Elizabeth Gonzalez Brock was named as board chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston Mayor John Whitmire named the new board chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County.

An executive at Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, Elizabeth Gonzalez Brock was appointed to lead Houston METRO. The move, pending City Council and board approval, would make her the first Hispanic woman to chair the state's largest transit authority.

"I am grateful to Mayor Whitmire for the honor and opportunity to lead METRO as Board Chair and to be entrusted with this important responsibility, said Brock in a news release. “By appointing the first Hispanic woman in this role, the mayor confirms his commitment to identifying experienced, qualified, and diverse individuals to serve our city and his administration.

"I look forward to working collaboratively with the mayor, the METRO Board, and all levels of government to transform METRO into a best-in-class model of transit, accountability and transparency," she continues. "We will empower a strong management team that will drive measurable results and work directly with customers to understand their real needs to make public transit a safe, clean, and viable option for everyone.”

Brock is vice president of utility infrastructure planning and policy at CenterPoint Energy where she led large customer service, business, and economic development. Brock previously held positions at Reliant Energy, Texas Southern University, and the University of Houston in leadership roles. Brock graduated from the University of Houston with a bachelor's degree in political science.

She has been a member of the Board of Houston First Corporation since 2017 and was a founding member and chair of EV nonprofit Evolve Houston.

"Elizabeth is the leader we need for METRO today,” Whitmire said in a news release. “She brings a 'customer first' mindset, which is exactly the thinking our community deserves," Mayor Whitmire said. "Safety and reliability are key for all who depend on or commute alongside public transportation. I am confident that Elizabeth will use her results-driven expertise to drive METRO to deliver a user-friendly and fiscally responsible transit system to all. She understands that my priority is providing mobility options for all Houstonians."

The area has a 1,309-square-mile service area and an annual budget of $ 1.6 billion.

Recently, Whitmire announced Houston Airports Chief Operating Officer Jim Szczesniak replaced longtime Director Mario Diaz. Diaz was head of Houston Airports since 2010 and oversaw the George Bush Intercontinental Airport, William P. Hobby Airport and Ellington Airport, a military use airport. Szczesniak served as Houston Airport’ chief operating officer for the past two years. He previously led the multibillion-dollar capital improvement program.

Harris County was awarded $1.64 million, the largest total among the local governments. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-area counties land DOE funding for energy infrastructure projects

seeing green

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded more than $2 million to Harris and Montgomery counties for projects that improve energy efficiency and infrastructure in the region.

The funds come from the DOE's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program. Harris and Montgomery counties are among 28 state, local, and Tribal governments to have been awarded a total of $30 million through the initiative, according to a statement.

The grants were awarded to eight states, four cities, four counties and 12 smaller, rural communities.

“Our local governments are at the forefront of our clean energy revolution and are critical touchpoints with our nation’s communities creating clean, healthy and affordable communities,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm says in a statement. “With historic funding thanks to President Biden’s clean energy laws, more Americans will receive upgrades to their homes through residential energy efficiency rebates, expanded weatherization efforts, and electrification programs that will save them energy and increase their comfort.

"This funding will also invest in improving public spaces, giving more Americans across the country access to energy efficient technologies and clean energy infrastructure in their communities such as heat pumps, LED lights, solar energy, and EV charging stations,” she continues.

Harris County was awarded $1.64 million, the largest total among the local governments. It will be put toward for several projects:

  • Conducting community engagement with disadvantaged communities for climate justice planning
  • Performing site assessments for solar and storage on county properties in disadvantaged communities
  • Conducting recycling pilots at county facilities
  • Enhancing walking and bicycling to school as part of the Safe Routes to School plan
  • Deploying an off-grid, solar EV station on county property in a disadvantaged community in the greater-Houston area

Montgomery County was awarded $457,580 to replace 150 metal halide lights at a community sports field with LED lights and add wireless controls.

According to the DOE, more than $430 million in formula grant funding is available through the EECBG Program and another 2,700 governments and tribes are eligible for funds. Grants are slated to be awarded on a rolling basis as the department receives applications. The application deadline for eligible local governments and tribes has been extended to April 30, 2024.

