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.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.