Leading the (electric) charge in Houston


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    Hybrid from Houston's fleet charging at a station outside city hall.

    - Wendy Siegle

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    A charging station sign.

    - Wendy Siegle

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    Laura Spanjian, Houston's director of sustainability, opening the charging station.

    - Wendy Siegle

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    Steve Kobb with his 2002 Chevy pick-up truck.

    - Wendy Siegle

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    A look at the inside of Steve Kobb's pick-up truck. Kobb took out the gas engine and swapped it for a battery pack.

    - Wendy Siegle

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    Steve Kobb charges his pick-up truck.

    - Wendy Siegle

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: We continue our "Future of Transportation" series. Houston, Texas, is probably best known as a capital of Big Oil. But the nation's fourth largest city is also trying position itself as a leader in electric cars.

From KUHF, Wendy Siegle has our story.


Wendy Siegle: Software developer Steve Kobb is showing me his 2002 Chevy pick-up in his office garage.

Steve Kobb: Well, this is the bed of the truck, and there are 26 batteries in the truck.

Two years ago, this Texas native took out the gas engine and swapped it for a battery pack.

Kobb: This is the sole energy source for the truck, and as you see on the side there, the cord goes in where the gas tank used to be.

Kobb doesn't worry about draining his batteries on his 16-mile commute between work and home. But others may be more anxious about running out of power with no plug in sight.

Mayor Annise Parker says Houston provides the perfect testing ground for the electric car.

Annise Parker: We're a sprawling city that's built around the automobile. If we can convince Houstonians that electric vehicles are the way to go, then it can work anywhere.

Right now, Houston has just 10 public chargers, but there's federal grant money to build 25 more in the coming months. They'll be installed in places where people park for a while: think malls and city parking lots. And a big chunk of the charging network will be paid for by a power company called NRG. In Houston, NRG is planning to spend some $10 million on roughly 60 chargers by the end of next year. David Crane is the CEO of NRG.

David Crane: They'll never be more than five miles away.

NRG will install two types of chargers including the rapid charger which gives a half charge in just 15 minutes. Crane says there's still a debate over how many chargers need to be at each location because no one knows what the demand will look like.

Crane: It would be extremely frustrating for someone to limp into a charger station, see that there are five cars in front of them, each of which was going to spend 10 to 15 minutes.

Early adopters could also fork out $700 to $2000 for a home charging unit and power up overnight. But even if you can keep your battery charged in Houston, it could be years before there's a network that allows electric vehicles to drive the four hours up to Dallas.

In Houston, I'm Wendy Siegle for Marketplace.


Tomorrow on our "Future of Transportation" series: high-speed rail takes on the commuter flight. And see the rest of the stories in the Transportation Nation project.

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