Charged Up at the Cracker Barrel!

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 07, 2012

MESQUITE, TEXAS - Call it the Cracker Barrel parking lot tour. I spent a very hot and muggy Tuesday circling Dallas and Fort Worth, stopping for ribbon-cutting ceremonies at four Cracker Barrels. Antique-cued nostalgia, George Jones, Dolly Parton and chicken ‘n dumplings made a rather interesting contrast to the cutting edge, 480-volt DC fast charging, Chevrolet Volts and Nissan Leafs out in the lot.

A manager cuts the ribbon at one of four of Cracker Barrel's Dallas/Fort Worth-area Freedom Stations. Where do they get the giant scissors? (Jim Motavalli photo)Cracker Barrel and electric cars? Why, yes. As spokeswoman Julie Davis points out, the very first store in 1959 had gas pumps out front, a practice that didn’t end until the 1970s energy crisis. “This is a natural extension of our brand,” she said, as the local restaurant manager cut the ribbon around the $50,000 AeroVironment station, which can add 50 miles to an EV’s range in 15 minutes. “It may seem strange that an old-fashioned store cares about EVs, but we see it as going back to our roots.” Here's an unveiling on video:

Installing EV charging isn’t just altruism. Even if they’re plugging into the fast charging available to Leaf and Mitsubishi i owners (the Volt isn’t yet capable), owners will need to hang around for 15 minutes to half an hour. That’s too long to just stand around the lot and watch the kilowatt-hours climb. But it’s just enough time to drop $20 at the restaurant or buy a sock monkey at the nostalgia-inducing retail store. That’s the same equation that persuaded Walgreens (which is installing 800 stations) and Texas supermarket chain H-E-B to put in eVgo EV charging. Whole Foods is thinking the same way.  
Cracker Barrel’s partner is New Jersey-based power plant owner NRG, which operates Reliant Energy and Green Mountain Energy in Texas. NRG’s eVgo is installing 70 of these “Freedom Stations” (each with both fast and Level II charging) in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and another 50 in Houston.

That’s the hardware part. The equation for consumers is an $89 a month subscription plan, which secures a Level II charger (worth about $2,000) installed in the garage, and a keys-to-the-kingdom RIFD card providing unlimited access to the company’s charging network. In addition to the Cracker Barrel chargers, there are now 12 stations up and running in Houston and six in Dallas. Others are in the permitting and installation stage, and a parallel network is under construction in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.  

And if Texas seems an unlikely place for EVs, think again. The NRG plan is unique, though it’s expanding to other areas, and Texas has been the number two state for hybrid registrations, after California and before New York. You don’t have to think that Al Gore is the second coming to want to latch onto the savings from green vehicles. Texas Governor Rick Perry, no friend of the greens, spoke at an eVgo charger opening last year. George W. Bush was a supporter of EVs. Here's Perry on video:

Arun Banskota, the Nepal-born CEO of eVgo, declines to say how many Texans have so far signed up for the plan, and he admits the concept will rise or fall with EV adoption in the state. David Knox, eVgo’s communications director, reckons that there are currently no more than 200 electric vehicles on Texas roads right now, though that number could rise dramatically.

Arun Banskota of eVgo sees slow adoption, then an explosion. Note made-in-the-U.S.A Cracker Barrel sock monkey. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Volt, Leaf and Mitsubishi i are all on sale at state dealerships now. Banskota says he’s prepared for the somewhat slow rollout process we’re in now. “Based on the public awareness we’re seeing, and the fact that Americans buy new cars every five or six years, we think we’ll see three or four years of slow momentum, followed by a big takeoff and massive growth.”

Banskota has noticed a simple phenomenon. “When you merely ask people if they’re considering buying an electric car, you get a positive response from just five to 10 percent,” he said. “But if you show those same people the cars that are available, give then some information and maybe offer a test ride, the number goes up to 55 to 60 percent.” That’s why eVgo has put a big emphasis on educating the public, and why dealers like Florida’s Suncoast Electric Vehicles are doing it, too.

West Texas has abundant wind resources, and eVgo’s Cracker Barrel EV charging in Mesquite Arlington, DeSoto and Burleson is 100 percent wind powered (thanks to NRG’s purchase of renewable energy certificates).

The AeroVironment fast chargers use Tokyo Electric Power’s CHAdeMO standard, the only one available. A U.S. standard is under development from the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) that will combine both fast and 240-volt charging into a single “combo” plug, but as Rich Gillette, the manager of business development at eVgo, points out, that could take some time.

The Mitsubishi i (foreground) and the Nissan Leaf are on Texas roads, as is the Chevrolet Volt. (Jim Motavalli photo)eVgo is preparing for the future, Gillette said, by not only installing wiring for a second 480-volt charger on each Freedom Station pad, but also planning to equip the existing charger with a second wand that will use SAE. There’s even a sensor built into the parking spaces that will detect if a car is sitting there and not charging. If non-EVs hog the spaces, they could see a blinking green light informing them that a tow truck is on the way.

We’re probably getting ahead of ourselves. There’s no need for a second fast charger at this early stage, and there probably won’t be competition for the spaces this year. I’m guessing that, for now, the Cracker Barrel Freedom Stations will look a little bit lonely. But don’t expect them to stay that way.

I really wanted a sock money, especially with that hat. (Jim Motavalli photo)

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