By on November 20, 2010

The first time I came to Houston, TX, was  in 1986. The “reverse oil crisis” had brought the price of crude below $10, and Houston was a ghost town. In nearby Port Arthur, unused oil rigs piled up at the shore, and grass grew on downtown Procter Street. Now, Houston, home of the Petroleum Club (and some clubs the greater Baruth family would fancy), could become the model city for electric vehicles. According to plan, nobody will be farther away from a charging station than five miles, and you can charge up as much as your EV can eat for a flat monthly fee.

The system is called evGo. It’s a subscription. A flat fee between $49 to $89 a month will be added to your utility bill. It includes a 220-volt “Level 2″ home-charging station , which can charge a typical EV in six to eight hours. In shopping centers, supermarkets and business districts throughout Houston will be between 50 and 150 public charging stations. Some will be hefty Level 3 DC quick-chargers, which can fill your battery in 25 minutes. For subscribers with the right plan, unlimited fill-ups at home and at the public charging stations are included in the flat fee subscription.

There are three plans.

  • The $49  plan gets you an installed charger at home. You pay for the electricity.
  • The $79 plan gets you the charger and unlimited fill-ups at public stations. Charging at home will raise your electric bill.
  • The $89 plan adds unlimited charging at home to all of the above.

(Guess which plan most will take ..) Oh, there is a three year service commitment. Still, at $3,204 spread over three years, it’s not a bad deal. A home charger alone would set you back $1,500 – uninstalled. Unless you are fast and get the free DOE chargers.

Behind the system is NRG, the second-largest utility in Texas, joined by startups such as Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality.

Some people are already against the concept. None of them oilmen. Paul Scott, of the advocacy group Plug In America, likes the basic idea, but is against the flat fee. He’s worried that people charge up whenever they want, instead of waiting until it’s dark, when utilities have excess capacity. They should not worry. Flat fee pricing has a tendency towards getting throttled once enough subscribers are on board.

The system, basically a cellphone flat fee plan on wheels, will take the bite out of high charger costs, range anxiety, and worries about a high electric bill. It is the first system that may pave a way to an electric future. In Houston. Home of the Petroleum Club.

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40 Comments on “EVs: Houston, We’ve Solved The Problem...”

  • avatar

    So, are NRG, Coulomb Technologies and Ecotality doing this energy Netflix because it is potentially a profitable venture, or because the’ll get showered with tax-funded subsidies?

  • avatar

    It takes more energy and is more polluting to burn coal or oil to produce electricity for an EV than it is to simply use gasoline in a fuel efficient car.  Not to mention the mining required for the battery materials.

    If we were deriving the electricity entirely from solar energy, nuclear, wind and hydroelectric, then it would be less polluting.  Even nuclear waste isn’t a big problem since the Earth is full of radioactive materials – what we really should do is store nuclear waste in a hard to reach, desolate place like antarctica or a remote island.

    I look at EV’s and laugh. I don’t see how these things could possibly be saving money over a fuel efficient small car of the same size and I seriously doubt they help the environment at all.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. Furthermore, you have to add in the idea that a lot of people on the $89 plan will probably end up driving a lot of extra miles to get their money’s worth from this scheme. That’s hardly going to be good for the environment.

    • 0 avatar

      You forget to mention that it takes 7.5kWhs of electricity (well to pump) to produce a gallon of gas.
      I’ll be generous and say that a gallon of gas will get you about 50 miles in an extremely fuel-efficient vehicle. On the other hand, 7.5kWhs will get you about 50 miles in an average EV, without the release of an additional 40 lbs. of CO2.
      The average rate for electricity in my area is 12.60 cents per kWh, and gas is $3.10 a gallon.
      Gas cost for 50 miles: $3.10 + additional 40 lbs. of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
      EV cost for 50 miles: $0.95 + no additional CO2 released.
      If you drive 15,000 miles in a year, you’ll spend more on fuel ($930 vs. $285) and dump an additional 6 tons of CO2 into the environment. I won’t even mention oil changes during that period.

    • 0 avatar
      John Fritz

      “… it takes 7.5kWhs of electricity (well to pump) to produce a gallon of gas. …”
      How did you arrive at this figure?

