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.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Lawson Gow of The Cannon, Kate Evinger of gBETA, and Michael Lee of Octopus Energy. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — sports tech, energy, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is bullish on Houston becoming a sports tech hub. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Is Houston the next hub for sports tech innovation? Lawson Gow thinks so.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

The founder of Houston coworking company, The Cannon, announced last week plans for a sports tech hub in partnership with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company). Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Most accelerators are focused on growing startups in a specific way toward a specific goal. For gBETA Houston, that goal is toward a new round of funding or another accelerator, says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

Evinger shares more details on the ongoing cohort on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the show.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

A $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

A United Kingdom-founded energy company has expanded yet again in the Texas market. Octopus Energy announced the acquisition of Houston-based Brilliant Energy last week, and it's a huge opportunity for the company says Octopus Energy's United States CEO Michael Lee.

"This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes," he says. Click here to read more.

The $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via octopusenergy.com

Energy company with U.S. HQ in Houston acquires local business

M&A

A renewable energy retailer based in the United Kingdom is once again expanding its presence in Texas with another strategic acquisition.

Octopus Energy US, which is based in Houston, announced that it has signed an agreement to acquire Houston-based energy provider Brilliant Energy LLC in a $2.23 million deal. With the acquisition, Octopus Energy will take on the 9,000 residential customers currently supplied by Brilliant Energy. These users will be transitioned onto Octopus Energy's technology platform Kraken.

"Brilliant Energy is a company that has always stood for quality and unique brand experiences. It complements our strong dedication to bringing unparalleled customer experience to our users," says Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US, in a press release. "This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes."

The acquisition is the latest move from Octopus Energy's plans to invest $100 million into the U.S. energy market and target 25 million U.S. energy accounts by 2027, according to the release.

Last fall, Octopus acquired Houston-based Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal. Evolve was founded by Lee, and he transitioned into his role as Octopus CEO following the deal.

Octopus Energy, which was founded around five years ago, reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April 2020.

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy US. Photo via LinkedIn

From a Houston startup exit to the growth of a Rice University startup, here's the short stories of Houston innovation news you may have missed. Pexels

Houston energy company exits, 3 recent investments from local fund, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments, a Houston energy company exits, a growing Rice University startup gets grants, and more.

Octopus Energy acquires Houston-founded Evolve Energy

The $5 million deal means a new focus on Texas for the new parent company. Photo via evolvemyenergy.com

London-based renewable energy company Octopus Energy announced that it's acquired Houston-founded Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal, which represents Octopus's $100 million expansion into the United States market.

Octopus, which reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April, will start its expansion in Texas, according to a news release, operating under the new name Octopus Energy US. Evolve Energy, which was founded in 2018 by Michael Lee, is a Texas-based Capital Factory portfolio company and finished first place in the 2019 EarthX startup competition. The company also has a Silicon Valley office, in addition to its local operation in Houston's Galleria area.

"Octopus Energy is inspirational in growing a customer base of over 1 million households in just four years. It has done so while also achieving customer satisfaction scores similar to Netflix and Amazon. It matches our aspiration for innovation and we're thrilled to be part of the Octopus family," says Lee in the release. "The US energy market is rapidly moving towards ultra-low cost renewable energy and is prime for a true digital transformation."

Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments

Texas Money

Here are the three latest investments from Texas Halo Fund. Getty Images

Houston-based Texas Halo Fund has made three recent investments in August and September.

  • Nexus AI, based in Chicago, the workforce management tech company uses artificial intelligence and organizational behavioral science to predict the best teams or individuals for a project on the startup's cloud-based platform.
  • Rellevate is a Connecticut-based digital fintech company that optimizes employer-based digital account and financial services.
  • MFB Fertility, a Colorado company, has created game-changing at-home test stripts for assaying the hormone progesterone branded as Proov.

Rice University program seeking data projects

The Rice D2K Lab wants to help startups and small businesses solve business concerns with data science. Photo courtesy of Rice

Adata-focused lab at Rice University is seeking data challenges for its group of next generation of data scientists to solve. The Rice D2K Lab is looking for sponsors for its Rice D2K Capstone project in Spring 2021. Rice's D2K Capstone program forms interdisciplinary teams of advanced undergraduate and graduate students to solve pressing real-world data science challenges. The program is accepting project proposals for the Spring 2021 semester through Monday, October 19.

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to get involved.

California startup joins Chevron's Catalyst Program

CTV has a new startup in its Catalyst Program. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures announced that Oakland, California-based Brimstone Energy Inc. has joined CTV's Catalyst Program to continue its development of its decarbonization platform, which focuses on the generation of low-emissions hydrogen, as well as various commodity products, according to a release.

"Brimstone Energy is excited to be supported by Chevron, a multi-national industrial company," says Cody Finke, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Brimstone Energy, in the release. "It is good to see Chevron continue to back companies with decarbonization in their mission."

