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The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

Use less, pay more

Ain’t utility deregulation grand?

More than 70 percent of electric plans offered in the Houston area contain terms that may penalize customers who don’t use a certain amount of power, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of more than 300 plans available in early January.

NRG and other companies with plans that include the fees say they offer a variety of products designed to meet the needs of different kinds of customers. They also point out that fixed fees covering some of their overhead allow them to reduce the rates they charge per kilowatt hour of consumption.

Some plans charge minimum-use fees to customers whose monthly power consumption falls below a particular threshold – usually 1,000 kilowatt hours. Other plans offer credits to customers who exceed a specified threshold of power use.

“The market probably still has a way to go toward rewarding people for using less,” said Troy Donovan, market development manager at CenterPoint Energy Services, which runs a website called TrueCost that factors the fees into its analysis of electric plans. It is a division of CenterPoint Energy, the transmission company that distributes electricity in the Houston area regardless of what retailer sells customers their power.

Consumer advocates say minimum-use penalties discourage energy conservation at a time when environmental groups, all levels of government and even electric companies themselves are encouraging customers to scale back on energy consumption.

“These fees often go unnoticed until you really cut back and you realize you still have a larger bill than you expected,” said Jake Dyer, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. “It’s bad news for a lot of folks doing their best to save power and save on their electric bill.”

Even customers penalized for using less energy pay for energy efficiency initiatives: A $3.05 fee on monthly bills in the Houston area covers installation of technically advanced smart meters partly touted as energy-saving measures; the city of Houston last year raised residential energy-efficiency requirements.

[…]

About a third of the Houston-area retail providers the Chronicle examined listed no plans containing penalties or credits based on power use.

TriEagle Energy, based in The Woodlands, charges customers flat monthly fees – in addition to their electricity rate per kilowatt hour – but the fees aren’t tied to power consumption. Consumers are more likely to stay with the company if they don’t get surprises like minimum-use fees on their bills, said Kasey Cline, TriEagle’s director of sales and marketing.

Other retailers, how­ever, say the fees make sense.

Champion Energy Services uses them to cover fixed costs that it otherwise would roll into energy rates, said Brenda Crockett, vice president for market development and regulatory affairs. The company has to pay costs of billing and other services for all customers, she added, regardless of their electricity use.

Other companies echoed that response.

“There’s a cost to cover, whether they’re using 1 kilowatt hour or 1 million kilowatt hours,” said Robbie Wright, a founder of Bounce Energy, which also charges minimum use fees.

That argument rings hollow with Dyer, of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. “You don’t pay a minimum-use fee when you step into a grocery store,” Dyer said. “You don’t pay a minimum-use fee when you shop for any other product. Most businesses price their product in such a way that the people who actually buy it will pay for their fixed-cost infrastructure.”

Dan Wallach noted this feature back in 2013, in his annual report of choosing an electric plan for his house that year. There’s no logical reason for this – the companies do it because they can, because most people don’t read the fine print closely enough. Jake Dyer is exactly right, but in the absence of some kind of market regulation, or better educated consumers, they’ll get away with it. It’s easy to say that other companies could undercut the ones that do this on price and steal their business, but that isn’t what has happened. Maybe this Chron story will help, but I doubt any one story could. It will take a lot more outreach than that to penetrate the public consciousness.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

It pays to go green

It’s a simple enough formula – reduce energy usage, save money.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

As Houston leaders push the counter-intuitive notion that the world’s energy capital can go green, and pledge ever-lower emissions goals for municipal operations, installing energy-efficient lighting and low-flow toilets can seem like hopelessly small measures.

City data show a seven-year effort to retrofit municipal facilities with those types of energy-efficient upgrades is working, however. And that matters, since Mayor Annise Parker’s office says energy costs are the city’s third-largest category of spending, after employee salaries and benefits.

The energy and operational savings produced by upgrades to 87 city buildings, completed over the last four years, have averaged $5.2 million a year. That trend is beating officials’ original estimates, and, if it holds, will see the investments pay for themselves in about 10 years, more than two years sooner than projected.

The city will continue to operate the buildings beyond the next decade, added Gilberto Lopez, a senior project manager in the city’s General Services Department, capturing even more savings into the future. Even if the positive trend were to reverse, Lopez said, both contractors handling the upgrades for the city guarantee results from their work, and will cut the city a check if the buildings don’t perform.