    • 0 avatar

      It takes more energy and is more polluting to burn coal or oil to produce electricity for an EV than it is to simply use gasoline in a fuel efficient car. Not to mention the mining required for the battery materials. This is blatantly wrong. EVs even from coal powerplants beat any modern hybrid in carbon per passenger mile or Wh per passenger mile, well to wheels. The picture gets even better when the grid mix shifts to cleaner power sources.

    • 0 avatar

      The oil extraction industry uses 3,846 million KWh of electricity 2,910 million therms of gas each year. Refining that oil is also extraordinarily energy-intensive and accounts for about 7 percent of total U.S. energy consumption – nearly 6.5 quads (quadrillion BTUs) per year:

  • avatar

    I was wondering when the local electric utilities would launch a push to make the EV seem more attractive.
    While not the dominant player in the total car market, the EV will definitely be the next fashion statement. 

    “Look at me! I dumped Big Oil!”…………. for a $600 to $1000 a year contract with the local power company.

    • 0 avatar

      Early adopters who spend too much money on things that are not really economical or very useful yet are how all our technologies have advanced in the past 30 years.  Many of us middle-agers have really expensive computers that didn’t do all that much in our own past, paving the way for the fast $600 laptops of today.  We should cheer early adopters on instead of berating them.
      On the other hand, that electric contract doesn’t sound bad compared to the $3K annual gasoline bill for my car.

    • 0 avatar

      Patrick, one quick question? Are you driving in a way the electric power would be practical for you with an annual gas bill that high? I really don’t think so. Using me as an example, if I stay local, even with my truck, my diesel bill for a month is $50-60. It goes up a lot when I start traveling distances where electric vehicles woudl be worthless. You aren’t thinking this through or you are trying to adjust facts to fit your pro-electric car bias, one of the two.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m clearly not in an EV-friendly situation, and believe that EVs will remain a niche technology for a long while to come.  But the urban drivers who can use EVs are paying higher than average gas prices, and FAR higher repair and maintenance prices.
      My line is that the mechanics where I live charge $500 to open the hood, and $1000 to fill a paint sprayer.  The lower maintenance of EVs may be as big a draw as lower electricity costs compared to gasoline.
      The relative ease of daily rentals such as Zipcar may take the sting out of owning a car not suited to occasional long trips.

    • 0 avatar

      Not all new vehicle purchases are based on practicality. Some are vanity cars, as i call them.
      Also early EV adopters will for the most part be from comfortable income brackets.  Most likely the EV purchaser will be a second car.  I think one look nice parked next to an Audi S6, which with its 5.2 V-10 will be marginally less efficient than its EV companion.
      If you have to be practical, park your new Leaf next to the ten year old Camry, which was paid off long ago.

    • 0 avatar

      Early adopters who spend too much money on things that are not really economical or very useful yet are how all our technologies have advanced in the past 30 years.  Many of us middle-agers have really expensive computers that didn’t do all that much in our own past, paving the way for the fast $600 laptops of today.

      So true.  I remember my dad buying an HP calculator in the early 70s – the early kind that used reverse polish notation – and paid a fortune for it.  And when the battery was dead and the calculator needed to be plugged in to work, the lights practically dimmed when we made a calculation.

    • 0 avatar

      @ Patrickj: The points you make are salient, but like the folks who think that there is a manifold increase in mining to support the huge interest in EVs that they claim doesn’t exist in the first place, it is difficult to get someone so entrenched in a belief that can be disproven (that goes for many things the world over).
      References: see Rio Tinto’s, Southwest Energy’s, and Athabasca’s annual reports.
      @ dastanley: ROM-based procedural language (RPL) notation on HP calculators debuted in 1984 for public consumption (prior to that was assembly language, AL). And many systems still use it because of the efficiency with which a user can operate on a stack once that person is used to doing so. I do support your early adopter point, however…
      References: HP Museum website; long-time HP-48G user.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I’m actually sort of impressed the price is that low over the three years.  Does anybody have the stats on what the average American spends on gasoline per year?

    • 0 avatar

      Dan, at today’s prices – a 24 city / 35 highway compact uses about $1300 a year in fuel, according to the EPA.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I don’t see how this makes any sense for the companies involved, the tax break must be astronomical for the start-up costs of this enterprise.  Just think about the costs of installing the chargers for a min, let alone maintaining them, let alone the actual cost of the electricity.

    • 0 avatar

      Nah! It will be just like the 1960′s, get everyone to dump their natural gas fired stoves and heaters for all electric, then hit them with a rate increase when the energy crunch comes.

