Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project.
The first time I saw a Tesla on the road was in 2008. This was before the cars were properly on the market, so they were still a bit of a rumor. I wasn’t far from the company headquarters in Silicon Valley that day, so I’m guessing it was a company car—maybe Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, was behind the wheel. I’m not a car enthusiast, but I have to say: what I saw was awesome. The Roadster, the first car made by Tesla, had a Lotus body and looked like a chrome rattlesnake. It had an aura of The Future about it—right there, right in front of me, idling at the light, was something new under the sun.
But aura only goes so far. After the sexiness wore off, I wondered why people would buy such a car. If you drove a Tesla in 2008, you did so within the confines of an invisible circle with a radius of 245 miles, a circle that shrank with every mile you drove. If you ventured outside the circle, you would be too far from your charger and your car would break down. You could not drive from Boston to Washington DC, or from Fort Worth to Houston, or even from Los Angeles up the Big Sur Coast to San Francisco (a journey that every owner of this serpentine car surely yearned to make). You were tethered to your home dock, like an automotive tracking bracelet. Also, the Roadster cost $109, 000.
Fast forward to now. There are many more electric cars on the road, from a few hundred in 2011 to about 225,000 by the middle of 2014. Tesla is selling a much-celebrated sedan for the semi-reasonable price of $70,000, and its range has improved to 400 miles, putting its battery on par with the gas tank in my old Camry. Other car companies are developing electric cars, too. But the invisible circle remains: we still need electric gas stations.
Enter NRG Energy. NRG is one of the bigger utilities in the country, with millions of customers in states across America. Utilities, being in the business of selling electricity, would, you’d think, be eager to sell it to people in their cars as well as their houses. But NRG seemed to sense the need before others: in 2010, as electric vehicles were just starting to hum across America’s highways, the company formed an electric-vehicle wing called eVgo and opened their first Freedom Stations.
Freedom Stations, while they sound like a prison in a George Orwell novel, appear to be the electric “gas” stations that we’ve all been waiting for. A station offers several charging options, and eVgo members pay for charging time, the price varying with the power of the charger they’re using. Powering up at a Freedom Station takes longer than at a gas station (the fast chargers add about 2.5 miles to your battery per minute) but they add enough juice in, say, ten minutes, to maintain drivers’ peace of mind throughout the day. NRG’s Freedom Stations are currently clustered in seven cities, from Washington, DC to San Diego, and they will be in fifteen more places by the end of next year—here’s a map.
Take a close look at that map, and you might spot the Freedom Station hotspot that piqued my interest, which is located in NRG’s hometown of Houston, Texas. There are at least two things to know about Houston, and the first is that it is enormous. Houston is the fourth-biggest city in the country, by population and by acreage (changing, a little, depending on how you measure), and it sprawls across the hot, flat, east Texas landscape like a blacktop version of Jabba the Hutt. I used to work for the Houston school district, so I speak from experience when I say that you can start from downtown, drive in one direction for an hour and a half, and get out of your car still deep inside Houston.
The second thing to know is that the city is absolutely dominated by hydrocarbon companies like Phillips 66, Halliburton, and ConocoPhillips. (Once, when I visited the science museum, there was a whole wing devoted to the science of getting oil out of the ground.) So, as places for advancing the post-carbon economy go, Houston is no San Francisco. But from an individual perspective, it makes total sense. If you had to drive all over a 600-square-mile city, you would be glad to save on gas no matter what your politics looked like or who you worked for. Today, there are eighteen Freedom Stations in greater Houston alone. Buy all the Teslas you want.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He is a professor of environmental studies at Wofford College. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on dam removal politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is devoted to understanding how people decide to restore and remake their environments.