No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. Photo via Getty Images

As Texas continues to grapple with fallout from Winter Storm Uri and state regulators determine the next steps forward to strengthen the electricity grid, protecting consumers and providing transparency regarding their energy bills must be the top priority.

When you think about it, asking for transparency from energy suppliers in the state is a simple and direct request. Free markets thrive only when customers have full transparency and information. There are large discrepancies, however, between notification requirements when it comes to variable rate products—where energy prices change monthly based on the market, versus fixed-rate energy products—where prices are locked in for a defined amount of time. Often, consumers are presented with variable rates that can be twice as much as the original fixed rates, and more transparency is needed to fix this.

Due to new regulations enacted recently as a result of HB16, suppliers are required to notify residential consumers of any change to their fixed rate plans. The legislation falls short, however, in protecting the larger segment of energy consumers, those who are already on a variable rate plan either because their plan expired in the past or they actively chose variable short-term rates, by not requiring notification of rate change for these variable rates. As a steadfast, customer-focused energy provider, we are encouraging the Public Utilities Commission of Texas to adopt legislation that would require that any customer on a variable rate be notified ahead of time of a change so they can make more informed decisions — a pricing notification that 82 percent of consumers are in favor of.

Why are notifications important? 

Unfortunately, many energy suppliers thrive by remaining opaque and confusing to the very customers who have invested their trust, and hard earned dollars, in them. In fact, many suppliers have crafted entire business models around the idea that customers will forget that they are on variable rate products and take gross advantage by not notifying customers when the rate changes. This is not a good business practice.

In this type of system, energy providers hike up rates and count on their customers to not notice — it is how they make the most money and secure their bottom line, all at the expense of the customer. As a result, energy consumers are potentially overpaying significant amounts for their energy. We have found some customers were paying almost twice our standard rate before they switched to us.

Second, it is incredibly low cost for energy suppliers to provide this basic notification while also extremely high value to customers. It is consumer protection at its core: providing the consumer with necessary information so that they can make informed decisions about their energy.

Transparency by consumer services is the norm

Rather than keeping business as usual, new legislation should be introduced to mandate email or text message notifications well in advance of any rate change on a variable energy product. If a customer is on a monthly variable rate, for example, this means suppliers would be required to send a notification every month before a rate changes, providing consumers with the opportunity to change energy providers or products as they see fit. These notifications on price hikes and slashes are already in demand: The majority of customers (83 percent) have noted that it is important that their energy provider is transparent with rate changes. We are simply advocating that customers want and should be informed. Life is busy. Customers should have all the important information, such as their energy rates, at their fingertips.

Other consumer services that we use every day, including streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, regularly provide this information to their customers. When prices increase on these platforms, customers are notified ahead of time via email and can choose whether to continue service at the new rate or cancel. This simple act of consumer transparency, no matter how long a customer has been a subscriber, is simple, effective and shows trustworthiness from the companies. Most importantly, consumers are always informed and are provided the information needed to make a decision that best fits their lifestyle. Despite the energy industry's long history of opaqueness, the same should be the case for energy suppliers and their customers.

New age of innovation and consumer choice

In addition to acting in the best interest of consumers, legislation requiring energy suppliers to provide timely rate updates to customers on variable energy products would also encourage healthy market competition and spur more innovation within the energy industry. Suppliers would be pushed to think more creatively about the types of products they offer their customers, creating even more options for consumers to choose and benefit from.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. While HB16 tries to address this, it doesn't go far enough. Transparency in energy pricing is necessary and simply the right thing to do.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Texas again ranks poorly for its energy efficiency

It's not easy being green

Despite some growth in the industry's regional job market, Texas fails to rise through the ranks of a national report on energy efficiency.

For the second year in a row, the Lone Star State has made the list of the states with the worst energy efficiency, according to a report for personal finance website, WalletHub. Last year, the state ranked No. 42 in the country; however, this year's study had Texas at No. 41 of the 48 states evaluated. Hawaii and Alaska were left out due to data restrictions.

The report, which was released just in time for National Energy Awareness Month, looked at consumer usage of home electricity, as well as oil and fuel for cars and trucks. According to the report, a United States family will spend around $2,000 annually on utilities — and heating and cooling makes up about half of that bill. On average in 2018, consumers spent another $2,109 on oil and fuel for their vehicles.

Adopting energy-efficient tools and practices could help reduce consumer cost by 25 percent for utilities and around $638 on the roads. Texas has seen a growth in the job market for positions relating to energy efficiency, according to a recent report. The number of energy-efficiency-oriented jobs across Texas rose by 5.3 percent last year to 162,816, according to the report, and energy-efficiency workers account for 17 percent of all energy workers in Texas, the report says.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 36.48 total points on the WalletHub report, which is up slightly from last year's 33.34 points. The state ranked No. 36 on home energy efficiency and No. 45 for auto energy efficiency.

Texans drove over 270 billion miles last year and used over 20 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

While maybe the state isn't rising on this list of consumer energy efficiency yet, the state has seen great economic growth specifically in the wind energy industry. The American Wind Energy Association's annual report for 2018 shows the wind energy sector employs between 25,000 and 26,000 people in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, up from 24,000 to 25,000 in 2017, with the total investment in Texas wind energy projects sitting at a whopping $46.5 billion. More than one-fifth of wind energy jobs in the U.S. are located in Texas.

"Houston is actively working to grow this sector, so we hope people will seriously think of Houston when they think of renewables in this new era of energy," Davenport says at an April 9 news conference in Houston where the American Wind Energy Association released its 2018 state-of-the-industry report.

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Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.

Houston startup secures $10M to expand into rural communities

ready to grow

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs.

The company has pioneered a proprietary “small footprint primary care delivery model,” which is considered suitable for rural markets, employer worksites, office buildings, schools, and university campuses. The cost-effective microclinics are “prefabricated facilities” that are designed for primary care services, and employ a hybrid in-person and telemedicine care approach.

Hamilton began his career as a physician before founding Emerus Holdings, which is a micro-hospital system in the Houston area that later moved to private equity.

The recently acquired funding will help expedite the high-touch care model to 98 million Americans in HPSAs, which was a goal for when the company was established during the Covid-19 pandemic. HHB has made partnerships with Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) to provide primary care services both at existing FQHC centers and through new sites in rural areas.

"Hamilton Health Box that was designed to deliver the lowest possible price of primary and preventative care," Hamilton said in a previous interview with Innovation Map. "We built that to be able to take that care to the jobsite and meet the customer where they are at."