“The savings is absolutely a win,” Lopez said. “Is it a windfall, is it taking our breath away? We’re always looking in terms of, ‘Let’s clear the baseline and then we’ll celebrate everything else.’ But we feel very positive about the program.”

[…]

Houston has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 32 percent since 2007, and Parker earlier this year committed to cut emissions by another 10 percent by 2016. Parker also this year announced the city would work with CenterPoint Energy to convert 165,000 city streetlights to light-emitting diodes to reduce energy use, electricity costs and emissions. White and Parker also passed new codes for new commercial and residential development requiring greater energy efficiency.

Such efforts are an important component of acting sustainably, said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, because an estimated 40 percent of all the energy used in the United States is consumed by buildings.

“A lot of older buildings are still wasting a lot of energy in terms of leaking insulation or outdated appliances, lighting and heating controls,” he said. “They really are largely an untapped resource in terms of saving energy – and the more energy we save, that means power plants are running less and pumping less pollution out of the smokestack. It definitely has a huge impact in terms of cleaning up the air.”

Putting aside the not-inconsiderable environmental benefits, this is savings without having to cut anything, and it’s ongoing. There’s nothing not to like about it. It’s true that any individual LED light or low-flow toilet doesn’t make much difference, but a couple thousand of them together adds up to quite a bit. Kudos all around.

City strikes two deals with CenterPoint

One on street lights, and one on bike trails. Both are great news.

All 165,000 of Houston’s streetlights will be converted to more efficient LEDs over the next five years, halving electricity use and cutting air pollution in what Mayor Annise Parker said will be one of the nation’s largest such initiatives.

Also on Friday, the city said it had struck a deal to open up land under power lines for the construction of hike and bike trails, the result of years of negotiations in Austin to enact necessary legislation and months of local discussions. Both the trails and streetlights announcements involved agreements with CenterPoint Energy.

The switch from yellowish high-pressure sodium, mercury vapor and metal halide streetlights to bluish light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, may require no added city investment. Officials with the city and CenterPoint, which owns the streetlights, project that a long-term drop in maintenance costs will offset the up-front cost of installation.

LED lights draw less power and last longer than traditional bulbs.

Parker said the move would help the city reach its goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions produced by municipal operations by 10 percent by 2016. Once finished, the mayor said, the switch will save the city a projected $28 million in electricity costs over 10 years.

“In addition to being good for the planet, if we can cut energy consumption it’s also really good for the city’s bottom line,” Parker said.

[…]

Regarding the trails agreement, CenterPoint says there are 923 miles of right of way in Harris County, including 410 in the city of Houston. Those involved in the effort have estimated about 140 miles of right of way sit under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails.

In making the announcement, CenterPoint also presented a $1.5 million check for trail construction.

Houston voters in 2012 approved $100 million in bonds to be combined with private and grant funds for the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative to expand the city’s trail system along bayous.

The bayous largely run west to east, Parker said, requiring more north-south connections – and, conveniently, many transmissions corridors run north-south.

“We also have a lot of miles of bayou trails to install,” the mayor said, “but this allows us to make a more complete system.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background on the bike trails stuff, and here for the Mayor’s press release. It’s a beautiful thing being able to save millions of dollars without having to cut anything, isn’t it? The right-of-way trails have the potential to be transformative for the city’s – and the county’s – bike infrastructure. Like I said, great news all around.

Bike trails bill signed

CenterPoint rights of way

CenterPoint rights of way

The Chron has a brief blurb about Rick Perry signing the bill that will allow the CenterPoint rights of way in Harris County to be used as hike and bike trails. See here for the background, and here for a map of the two big rights of way that are in question; the map is embedded in this post as well. Compare this map to that of the Bayou Greenways, which will also have bike trails built along them in places where they don’t currently exist. The bayous run almost entirely east-west, while the CenterPoint rights of way are north-south. It’s easy to see the benefit of having them added to the hike and bike trail network, as they will provide connections between trails, all of which will be off-road. It’s sweet to finally clear a path for this, as it were, and to do so in a way that didn’t require sacrificing all notions of liability. Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to be done – we’re probably three to five years away from seeing this completed – but this bill was a necessary first step, and the Houston bond referendum that was passed last year will provide an immediate boost. It’s a big deal, and another great amenity for the city and the county. Kudos to all for getting it done.

