Turns out, the Enron scandal will end up benefiting electric cars.

At EVS26 in Los Angeles this week, we caught up with Arun Banskota, the president of electric vehicle services for NRG Energy, and he filled us in on some of the plug-in vehicle projects that NRG is working on. Last fall, NRG launched the first commercial-scale V2G project in Delaware and has also been installing " Freedom Stations" – EV charge stations that have a DC fast charger and a Level 2 charger – in Texas. The stated plan was to have 120 installed there by the end of 2012. Banskota said that plan is still in effect, but will take longer than originally predicted.

NRG launched the Freedom Station plans in Houston in November, 2010 and Dallas in April, 2011. Currently, there are 11 Freedom stations in operation Houston in front of places like Walgreens, HEB grocery stores, Whole Foods and Cracker Barrels and five are in operation in Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Several more are about to be installed in both areas. NRG has committed to installing 50 of these stations in Houston, 70 in DFW. To put this into context, the first UL-certified DC fast charger became availalbe in the U.S. in September, 2011, so we're still in the early stages of the game.

"First, we had a very expidited schedule, but now, as we talk with our consumers, I think once we get a core – probably around 25 in Houston and maybe 30-35 in Dallas-Fort Worth – we're going to be much more strategic in terms of where, exactly, we place them as EV adoption grows," Banskota told AutoblogGreen. "Our target is to have at least 25 in Houston by the end of this year and probably around the same number in Dallas-Fort Worth by the end of this year and I'm guessing we get to 50 by the end of 2013 in Houston and 70 in Dallas-Fort Worth by the middle of 2014." Banskota added that, "Not very loudly, but we've also committed to the Washington and Baltimore market and California will be next for us" (that's the Enron tie, as described below).

How much do these Freedom Stations get used? Some are visited by electron-hungry vehicles six or seven times a day, some just once every other day. NRG recognizes that most charging takes place at home, but that the public chargers have an effect even when they're not being used. "Seeing them gives [EV drivers] a certain comfort level, that they can drive their EVs even when they may not need to get a charge," Banskota said.
NRG's Delaware project is also about finding new ways to think about plug-in cars, in this case something like the cashback car. NRG formed a joint company with the University of Delaware, EV2G, that has conducted actual cash transactions using batteries hooked up to the grid. EV2G used eight packs (not in cars) and found that it was possible to have them earn between $100 to $200 per battery per month from the utility. "This is significant," Banskota said, "because it shows the possibility of these EVs going from being just a cost to, in fact, a revenue source. The challenge for us now is to replicate those business use cases across different situations, perhaps with fleet owners. Getting it to the consumer level is going to take a little more time."

So, what does all of this have to do with Enron? Many years ago, as part of the California energy crisis of 2001 that made Enron famous, a company called Dynegy was sued over its rate charges. At that time, NRG owned half of a company called West Coast Power and NRG's responsibility was to operate and maintain the power plant. The other half was owned by partner Dynegy, which was supposed to deal with customers and figure out how to sell the energy to the market and at what price. The original case was brought against Dynegy with allegations of overcharging the rate payers (NRG was not considered to have done something wrong). A few years later, NRG bought out Dynegy's stake in West Coast Power and in doing so, it also assumed Dynegy's liability. To settle the case, NRG just agreed to install a bunch of electric vehicle chargers.

"We thought, rather than keeping up the whole legal fight, let's get creative," Banskota said. "We're not going to give cash, but maybe there's a way we can promote California's ZEV mandate and their state goals while at same time maybe also gives us some possibility of doing our business. So that was the rationale. When we proposed it, they jumped at it."

The deal will bring charging stations to "diverse locations," and that term applies to both ethnicity and incomes. "What the [California Public Utilities Commission, CPUC] wanted from a public policy perspective was not just to be available to the elites but that these be widely available," Banskota said.

The settlement chargers are being installed in four areas: San Juaqin Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. It's a $120 million settlement, but what it really is is $20 million to the state and CPUC for rate relief and then a $100 million commitment to invest in plug-in vehicle infrastructure. $50 million will be used to install Freedom Stations in the four areas and the rest of the money will be in NRG's "make ready" program, which is all the unsexy background stuff – upgrading wiring, fuse boxes, etc. – that sometimes needs to happen to get a location ready for charging stations. Since the make ready program focuses on multi-family locations, this will open up the plug-in vehicle market to an entirely new segment of the population, Banskota said. There's more here, or you read the settlement ( PDF).

