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Houston tackles storm and population surges in its customary ways

HOUSTON -- Standing in her kitchen, here, Michelle Dugan shows off the electronic gadget that might help her save on the substantial heating and cooling bills for her drafty, 120-year-old home.

A small touch-screen monitor on the energy-tracking device her utility, Reliant Energy, gave her allows Dugan's family to follow the energy consumption of the 2,700-square-foot house in real time. Thanks to her neighborhood's participation in Reliant's experimental program, Dugan says she now knows precisely how much electricity each of her appliances uses at any given time.

"I have three children," Dugan explained during a tour of homes in Reliant's "Innovation Avenue" project, on a historic street just at the foot of downtown Houston. "I've been telling them forever to turn off the lights, shut down your computers, shut down the TVs, and they don't believe me. So this is a good backup."

Reliant's "Innovation Avenue" is a very small step toward lessening the environmental impact and energy needs of the city of Houston. It's also indicative of the hard road ahead for the city, and its government's overwhelming reliance on private companies to meet various eco-friendly targets.

In this sprawling, car-dependent, polluted city known for dirty air and as a center of the oil and gas industry, promoting environmentally friendly initiatives is often an uphill battle. At 640 square miles in area, Houston alone is more sprawling than Los Angeles and over half the size of Rhode Island, not including its largest suburbs.

The sprawl leaves the city heavily dependent on the automobile, and a large concentration of manufacturing in the city and dependence on air conditioning in its steamy summer months make it one of the most voracious urban consumers of electricity in the country.

Planning remains limited

And though the city has been a target of severe storms that scientists say could be made worse by climate change in the future, city officials admit that they still have no long-term mitigation plan and are limited in their ability to control the fast-growing city's greenhouse gas emissions and their related costs.

A 2011 private study of electricity rates in various cities concluded that Houston has the second most expensive utility market in the nation, after New York City. Reliant company officials believe that consumption monitors, advanced smart meters, and other energy-efficient devices and services like those they gave Dugan's family will give them a some help navigating the city's deregulated and increasingly pricey electricity market.

"It's really a living laboratory," Wayne Morrison, manager of smart energy and Reliant, explained with regard to the two-year-old Innovation Avenue pilot project, "to have customers that don't deal with energy every day tell us what is it that they like, what they use."

Several initiatives by government and the private sector are in the works to develop some green credentials for Houston. The idea is to make the city as famous for its energy efficiency, electric cars and renewable power as it is for the region's oil refineries.

Despite a sluggish electric vehicle market, the city continues to put up advanced charging stations, mainly for its own growing electric vehicle fleet but also for private commuters. The city is also working with Reliant, TXU and other local electricity retailers to encourage more energy-efficient purchases and practices by households and businesses. And the city has led the way in Texas in pushing for aggressive energy efficiency standards for new homes.

Houston's recent adverse experience with Hurricane Ike, which knocked out power to much of the city for up to two weeks, is also making policymakers and city academic leaders more aware of risks and more aggressive in their plans to safeguard infrastructure from the next inevitable storm.

In an interview, newly re-elected Mayor Annise Parker insisted that climate change is on the city's mind. But she said how the city goes about preparing for it wouldn't be any different from how the city currently prepares for storms and sea-level rise. She doesn't see the need for any larger climate change impact study or a climate change task force like those formed in New York and other large coastal metropolises.

"Houston regularly and routinely plans for severe storms," Parker said. "While climate change may have exacerbated the problem, we're a coastal city in a hurricane zone, and so each year we plan for a maximum full-impact storm and we hope that it doesn't happen. So there's nothing different at all about that."

Experts see a need for major investments

Nevertheless, experts who studied the aftermath of the September 2008 landfall of Hurricane Ike and its aftermath have concluded that the city of Houston was far less prepared to deal with a major storm than its leaders thought. Major investments will be needed to protect neighborhoods from flooding and losing power, particularly along the Houston Ship Channel -- one of the most important ports in the United States and home to a significant proportion of the nation's refining capacity.

In a study released in November last year, a panel of researchers led by Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evaluation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center warned that the city and the Houston Ship Channel are still dangerously exposed to stronger hurricanes. The steady onslaught of wind during Ike's pass over the eastern half of Houston brought down thousands of trees and limbs onto power lines, and the powerful storm's surge pushed waves from the Gulf of Mexico over land adjacent to the channel.

"Hurricane Ike served to highlight the vulnerability of this region to severe storms, but Ike also followed an eerily similar path to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, indicating that the event was not unprecedented," the Rice University panel said in its report. "Often, the delay between events causes citizens to forget how vulnerable a region is."

