miles within a charging station no matter where they are in Harris County, Crane said.

Charging at Home

Home installations of charging stations could cost up to $2,500. The unit can deliver up to 25 miles per charging hour, allowing owners to charge their cars overnight when power demand is lightest. Owners also will be able to charge vehicles at a series of charging stations, open 24 hours, seven days a week. Fast-charging options will allow drivers to add 30 miles of range in as little as 10 minutes.”It’s all about convenience,” Crane said.

Auto manufacturers are not scheduled to begin rolling out electric vehicles to the public until the end of this year, so Crane thinks no more than 1,000 cars will be using the NRG network in its first year. Electric vehicles also should not put a strain on the electric power grid for at least a decade, he said.

Responding to a question from a reporter, Crane said the company expects to make money on the venture. “We believe we will make money and that includes the electricity [we sell customers].”

Analysts were not so certain. “I don’t think it’s going to be a big profit-driver,” said Paul Patterson, an energy analyst with Glenrock Associates, based in New York City. “Only time will tell how much the electric car will take hold.”

NRG is a diversified power supplier, owning nuclear, coal and other conventional power plants. In recent years, it has bought wind developers, invested in a huge solar project in the California desert and, earlier this fall, purchased Green Mountain Energy, an energy retailer that sells electricity to consumers from wind and other renewable sources. A subsidiary, NRG Bluewater Wind, is also seeking to build a wind farm off the New Jersey coast.

Crane argued the shift to electric vehicles will be driven by the younger generation, and by people who are upset with the “staggering transfer of wealth from America” to oil-producing nations.

Whole Foods

In discussing the future of electric vehicles, Crane compared NRG to Whole Foods, which has about a 12 percent market share of organic food sales. “They define the space,” he said, implying the Princeton energy would like to do the same with plug-in vehicles.

Challenges, however, remain, particularly in states that have not deregulated their electric industry, Crane said, although they are not insurmountable. For instance, he said there is not much logic in having the electric-vehicle infrastructure as part of the rate-based utility system. NRG and other independent suppliers do not believe the cost of developing charging stations and the electricity they use should be included in the conventional utility rate base in regulated states.

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