  • avatar

    There will be bunch of these in the faculty parking lot in few years. Going green with the occasional tether to Navajo smoke stacks out West.

  • avatar

    I’m surprised they have  flat rate. It would be really easy to assign each car an RFTD chip that tells the charging station how long and when the car charges. then there could be an on/off time rate to encourage cars to be charged during off-times (i.e. nights).
    For a cellphone a flat fee makes more sense, since me making a call doesn’t really cost them any more money than they already installed. but for an EV, they actually need to burn more fuel whenever I charge it.
    And the storage that could help the power utility is already paid for. so why not use it to shift the peak?

    Not to stirr up the discussion of the meaning of EVs any more. Even if a gasoline car is better RIGHT NOW. In 10-20 years oil will be really really expensive, only available in hostile regions and likely very short on supply. As bad as electricity may be, but we have multiple ways to produce electricity. We don’t have many ways to make gasoline. (Coal gasoline is really expensive and bad for the environment). sure now it might be expensive, but the first people using phone modems to go on the internet paved the way for our high speed access that every single job relies on nowadays. Back n the 90’s some people didn’t understand what the internet is good for- those people are not in business anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      “For a cellphone a flat fee makes more sense, since me making a call doesn’t really cost them any more money than they already installed. but for an EV, they actually need to burn more fuel whenever I charge it.”
      I mostly agree- but I think the unlimited charging plan has a lot more in common with smartphone unlimited data plans than cellphone minute plans.  I’m thinking of the collective “woops” from the major U.S. cell providers about a year ago when iPhone/Android/laptop aircard/etc. data use really started to snowball in some big cities.  Wonder if we’ll see a bit of that with these EVs in Houston?

    • 0 avatar

      Well, there’s something a little goofy here.  Right now, I drive a Honda Fit which gets about 25mpg.  I work at home, so my fuel use is a bit low, but it would approximate use for people with fairly short commutes.  I live in West Palm Beach, Florida, which is an exceptionally well designed city – downtown is about 10 minutes away, a major shopping center about 8, etc.  In other words, I would be an outstanding candidate for getting a Leaf, if anyone would be.
      I use about one tank of gas a week, which costs me about $23.  This means my fuel costs are a touch under $100 a month.
      From previous accounts of electric car costs, I would have expected my energy cost to go to about $35 a month from $100 for gas.  And yet the plan I’m sure most people will buy, for its sheer convenience if nothing else, is the $89 plan.  This is barely a reduction in energy costs from what I already pay.
      It’s interesting that on the face of it, the economics of this plan look a lot better if I get a Tesla as opposed to a Leaf.  The Tesla uses more power and because it’s fun to drive i would probably drive more.
      I am a little surprised at how expensive the Houston plan compared to the cost of gas vehicles.  But even if we accept typical fuel costs elsewhere in this thread ($1,300 a year for a typical compact) it seems surprising that these plans are so expensive compared comparisons I have seen saying EV costs should be about 1/3 gas vehicle costs.  It seems to me there is a huge profit margin in this for the utility if it’s handled correctly – even for “all you can eat” driving.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “It takes more energy and is more polluting to burn coal or oil to produce electricity for an EV than it is to simply use gasoline in a fuel efficient car.”

    No it doesn’t. And what state besides Hawaii burns oil to produce electrcity? BTW they have a plan to get off that and EV cars is part of it. Furthermore, coal only accounts for about 45% of the electricity produced in the US. Lastly don’t forget about all the pollution & waste generated to get that gallon of gasoline to your local filling station before you add to   pollution everytime you fire up your ICE car.

    • 0 avatar

      You are absolutely correct; though, as I earlier stated, it’s much easier to listen to what some blowhard told such a person on a radio or TV program, perhaps years ago, than to perform some due diligence (DD).
      As someone intimately linked to finance, I’ve often suggested that many people would be better at many things if they had to perform the DD that I do on a routine basis – for their cars, their homes, their retirement – even more personal aspects of life – health, religion, and family.
      But they don’t. And that’s why folks believe that driving a “paid for” car harms the environment less than something that’s at least in line with what this country used to be known for: innovation and dreams. There is something fundamentally wrong with this country’s conceptual analytical processing: in too many hypersensitized know it alls, it’s missing.
      My grandfather used to have a plaque that I thought was funny: “Those of you who think you know everything are annoying those of us who do.” It’s not funny anymore – except to those who innovate outside our shores, waiting for the day they can claim that we gave away the keys to the shop.