To prepare for the next hurricane event, which everyone agrees is inevitable, the SSPEED Center is recommending that Houston spend billions of dollars to build massive levees and floodgates designed to keep storm surge out of the Houston Ship Channel and its adjacent neighborhoods. It also proposes restoring much of the lost wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico Coast, creating a natural barrier that could absorb much of the storm's energy like a sponge, protecting populated inland areas.

Parker said her office is still reviewing the Rice University study and has yet to form an opinion on its recommendations. But she expressed particular interest in its recommendation to restore wetlands.

"Restoring land barrier I think is a good place to move toward, but it will depend on all coastal communities to come together," Parker said. "Now the challenge will be to see if we can bring the coastal communities that would be most affected plus the city of Houston, together with the state, to make it happen in a time with no budget flexibility at any level of government."

Hurricane and drought helped clear tree limbs

As for advancing other possible climate change mitigation and adaptation proposals, Parker said her hands are tied.

Unlike San Antonio and Austin, Houston doesn't own or control its power infrastructure. Reliant, TXU and others sell supply, while CenterPoint Energy owns and controls the lines that it runs on. It would take state legislation to compel CenterPoint to move the most critical electrical infrastructure underground, and so far, the business-friendly state government has shown no interest in doing so.

Instead, Parker said her administration is moving ahead with investments to shore up critical city-owned infrastructure, installing emergency generators next to important water pumping stations. The city is also taking steps to clear brush and branches from power lines, to ensure that the city isn't crippled by the next storm as it was in 2008, though Ike and the 2011 drought have already taken care of much of the clearing problem already.

The city is also becoming increasing aggressive in instituting new energy-efficient building codes. Managing future growth is an obsession for city planners today -- for good reason. By some estimates, Houston is expected to more than double in population by the year 2030, likely eclipsing Chicago by then as the nation's third-largest city.

Four years ago, Houston's city council adopted standards requiring that new buildings be 15 percent more energy-efficient than the existing international model standards at the time. The rest of Texas quickly followed suit. And this past December, the council repeated the move, adopting future codes that require new buildings to be a further 5 percent more efficient than new statewide standards adopted this month.

These moves, along with the city government's famous position as the largest municipal purchaser of wind power energy in the nation, prompted the Austin-based group Environment Texas to label Houston "America's emerging clean energy capital" in a November policy overview.

Examples cited included the city government's reliance on wind for 32 percent of its power and its purchase of the nation's third-largest municipal fleet of hybrid-electric vehicles. Environment Texas also praised the city for its large system of electric vehicle charging stations.

In its 24-page report, the group urged the city to double down on its green efforts. It argued that the city should push for net-zero energy performance of homes and aggressively expand solar power throughout the relatively sunny city. Environmentalists also want to see Houston introduce tax incentives to encourage the purchase of electric vehicles.

"Because of the work Houston has already done, it has a bright future in clean energy," the authors wrote. "However, in order to maintain its current trajectory and continue to deliver benefits to all Greater Houston residents, policymakers must accelerate efforts to save energy through energy efficiency measures and produce more renewable electricity."

But officials say that, like with climate change mitigation, the city's options are again limited.

Since it doesn't control a local utility like Austin and San Antonio do, Houston can't order more renewable energy for the city as a whole, and it can't aggressively push solar installations onto the city's abundant flat roof spaces, though the government has put up several demonstration projects in an aim to encourage the private sector to follow.

'What would we do differently?'

The 2010 census puts the city's metro area population at just under 6 million; thus traffic congestion, a perennial problem, has grown worse. The city is moving quickly to expand its light-rail network, and plans are in the works for wider bus service and more high-occupancy vehicle lanes for freeways, Parker said, but she complained that the city seemed to be growing faster than its ability to keep up.

Houston is also a routine violator of U.S. EPA clean air standards, but here again, there's little that can be done, Parker insists.

The main culprit, vehicle emissions, can only be regulated by the federal government. Fugitive emissions from the refineries are also a problem, but the city of Houston itself only hosts a small number of the actual plants, with most located in the neighboring jurisdictions of Baytown, Pasadena and Texas City.

Protecting the city and its port from climate change and dangerous storms also will require substantial state and federal government involvement.

Houston will plan ahead for the potential negative impacts of global warming, and the city government promises to continue its purchase of wind power, promote greater energy efficiency and expand its public transportation network.

Beyond that observers can expect Houston to take a "business as usual" approach to climate mitigation and adaptation, moving to protect infrastructure and mitigate risks where the city can, while encouraging higher levels of government and the private sector to follow in areas where it can't.

"What would we do differently?" Mayor Parker asked. "We prepare every year for a hurricane. We work daily to try to reduce our carbon footprint. Yes, it is important to do if you believe in climate change, but it's also important to do for the city's bottom line.

"It's not about a big conference and a headline; it's about just the routine operations of the city."

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