Other states, local governments and tribes to recieve funding in this round include:

States

  • Alabama ($2,207,540)
  • Alaska ($1,627,450)
  • Idaho ($1,742,300)
  • Louisiana ($2,149,350)
  • Maine ($1,668,790)
  • Ohio ($3,130,030)
  • Rhode Island ($1,675,110)
  • Washington ($2,273,890)

Local governments

  • Bend, Oregon ($152,740)
  • Boston, Massachusetts ($659,990)
  • Los Angeles County, California ($1,344,700)
  • Minneapolis, Minnesota ($424,330)
  • Nashville, Tennessee ($644,440)
  • Wagoner County, Oklahoma ($76,900)

EECBG Program Competitive Awards

  • Albany, California ($200,000)
  • Cascade, Idaho ($200,000)
  • Decatur, Georgia ($400,000)
  • Decorah, Iowa ($1,100,000)
  • Durham County, North Carolina ($1,500,000)
  • Eagle County, Colorado ($1,400,000)
  • Exeter, New Hampshire ($200,000)
  • Kittery, Maine ($800,000)
  • Littleton, Massachusetts ($300,000)
  • MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians in Alabama ($1,100,000)
  • Nenana, Alaska ($900,000)
  • Peterborough, New Hampshire ($700,000) and Harrisville, NH

The funds add to the list for grants the federal government has doled out to Houston-area projects related to the energy transition in recent months.

Earlier in October, Granholm announced that the HyVelocity Hydrogen Hub would receive funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The project, which connects more than 1,000 miles of hydrogen pipelines, 48 hydrogen production facilities and dozens of hydrogen end-use applications across Texas and Southwest Louisiana will receive up to $1.2 billion.

The DOE also granted more than $10 million in funding to four carbon capture projects with ties to Houston earlier this summer.

And in September, Rice University announced that it would host the Carbon Management Community Summit this fall, sponsored by the DOE, and in partnership with the city of Houston and climate change-focused multimedia company Climate Now. The event takes place next month.
The improvements are expected to reduce emissions by 241,000 metric tons a year and save over $54 million by 2043. Photo courtesy of NRG

NRG Park announces historic complex-wide sustainability project

sustainability score

A Houston organization has announced a major energy efficiency and sustainability project that, in 20 years, will end up paying for itself with the savings alone.

The project is a collaboration between Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC), NRG Park, and Harris County. The 20-year savings of the improvements are estimated to generate more than $54 million.

"We remain committed to maintaining NRG Park's distinct position as a part of the fabric of our community and a landmark for visitors globally," Ryan Walsh, CEO and executive director of HCSCC and NRG Park, says in a news release. "These enhancements allow us to maintain our reputation for excellence and continue to deliver the best fan experiences, while exploring innovative and financially responsible approaches to sustainability."

The project, according to the news release, is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 241,000 metric tons a year. The plan includes: upgrades to HVAC equipment, building automation systems, water conservation, life safety systems and lighting improvements, and the high-efficiency chiller system.

The teams from Johnson Controls and NRG celebrated the partnership earlier this summer. Photo courtesy of Johnson Controls

Additionally, the park will integrate a system from Johnson Controls — OpenBlue Central Utility Plant — and the company will continue to measure and track results through an ongoing service agreement.

"Our partnership with Harris County and HCSCC's team to guide the enhancement initiative at NRG Park is paving the way for more sustainable practices across the sports and entertainment sector," Julie Brandt, president of Building Solutions North America at Johnson Controls, says in a statement. "We look forward to seeing how this project will inspire other industry leaders and drive smart savings and significant emissions reduction, not only in Harris County but on a national scale."

NRG Park, comprised of NRG Center, NRG Stadium and NRG Arena, is home to the annual 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the NFL Houston Texans. The 350-acre complex will also host the College Football Playoff Championship, the FIFA World Cup, and more than 500 other events this year.

"NRG Park is a premier destination that welcomes more than 5.5 million people annually," says Rodney Ellis, Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 1, in the release. "These enhancements will create a more enjoyable and resilient environment for people traveling from near and far to attend the multitude of events hosted there."

It's not the first time NRG has invested in energy efficiency. In 2014, NRG Stadium became the first professional football stadium in the country with LED lights, Elizabeth Killinger, executive vice president of NRG Retail, said at the time. NRG also became the first professional sports stadium in Texas to install solar panels. At the time, the organization also announced electric vehicle charging stations.