Bike trails bill

A bill that will clear the way for bike trails to be built on CenterPoint utility rights of way in Harris County has passed both chambers in the Lege and now awaits Rick Perry’s signature.

“We are really, really pleased to have finally put the ball across the goal line,” [author Rep. Jim] Murphy said. “Now, we can start building these trails that are sorely needed at a fraction of the cost.”

Though CenterPoint spokeswoman Alicia Dixon said there are 923 miles of right of way in the county, including 410 in the city of Houston, Murphy said about 100 miles run under large transmission lines, which make the most sense for trails. Brad Parker, president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which helped negotiate the compromise bill, said there are 142 such miles of local right of way available.

“If you think about our bayou system, they run west to east, not a whole lot of north-south,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “Using utility easements will allow us to vastly expand the opportunities for hike and bike trails and put some really critical connectors north-south.”

Houston voters last fall approved $100 million in bonds to expand the city’s trail system along bayous, to be combined with private and grant funds as the $205 million Bayou Greenway Initiative.

“What is so important about this is (that) these, along with the bayous, will serve as our bicycle interstates,” said cyclist Tom McCasland, director of the Harris County Housing Authority and former lobbyist for the Houston Parks Board. “For those people who don’t want us out on the busy roads, this is the answer. Let us ride these, and then we’ll jump to the side roads to get to our final destinations.”

Houston Parks Board Executive Director Roksan Okan-Vick said the bill would help put under-utilized land to good use. She said there is much to be done, however, from signing agreements with CenterPoint and determining which utility corridors make sense to funding the trails.

[…]

Clark Martinson, a cyclist and general manager of the Energy Corridor Management District, said his group’s plan for west Houston includes a north-south utility corridor west of Beltway 8 that would go from Brays Bayou all the way into Bear Creek Park.

“There’s an amazing number of people that are riding the existing trails. This just opens up safer routes for more neighborhoods,” Martinson said. “With these utility corridors, we’ll be able to tie in neighborhoods that are north of I-10. It gives closer-to-home, safe routes for families, too, not just the commuters.”

Tom Compson, of Bike Houston, said the extension of a trail along a north-south utility corridor that parallels the railroad tracks through Memorial Park and the Galleria would allow a safer route for Galleria bike commuters, keeping him from “taking my life in my hands” in the bike lane on Wesleyan.

“It’s very encouraging,” Compson said. “I don’t think you could find a bike advocate that would be opposed to it.”

The bill in question is HB200; see here and here for the background. The main question had been the amount of liability that CenterPoint would face for allowing this use of their rights-of-way, and in the end I think a reasonable balance was struck. There are a bunch of these throughout the county, and they’re all fairly wide swaths of green land on which the big transmission towers sit. It makes a whole lot of sense to use them for this purpose, and the timing is excellent after the passage of the bond issue last year. We’re still a ways away from anything actually getting built, but this is an important hurdle to clear, and I expect we’ll begin to see some plans and some activity in the next few months. Kudos to all for getting this done.

Bike trail on utility rights-of-way bills filed

This is a big show of support for making bike trails on CenterPoint’s rights of way happen.

Houston voters last fall approved a $166 million bond measure to expand the city’s trail system, to be matched by $105 million in private donations via the Houston Parks Board. About 78 miles of trails would get built, limited largely to east-west paths that run along bayous. Many of the utility easements run north-south.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Dan Patrick, R-Houston, filed Senate Bill 633 and state Reps. Jim Murphy, R-Houston, Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, Wayne Smith, R-Baytown, and Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 200. Both drafts were filed Monday.

In a prepared statement, the lawmakers cast their proposals as a way to cut time and cost in trail development.

“The people of Houston have said loud and clear that they want more hike and bike trails,” Ellis said in a statement. “But it has become very difficult to acquire the land in urban areas like Houston that is suitable for development of trails. This legislation is a unique and innovative compromise solution to develop new trails without undue delays and excess cost.”