Rice University-born startup racks up $12.5 million in grants

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

Rice University's OpenStax is able to greatly expand its library of free online textbooks thanks to new grants totaling $12.5 million. The funds derive from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stand Together community, according to a press release from Rice.

The new funds will more than double OpenStax's files from 42 books to 90. Already, the platform has saved 14 million students around the world more than $1 billion.

"Nine years ago, we dreamed about solving the textbook affordability and access crisis for students," says Richard Baraniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice and founder and director of OpenStax, in the release. "Now, with this tremendous investment in open education, we will be able to not only accelerate educational access for tens of millions of students but also drive innovation in high-quality digital learning, which has become commonplace due to COVID-19."

OpenStax is planning to raise $30 million for continued library expansion as it aims to lower the barrier to higher education.

Houston-based Evolve Energy uses a subscription-based wholesale energy plan to help its customers find better prices for more sustainable resources. Photo via evolvemyenergy.com

AI-backed retail energy startup based in Houston prepares to grow its technology

new tech

A wholesale retail energy startup based in Houston is preparing to scale its artificial intelligence-backed business based on its positive customer feedback

Evolve Energy uses AI and machine learning to optimize energy usage, providing customers with the best wholesale energy prices on fluctuating renewable resources.

"We want to help our customers save a significant amount of money on electricity costs and help them decarbonize the grid," CEO Michael Lee tells InnovationMap."There's been a serious of emerging events that enable us to do both at the same time, it's no longer a choice."

Evolve Energy, founded in 2018, sells wholesale electricity at cost to residential customers in Texas, charging a $10 monthly subscription fee plus the cost of wholesale electricity. Using their AI technology, they predict when price surges are likely and determine how much energy the customer needs to hit the parameters set on the app by the customer and usage history. The customer does not need to do anything but pair Evolve with their smart thermostat.

According to Lee, this enables customers to continue to use the same volume of electricity but cut their bill by 40 percent over the course of a year. Evolve uses a different business model, positioning itself not as energy providers but as efficient energy managers, passing their wholesale rate with no markup for even more savings to the customer.

"It builds a lot of trust between the customer and the supplier, they truly see that our incentive is to save them money and not to sell them any more power," Lee says.

With the increasing trend of electrification, Lee sees the role of energy companies grow in importance. This gives energy managers like Evolve a magnified role as machine learning and AI becomes imperative to shift consumption when renewables are cheaper on the grid.

Evolve is backed by several investors including Matt Rogers, the original co-founder of Nest thermostats through his investment platform, Incite; Urban-X funded by BMW MINI which focuses on smart applications; and the Austin-based startup accelerator and investor, Capital Factory.

The company has been officially on the market for the past two months, but it's already working on deploying capital to build in features requested by customers. Evolve expects significant growth in the next few years due to its highly scalable model.

"I'm just glad we could create a product that no longer makes it a choice between reducing emissions and saving money," Lee says.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Overheard: Experts share how Houston can lead commercial space exploration

Eavesdropping in houston

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

Houston's number of 'super commuters' driven up by almost 70 percent, says new report

on the road again

Long commutes are nothing new in Houston. The average worker in Houston spent nearly 27 minutes commuting to work each day — above the national average of 26.4.

A new development in shuttling to work has developed: super commuters. In fact, the number of so-called "super commuters" — those traveling at least 90 minutes to get to work, and another 90 minutes or more to get home, is on the rise.

According to newly released data from new analysis by Apartment List of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Houston area boasts 85,000 super commuters in the region, representing 2.6 percent of our total workforce.

The number of super commuters in the Houston region grew by 68.3 percent from 2010-2019, compared to the 23.0 percent growth rate of the region's overall workforce.

Houston ranks tenth among the regions in the study for the number of super commuters in 2019.

Some 13 percent of the region's super commuters live within a 10-mile radius of downtown, says Apartment List data, demonstrating that not all super commuters travel long distances. Nationally, 13.5 percent of all workers who commute by public transit are super commuters, and transit riders are five times more likely to be super commuters compared to drivers.

In the Greater Houston region, super commuting is most prevalent in Trinity County, where 11 percent of all workers are super commuters, per Apartment List.

According to Apartment List, the rise of remote work "is unlikely to meaningfully alleviate" the long-term trend of more American workers becoming super commuters.

"Since the start of the pandemic, the fastest rent growth in large metros has been occurring in the further suburbs and exurbs, indicating that hybrid remote work arrangement[s] could create a new class of part-time super commuters," Apartment list notes.

In Texas, North Texas grew 49 percent in super commuters from 2010 to 2019.

Stockton, California, notched the biggest share of super commuters in the study (25 percent of the workforce). Elsewhere in Northern California, the San Francisco Bay Area saw the largest growth rate for super commuting from 2010 to 2019 — a whopping 255 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.