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Apr 212011

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

David Crane, CEO of New Jersey-based NRG Energy, has become accustomed to the long pauses and surprised looks.

A Mitsubishi iMiev gets a charge from an eVgo station.

Everyone knows electric cars are coming, but most envisioned them coming to California or other more cutting-edge locales first. When Crane announced where his company wanted to install its first batch of  privately-owned high-speed charging stations, he had quite a different message to deliver.

Ergo, the blank expressions.

“I get the one word question,” Crane says. “Texas?”

Indeed, Texas – home of J.R. Ewing, Giant and a roving army of F150s — was the place on April 8 when NRG unveiled the first of 70 eVgo charging stations to be installed in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. An additional 50 such “Freedom Stations” will soon begin to appear in the Houston area, giving Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas  a total of 120 range anxiety-relieving EV recharging stations by the end of 2012.

That same day, a cross-section of auto makers, retailers and power company representatives assembled at the Arlington Convention Center to make the case that the electric car has arrived, and in Texas, of all places.

“Thanks to the innovative spirit and hard work of folks at NRG and their eVgo partners, we’re closer to a day when electric cars will be a prominent feature on our roadways,” Governor Rick Perry said.

The first eVgo station is located at a Walgreens at Belt Line Road and Montfort Drive in North Dallas. Best Buy, Gallery Furniture, and H-E-B/Central Market are among other retailers ready to host charging facilities. Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan and VIA also were on hand to show off their vehicles, while energy  rivals Reliant Energy, Green Mountain Energy, and TXU joined in to affirm their commitment to making electric a viable option on Texas roadways.

“I really think, with the electric car, that we may be on the brink of a consumer-driven revolution,” Crane said.

In addition to giving owners greater range, the Freedom Stations are designed to allow them to make the most of their time. If you are visiting a drug store or grocery store, or shopping for electronics or home furnishings, you can plug in at the retailer, do your shopping, and roll away full or partially charged up and ready to go. Those retailers, in turn, hope the presence of the station will make their stores a little more attractive to environmentally-conscious consumers.

NRG is footing the cost of the installations, estimated at $25 million for the 120 Texas stations alone.  The company will offer three monthly charging plans to consumers:

Home Plan: $49. Standard installation of a home charging dock and equipment, plus service and maintenance of same.

Mobile Plan: $79. Standard installation, service and maintenance, plus eVgo pays for all charges at eVgo network stations.

Complete Plan: $89. All of the above, plus eVgo pays for charging at your home dock.

The cost of the home charger is amortized over the term of an initial three-year agreement. Once the charger is paid off, monthly rates will be reduced accordingly. (NRG so far has declined to estimate how much those savings might be.)

Infrastructure long has been considered the biggest obstacle to convincing customers to go electric. With a plan in place, Texas moves up the list of potential markets for auto manufacturers looking to deploy limited inventory in the most user-friendly areas.

“The car makers’ attitude toward Texas as a market for electric vehicles has been influenced by the fact that we’re producing this infrastructure,” Crane said. “A limited number of plug-in vehicles will be available the next few years. My sense is that the car makers were going to overwhelmingly allocate those cars to California.”

Keiichi Kitahara, Senior Manager for Corporate Planning for Nissan, affirmed that shift in focus.

“Texas may not originally have been on the map,” he said. “But because of a lot of the discussions we’ve had with NRG, it has definitely swayed our decision-making process.  Texas is one of our first launch markets.”

Nissan, producers of the all-electric LEAF, is making one of the auto industry’s biggest commitments to the electrification of America, investing more than $1 billion in a plant in Tennessee. The automaker projects bringing about 20,000 LEAFs to the U.S. over the next two years, and having a facility on American soil will greatly increase capacity.

“From a corporate perspective, we’re all in,” Kitahara said. “We’re very focused on it.”

NRG will invest significantly as well. Crane estimates that the company will spend $25 million on the 120 Freedom Stations in Texas alone. To become profitable, he says, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston will probably need to produce several thousand eVgo customers each, a process that could take years.

The gamble: Once the electric car becomes more than a curiosity, NRG and its partners will be have the inside track in terms of making it pay.

For now, at least, the game is on, and Texas is one of the biggest players.