See here for the background. I’m not a lawyer, but comparing the text of the original bills that were filed by Reps. Sarah Davis and Jim Murphy, HB 404 and HB 258, to the updated bills HB 200 and SB 633, the main difference seems to me to be that the original bills basically exempted the utility from any and all liability, while the updated bills “[do] not limit the liability of an electric utility for serious bodily injury or death of a person proximately caused by the electric utility’s wilful or wanton acts or gross negligence with respect to a dangerous condition existing on the premises”. That, frankly, was my main concern, so I’m glad to see that saner heads have prevailed. It may be that CenterPoint is still getting away with something here – again, I Am Not A Lawyer, and I don’t know what level of protection CenterPoint would have without this bill – but on the surface at least this looks better to me. Barring any further revelations, I’ll be happy to see this pass. Hair Balls has more.

How much protection from liability do they need?

State Impact asks a good question.

The electricity industry is among the biggest of the big spenders on lobbying the Texas legislature. So when bills are introduced giving the industry extraordinary protection from law suits, you can bet somebody’s going to cry foul.

“It’s a very unusual bill,” says Andrew Wheat at Texans for Public Justice, a corporate watchdog group in Austin.

Wheat’s talking about HB 404, introduced by a Republican representative from Houston, Sarah Davis. The bill is almost identical to HB 258 introduced by fellow Republican from Houston, Jim Murphy.

Both lawmakers say their bills are to allow the construction of hike and bike trails in Harris County on utility-owned rights-of-way, those big ribbons of green that cut across cities. Though primarily for the tall transmission line towers, the rights-of-way would make perfect places to build trails. (Houston voters recently approved $166 million in bonds to fund new trails.)

The owner of such rights-of-way in the Houston area is CenterPoint Energy. It has refused to allow the trails. Why? In an email to StateImpact, a CenterPoint media liaison said it would permit trails “if — and only if — the Texas Legislature provides additional liability protection to CenterPoint from people entering its rights of way.”

What has resulted, though, are bills that would give what lawyers say is almost blanket immunity to CenterPoint Energy should someone get hurt on company property while using it for recreation, even if CenterPoint was “grossly negligent.”

At the request of StateImpact, Richard Alderman, the associate dean of the University of Texas Law Center, took a look at the proposed legislation.

“It’s extremely broad and offers almost unlimited protection from liability beyond what any other entity doing the exact same thing under the exact same circumstances would have,” said Alderman.

He questioned why a new law was even necessary since Texas already has a “recreational use statute” which he says provides substantial protection for property owners when their land is used by others for things like hunting, hiking or biking.

“Frankly, under the recreational liability statute, I doubt there are very many law suits based on somebody who has a hike and bike trail,” said Alderman.

This came up in the 2011 session, but the bill filed by Rep. Davis didn’t go anywhere. I’d certainly like to see these trails built, but I don’t see why CenterPoint needs any special protection. As the story notes, trails like what would be built here already exist on utility-owned rights of way elsewhere. If CenterPoint already has a significant level of protection from liability, and if Oncor in Dallas didn’t need a law written for them to let its right of way be used for this purpose, then why are we even having this discussion? Perhaps what we really need is a little pressure on CenterPoint to drop the unreasonable demands, not to accommodate them. Via Swamplot.

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

On getting the best deal with variable electric rates

Note: The following was written by my friend Dan Wallach, who thought I might be interested in sharing it here. He was right. My thanks to Dan for putting this together.

Everybody in Houston has the ability to select any one of hundreds of different electrical pricing plans from a variety of vendors. If you visit the PowerToChoose.com web site, you can see all the different rates listed. Some are “variable” rate, with the lowest currently advertised at 5.3 cents/kWh. Others let you lock in a fixed rate for some period of time (the cheapest currently listed is 8.3 cents/kWh for a six month term). A few plans are “indexed” (meaning they track the spot price of natural gas), with the cheapest currently going for 10.7 cents/kWh. On top of all these different plan styles, there is also a significant variation in the “percentage of renewable content” from one plan to another, as well as variation in various freebies and incentives.

I wanted to keep it simple. Just give me the lowest price, please. I initially signed up with Amigo Energy, who in 2008 offered me something like 7.5 cents/kWh without requiring me to make any kind of deposit. At the time, they were one of the cheapest vendors around. That sounded great, and they even gave me free tickets at one point to a Houston Dynamo playoff game. Thanks! I didn’t really pay much attention to my electrical prices again until I noticed a recent bill was over 13 cents/kWh, earlier this summer, when the extreme heat was giving me some extreme electrical bills. I called them up and they said that they had discontinued the program I signed up for, so they unilaterally decided to raise my price to a much higher number. Oh, and would I like to switch to another plan? Lovely.

