Sheila McNulty NRG’s electric vehicle network needs to expand outside Houston

NRG Energy is taking a big chance with its decision to invest more than $10m to build a comprehensive electric vehicle-charging network across Houston, the energy capital of the world. Houston is such a big, sprawling city that coverage is going to have to be pretty good to make drivers feel confident enough to go out in their electric vehicles without having to be afraid of running out of juice before they can make it to the next charging station.

NRG makes it sound like the network will provide reasonable coverage. The programme it rolled out on Thursday will enable residents to obtain in-home chargers to compliment 50 charging stations in shopping centres, business districts and along all major highways from downtown to approximately 25 miles from the city center.

NRG says it will be the first company to equip an entire major market with the privately funded infrastructure needed for successful electric vehicle adoption. David Crane, NRG’s president and chief executive, said this:

We are committed to ensure that electric vehicle ownership is fun, affordable and ultra-convenient, and that electric vehicle owners feel 100 per cent comfortable driving their plug-in car anywhere in the greater Houston area, secure in the knowledge that a fast charger is never more than a few miles away.

Certainly if all goes according to plan, NRG can meet that objective by 2011 as planned. Indeed, the system is affordable. Users will be able to tap into the system for flat fees ranging from $49 to $89 per month, under three-year contracts. The lowest package gives the buyer a home charger, but they pay for the electricity used to charge their vehicle at all stations. The most expensive package includes a home charger and unlimited access to the network with the cost of all electricity used covered by NRG.

All this sounds good, especially since the in-home charger can deliver up to 25 miles per charging hour, allowing consumers to charge their cars overnight while they sleep. And the public stations will be open 24 hours, seven days a week and offer “fast charging options”, enabling drivers to add 30 miles of range in as little as 10 minutes.

But there remains a problem.

Houston is such a big and sprawling city, and people here think nothing of driving two hours outside of town to hill country to see the bluebonnets in bloom or an hour to sun at the beach. Yet an electric vehicle would, for all practical purposes, confine one to city driving. And that means it would have to be a second vehicle.

To go on a road trip, as Texans like to do, to check on their cattle, visit their grandma’s oil properties, or go hunting or fishing, the electric vehicle could not be relied on. For here are some details on how much range one can get, for example, with the new Nissan Leaf from Car and Driver, the specialist magazine:

Nissan claims the Leaf can go 100 miles on a full charge based on the LA4 test cycle, which is the one used for the EPA city number and doesn’t employ hard acceleration or sustained speeds above 40 mph.

First of all, the speed limit on Texas highways is 60 to 70 miles per hour: 60 around the city and 70 outside it. So drivers are limited right there. And 100 miles is nothing in Texas.

And then a bit more from the review, which is helpful for those planning on using the vehicle in the hot Texas sun:

On an 88-degree afternoon, the Leaf predicted a 24-mile drop in range if we were to use the climate-control system. We managed 97 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), or 2.9 miles per kilowatt-hour, with the air conditioning off during a 19-mile run around town that included a short highway stretch. Based on our time with the Leaf, we expect it to comfortably do about 70 miles on a charge.

For anyone who has ever forgotten to fill up on gas knows, it would be pretty nerve wracking going too far out of town in the hopes of making it back on time for a charge up.

That isn’t to say NRG should not be commended for its effort. The industry has to start somewhere. And tackling gas-guzzling Houston is admirable, especially at a time when most companies (and politicians) are all too willing to put economics above the environment.

But until the system is built out of the city itself, it seems NRG is going to be hard-pressed finding anyone to count on its new system for all their driving needs. And if it remains a network for electric vehicle hobbyists or errand driving, it may not make enough to be worth expanding to bring mainstream drives onto the network.