If they build it, will we come? Planners, utilities, auto industry execs, and retailers are hopeful that we will, as they get themselves ready for electric vehicles in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky vision for the future. The reality is unfolding right now. In 2011, NRG Energy will install upwards of 70 car-charging stations across Dallas and Forth Worth. As the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt begin to penetrate the D/FW market, NRG aims to capture the revenue stream from charging car batteries here, just it is doing in Houston. NRG’s news comes on the heels of electric utility TXU Energy's announcement of its own installation of twelve public charging stations being allocated across Dallas and Fort Worth.
I’ve been watching the wave for several years as part of my work with emerging companies. At numerous conferences on electric vehicles, I've observed stakeholders - many of them in competition with each other - come together to swap ideas, network, and hammer out standards. It's been an education in the necessity of collaboration to foster sustainable development.
Cooperation hasn’t been guided by idealism so much as by the urge to survive in a market that, until recently, was practically non-existent. Start-ups that have failed to collaborate have fallen by the wayside. As one conference speaker joked, “We’ve got to build up the market before we tear each other down.”
Profit-making may be the motivation of electric-vehicle manufacturers, but others at the table have their own agendas for EV readiness. The city of Dallas, for example, is in Serious Nonattainment status for ozone pollution. The region risks losing funding if it doesn't clean up its air. “Seventy percent of air pollution in Dallas comes from on-road/off-road vehicles, so EVs can play a substantial role in resolving this,” said Jennifer Cohen, Executive Director for the North Texas Clean Air Coalition. Cohen was an organizer of the Electric Vehicle North Texas Electric Vehicle Showcase last September at the State Fair of Texas.
At the Electric Vehicle Showcase. Betsy del Monte, Director of Sustainability for Dallas-based construction giant BECK told a panel, “Mass transit alone cannot solve our problem. We also need to look at the broader picture in terms of development. Of the palette of materials that we have available, EVs are one of the tools we must come to rely on.”
Tom Reddoch, Director of Energy Efficiency for Electric Power Research Institute, agreed: “This is a success story. EPRI is connecting two giants, the electric industry with the auto industry.” To assist stakeholders with the information they need to build communities that can sustain a transition to electric vehicles, EPRI sees three keys: regionally-driven consumer attitudes, the installation of charging infrastructure in order to ensure a positive response for the drivers’ first experiences, and utility readiness. “We have plenty of capacity to go around, especially if people charge at night,” said Reddoch, “but there could be localized effects where cars cluster. The construction community, developers, and architects need to address this together.”
At a technical level, tools are emerging that can help integrate electric vehicles into the transportation landscape. “We’ve arrived at an interesting nexus between the power industry and the auto industry,” said Brad Gammons of IBM. “There is not going to be a dominant leader so we need standards across the value chain… Collaboration ensures that things happen efficiently.”
Not all collaboration requires complex software. Some of it is happening on the ground, person to person. The installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure in D/FW is giving two cities with a long (if friendly) rivalry a chance to mutually benefit by working together. “To get the mayor of Fort Worth to travel to Dallas to talk about EVs is huge,” said Jim Greer of Oncor electricity.
Range anxiety continues to be a barrier to electric vehicle adoption, even though three-fourths of Americans commute less than 40 miles per day. “To handle range anxiety, we need to provide home-based charging capability,” said del Monte from BECK.
At the same time, Half Price Books unveiled Dallas’ first public charging station. Granted, there’s not a line around the block for the EV charger yet. But just having it at one of Dallas’ most popular bookstores sends a tangible signal to drivers that the future is here and now.
As the infrastructure falls into place, the question remains: Will drivers buy the cars? We’ll find out very soon. The Chevy Volt is scheduled to arrive on car dealers’ lots in Dallas-Fort Worth in March.
Photo of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in electric vehicle by IFCAR
Anna Clark is the author of Green, American Style and the president of EarthPeople. She lives in one of Dallas’ first residences to earn a Platinum-LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.