Lesson 1: “Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

I want the lowest rate I can get. PowerToChoose.com listed several vendors offering 5.5 (give or take) cents/kWh, including one company I’d actually heard of before: Reliant Energy. Several of the vendors explicitly say that their cheap rate is “introductory” and you’ll be switched to the regular rate after one month. Reliant, however, makes no such caveat, at least not that was immediately obvious, so earlier this summer I dumped Amigo and went with Reliant. My first month was cheap. The bill that just arrived, however, averages to 7.5 cents/kWh (including taxes) on 2061 kWh of charges. That’s a $155.39 bill, which is still reasonable in the grand scheme of things for an August in Houston, but it wasn’t the $113.36 that I would have paid at my original rate, either. Oh, and if I call up Reliant on the phone to complain, the contract seems to say that they can charge me $5.95 to speak to a human being. No thanks.

Lesson 2: See lesson 1.

Challenge: how can I consistently pay these low advertised rates? Do I have to switch companies every month? As it turns out, every one of these companies is required to publish an “electrical facts label,” and those tend to include a pointer to a web page with their historical prices. The table below has the actual rates that I’ve been able to glean from these web sites. This was far more difficult to put together than it should have been. (Notes: all of this data was compiled on September 11 from PowerToChoose.com and the various vendors’ web sites. All prices are based on monthly rates at 1000 kWh usage and include CenterPoint delivery charges. If you’re outside of Houston and don’t have CenterPoint, your rates will be different. If you use less than 1000 kWh, many vendors tack on a surcharge that increases your effective electrical rate.)

Company / Product Initial Advertised Rate (at 1000 kWh / month) Historical Rates (at 1000 kWh / month)
First Choice Power (“First Choice Web Advantage Flex”) 5.3¢ No historical rates are on their web site for this specific product. Other products are much more expensive (all greater than 13¢).
Reliant Energy (“Basic Power Flex Plan”) 5.4¢ 8.2 – 10.0¢
Pennywise Power (“Wise Buy Monthly”) 5.4¢ 6.3 – 7.2¢
StarTex Power (“Promotional Month to Month”) 5.5¢ 11.3 – 13.8¢
Bounce Energy (“Thrifty Saver Promotional”) 5.5¢ 11.2 – 13.9¢, but with various promotions, coupons, etc.
Mega Man LP (“Mega Man Savings Plan”) 5.5¢ 11.8 – 12.5¢
Veteran Energy (“Freedom Month to Month”) 5.9¢ 12-13¢
Frontier Utilities (“Winter 11 Special Online Intro”) 6.4¢ 7.8-8.3¢ (only two historical prices are present, so this isn’t very meaningful)
APNA Energy (“Promotional Newcomer Variable”) 7.3¢ 12.3-13.1¢

Beyond this, prices jump two cents or so and we’re starting to see the various “renewable” energy products. What’s actually going on when you sign up for one of these plans is, at best, unclear. The electrons being pumped into your house are coming from the same power plants over the same grid, no matter who you’re actually paying for your service. (Hint: very few of the companies listed above actually own real electric plants. They buy power wholesale and sell it to you at retail.) What you are really doing, when you buy “renewable” power, is buying the same power as anybody else, plus you’re buying “renewable energy credits” (RECs). There’s a whole secondary market for RECs, which the “renewable” power generators sell and which you’re indirectly buying. In theory, this incentivizes power companies to increase their “renewable” capacity so they can capture those extra dollars themselves. In practice? There’s a very good 2009 study on the REC market. At one point, REC prices went negative! Suffice to say that the REC market is a work in progress.

If your goal is to reduce carbon emissions, you could buy “renewable” power, which might eventually do something, or you could invest in making your house more energy efficient, which does something right now. I’m going with plan B (“ask me about overpriced LED lighting!”), but you’re welcome to choose plan A if you want. So what do you pay for “100% renewable” power at variable prices?