  • avatar

    Great idea – my gasoline bill is a lot more than those flat fees. Just one problem – if I leave the local area, does my electric fuel supply follow [assuming my EV has the range – a Volt or Prius plug-in, say]?

  • avatar
    martin schwoerer

    Well I’ll be damned. An EV-positive article by Bertel. Dass ich diesen Tag erleben durfte!
    Anyway. From a marketing standpoint, flat rates are great because they decrease insecurity on the consumer side and thus push volume. The provider assumes there will be a few freeloaders but that they don’t bust the system.
    I think this example is very impressive in terms of concept as well as in (apparent) execution. Most utilities I have spoken with are still at a head-scratching stage, and don’t have the foggiest how to make money with charging stations, although they sure smell a market there somewhere.
    Interesting: a EU/Japan-spec iMiEV, and an iPad used for sales.
    Next step, I would think: a flat rate including leasing a selection of cars. Watch these pages, folks…

  • avatar
    Amendment X

    Don’t like this one bit. We know how cell phones turned out.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    Forget this. I’ll take a modern turbodiesel like a VW Golf TDI over any electric vehicle.

  • avatar
    Sam P

    If TDIs were as awful as you state, they wouldn’t command the kind of resale value on the secondhand market that they do. Fact is, they are pretty solid. Probably as reliable as my E46 3-series, if not more so.
    Difference? The TDI has a 400+ mile range on the highway and has a large aftermarket following. Try that with a Leaf.

  • avatar
    Matthew Sullivan

    Houston was not a “ghost town” in 1986.  Neither literally nor figuratively.

  • avatar

    I wish people would put their brain in gear when making remarks about VW’s. I have owned VW’s for years and have had the best of luck with them. I have a TDI diesel now and love it. Great power and crusing at 75 to 85 miles per hour and 42-44 MPG. I have owned many cars over the years and have had many makes of cars but i still buy VW’s New & used.

  • avatar

    I wish those utilities with the financial muscle to roll this out, would also invest just a tiny fraction into viableizing a micropayment system instead of the “flat rate” nonsense. If the purpose is to pollute less /use less energy, a payment structure forcing light users to subsidize heavy ones sure seems pretty backward.
    On the other hand, perhaps this kind of initiative will convince a few starstrucks that letting Gov. Perry’s state “go it alone” is preferable to federal overreach, even environmentally. Now, that wold be a welcome development!

  • avatar
    Glenn Mercer

    I hate to nitpick, but I was a oil products trader in 1986 (for Sohio, part of the evil BP empire), and I certainly don’t recall $10/bbl for crude, whether WTI or Brent or whatever.  I checked the EIA database and it backs me up: certainly prices had plunged and all year in 1986 we bounced around in the teens, and grazed $10 a few times, but $10 was hardly a representative price at the time.  Maybe the author was referring to some sort of futures price or something, I certainly can’t be sure that some contract didn’t trade at $10 at some point.  I do agree Houston was a “relative” ghost town… only from the perspective of the oil industry, which is of course not all of Houston but surely is a large part of it.  The oilfield services firm I visited that year in Houston had just moved into new quarters (three floors of a tower) and actually was paying ZERO rent (only utilities) because the building owner was desperate to have ANY tenant in the thing.
    But it wasn’t a $10-a-barrel year.
    Okay I’ll go back to my Barcalounger and shouting at the TV again…

  • avatar

    This doesn’t make much sense to me. I drive about 180miles a week, and I consider that to be a lot. So let’s say 750 miles a month. A hybrid vehicle should return about 40mpg, if not better. So I need to buy about 19 gallons of fuel a month. That’s about 57 dollars a month. To get the equivalent service out of my EV, I’d probably have to buy the $89 a month plan, and a ridiculously expensive EV. I hope that this stuff gets cheaper as time goes by, but right now there is no economic sense for doing this at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Americans average about 1200 miles a month.
      750 electric miles would use around 250 kwh, which is about $20 for me (8c/kwh), or around $25-30 at the national average.

  • avatar

    How long before a third party “device+battery” comes out to hook up to this $89 unlimited @ home connection?  Then use said 3rd party battery+device for all of your home needs by getting it wired into your house electrical as either 120/240…Or at least power fridge/washer/dryer off of it.
    I see this not lasting long.

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