Show full PR text

SAN FRANCISCO, April 27, 2012 - The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) today filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) a settlement agreement that will bring to California a statewide network of charging stations for electric vehicles, including at least 200 public fast-charging stations and the infrastructure for 10,000 plug-in units at 1,000 diverse locations across the state.

The settlement, originally announced on March 23, 2012, resolves 10-year-old claims against subsidiaries of Dynegy Inc., including its power marketer and three power plant subsidiaries, then co-owned with NRG Energy Inc., for costs of long-term power contracts signed in March 2001. The portfolio of power plants is currently wholly owned by NRG.

Under the settlement, NRG will pay to install a minimum of 200 fast charging "Freedom Stations" - 110 in the Los Angeles Basin; 55 in the San Francisco Bay Area; 15 in the San Joaquin Valley; and 20 in San Diego County - that will be available for use by anyone with an electric vehicle for a minimum five year period. NRG will install 20 percent of these stations in low income areas.

NRG will also install infrastructure for plug-in units, or "make-readies", at multi-family housing, workplaces, and public interest sites, which will over time support the installation of Level 1 and Level 2 chargers from all charging companies. Further, to meet the CPUC's goal of ensuring that the electric vehicle charging infrastructure is available to Californians of all income levels, NRG will ensure that mixed-income housing locations are identified, evaluated, and pursued for the make-readies.

Other provisions of the settlement intended to support the roll out of electric vehicles and expand their availability include:
  • In consultation with The Greenlining Institute, NRG will pay an additional $4 million to support low income car-sharing, workforce training, and related programs;
  • NRG is required to spend $5 million to collaborate with researchers and stakeholders on technical demonstration projects that will test new charging and related technologies;
  • NRG will solicit competitive bids for third-party services and equipment, and will provide preferences for employees that are graduates of pre-apprenticeship training programs applicable to the trade or trades to be performed, as well as provide preferences for hiring and retaining employees from the historically disadvantaged or underrepresented classes, including women, minorities, and disabled veterans; and,
  • The fast-charging stations will be compatible with electric vehicles on the market today as well as new models to be introduced beginning next year. Initially they will all have a CHAdeMO charger and a SAE Level II unit; they will be upgraded to accommodate the forthcoming SAE (Combo) DC standard within six months of when chargers using that standard become commercially available.
"The lack of recharging infrastructure and the concern about the range of electric cars have been identified as a barrier for the proliferation of electric vehicles. This settlement creates that needed infrastructure, which will open the market to many electric vehicle stakeholders," said CPUC President Michael R. Peevey. "Devoting one-quarter of the total settlement value to electric vehicle charging infrastructure is a strong, creative idea that will bring California incalculable public benefits."

Said Commissioner Mark J. Ferron, "The settlement, in combination with the earlier settlement Dynegy reached with the state in 2004, brings closure to our case against Dynegy for its role in the energy crisis of 2000-2001. In total, Dynegy together with NRG will have returned to the people of California more than $400 million in consideration. Of this total amount, three-fourths, or $300 million, will be paid in the form of cash to offset the electric bills of customers in California. The remainder, more than $100 million, will be paid by NRG in the form of electric vehicle charging equipment. This will bring cleaner air, local jobs, and a much needed jump-start on what we expect will be an industry of the future."

"This settlement captures significant value for California under circumstances where contentious and expensive litigation would otherwise have continued for many years and with uncertain results," said CPUC Commissioner Mike Florio. "The CPUC is committed to ensuring that the settlement not only makes electric vehicle infrastructure available to Californians of all income levels, but that it also creates job opportunities for California's diverse communities."

The settlement, which includes strict timelines and rigorous reporting and auditing requirements so that the CPUC can ensure that the settlement's provisions are being met, is available at www.cpuc.ca.gov/PUC/hottopics/1Energy/120427_NRG_FERC.htm.

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