Company / Product Initial Advertised Rate (at 1000 kWh / month) Historical Rates (at 1000 kWh / month)
Bounce Energy (“Organic Power Promotional”) 9.3¢ 12.9-14.4¢
Reliant Energy (“Monthly Flex 100% Texas Wind”) 9.4¢ no historical data provided for this product
Kinetic Energy (“Go Green Monthly”) 9.9¢ 7.5-13.3¢
Texas Power (“Promo Pure Variable Month to Month”) 9.9¢ no historical data provided for this product
Gexa Energy (“SmoothStart Green”) 10.4¢ no historical data provided for this product

Okay, let’s try to draw some conclusions. First, the low rates you see advertised on PowerToChoose.com are strictly for the first month of service. After that, your rates will go up, sometimes by a surprising amount. If you want to continue paying the low rate, then you’re going to have to be vigilant about what you’re being charged and you’re going to have to change companies every single month.

If you find that bothersome, then the best deal on the board today seems to be PennyWise. PennyWise is owned by NRG Energy, which also owns Reliant and Green Mountain Energy. In effect, PennyWise is their “discount” brand and Reliant is the “commercial” brand. Whatever. I’m switching to PennyWise and we’ll see whether they continue to have good prices or not.

Sidebar: What if I wanted to put in solar panels?

I’ve been pondering this for years. The front side of my house faces south. There’s a big area on the front roof, unobstructed by trees or anything else, that could well have some nice big solar panels on it. Reliant (but not PennyWise) offers two different programs, announced earlier this year. In one, you “lease” all the gear and in the other, you buy your own gear. Either way, you sell power back to the grid when you’ve got excess generation. Nowhere on any of their web pages are there actual hard numbers. If I buy, what will the gear and installation cost? If I lease, what do I pay up front and per month? Can I buy/sell power with any company on PowerToChoose or do I have to deal with Reliant? What do I pay on and off-peak for power under the variable plan? (I’ve only been able to find an old copy of their fact sheet which has uncompetitive prices.)

I don’t want to deal with a salesman. Please just post all the numbers online, maybe in a convenient Excel spreadsheet, so I can play with it on my own. If you want to be cool, put together an online calculator, like the banks do for mortgages, that asks you all the right questions and then estimates all the costs. Help me calculate when I break even on the deal.

Smart meters

Ever wanted to check your house’s power usage online? You will, or at least you’ll be able to.

CenterPoint Energy, along with other distribution utilities and IBM, is expected to launch an online portal, www.smartmetertexas.com, this month that will allow customers to monitor usage in real time regardless of which retailer provides their electricity.

Without the portal, customers who have the new devices called smart meters have had to seek their usage data through their electricity retailers or by buying a monitoring system.

CenterPoint has installed about 180,000 smart meters so far as part of a four-year program to install them throughout its service area in Southeast Texas.

Because meters take about two months to go fully online, only 130,000 customers will have immediate access to their electricity data on the Web site, CenterPoint spokeswoman Leticia Lowe said.

CenterPoint originally planned to install meters at all its customers’ businesses and residences by 2014, but a $200 million federal grant will help it finish the job by 2012, the company says.

I’m all for making more information available to people, and if this does help folks reduce their monthly bills, so much the better. But as of right now I share Loren Steffy’s skepticism.

Perhaps if the readout [on the usage monitor from CenterPoint we had installed a year ago] had enabled us to actually make changes that would affect our bill, it would have mattered to us more. Maybe if we could buy our electricity based on the time of usage instead of simply the amount, the monitor would have been a useful tool.

But for all the promise of innovation that was supposed to come with deregulation, consumers have seen few changes other than higher and more confusing bills. Smart meters are arriving in the Houston area long after they should have and with fewer options than consumers deserve. And, because CenterPoint remains regulated, ratepayers are shouldering the cost just like the old days. Even some electric retailers I’ve spoken with say they’re skeptical that the new meters will bring significant changes to the market.

Yeah, it sounds better than it probably will be to me, too. Without knowing what exactly is drawing the bulk of your power, how can you sensibly adapt your behavior? And not to put too fine a point on it, but this won’t do anything for folks who don’t have Internet access. A federal grant to do energy audits for lower-income folks, coupled with some money to help them get basic fixes – you know, like this – would probably do a lot more to save people money and reduce consumption at the same time. Sure, go ahead and roll out the smart meters – we’re already paying for them, after all – but don’t expect it to mean much.