Earlier this year, the Houston Texans announced a sustainability project of their own. In partnership with 1PointFive, the Texans’ Preferred Carbon Removal Partner, the team launched the Touchdown for Trees program the Touchdown for Trees program to recapture carbon emissions. For every touchdown scored by the Texans in the 2022, 2023, and 2024 seasons, the team pledges to plant 1.5 trees in the greater Houston area.

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Greentown Labs to launch another executive search, CEO to step down after less than a year in the position

on the hunt

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

Houston expert: How to make the EV switch while factoring in impact, cost

Guest Column

Americans are in the midst of getting to know electric cars up close and personal. The finer points of charging and battery technology are now becoming mainstream news.

However, there’s a secret about electric vehicles (EVs) that very few people know, because very few people have driven an electric car with 50,000 or 100,000 miles on it. Very often, EVs drive like new even if they’ve clocked up the miles. No rattles and no shakes, and importantly there is no loss of efficiency, unlike gas cars which tend to lose fuel efficiency as they age. Most strikingly, battery degradation and loss of range is often minimal — even after the odometer hits 6 digits.

What does this mean? At a time when car payments, repair costs and gas prices are all weighing on consumer wallets, we are about to enter an era when it will get easier than ever before for Americans to find a great driving, longer lasting car that saves on fuel costs and needs less maintenance.

This represents an amazing source of value for American drivers to be tapped into - plus even more positive changes for the auto sector, and the potential for new business models.

Narratives about EVs have focused on fears about battery degradation and today’s models becoming dated as technology rapidly advances. The fact that we are all habituated to replacing smartphone batteries that fade within 2 to 3 years doesn’t help.

Auto manufacturers have put 100,000 mile warranties on batteries, but this may have created the perception that this is a ceiling, rather than a floor, for what can be expected from an EV battery.

EV batteries are performing much better than your last smartphone battery. We know this with growing certainty because it’s backed up by evidence. Data reveals that older Teslas average only 12 percent loss of original range at 200,000 miles — double the warranty period.

Furthermore, battery advances are happening at an encouraging pace. You can expect that newer batteries will start with higher ranges and degrade even more slowly. And even after they do, the value shorter range will increase as charging infrastructure matures.

In other words, a 2024 Volkswagen ID.4 with 291 miles of range may be down to 260 miles by the time it has put on 100,000 miles. But in the 5 to 7 years that typically takes, the buildout of charging stations means that range will have much more utility than today.

So in sum, electric vehicles can be expected to last longer with lower maintenance. Over-the-air software upgrades, and perhaps even computing hardware upgrades, will keep them feeling modern. Charging infrastructure will improve much faster than range will degrade. And crucially for the value of these cars, the drive quality will remain great much further into product lifetime.

The trend for driving older cars is already here – the average age of a car on US roads is 12 years old and rising. But now this will shift towards better quality, plus fuel savings, for more people.

New business models and services will help customers take advantage — especially those customers for whom lower cost EVs will represent a step up and savings on the cost of living.

At Houston-based Octopus Electric Vehicles, we are doing this today with something virtually unheard of: leasing pre-owned cars. With electric cars that are 1 to 4 years old, with clean histories and in excellent cosmetic and mechanical condition but depreciated relative to new EV prices, we are frequently able to offer discounts of 30 percent or more, even against heavily incentivized lease offers from automakers. And, because EV maintenance needs are lower, we can throw in free scheduled maintenance with our monthly payment, delivered by a mobile mechanic service.

The secret value of higher-mileage EVs won’t stay secret for long. There’s no replacing first hand experience, and you can probably get that the next time you order an Uber or Lyft by choosing their EV ride options. Before your ride is up, try to guess what’s on the odometer. You may be surprised to hear from your driver that the car you thought was brand new has 50,000 or 100,000 miles on it.

———

Nathan Wyeth is the United States co-lead at Octopus Electric Vehicles.

New endangered listing for rare lizard could slow oil and gas drilling in Texas, New Mexico

to save the species

Federal wildlife officials declared a rare lizard in southeastern New Mexico and West Texas an endangered species Friday, citing future energy development, sand mining and climate change as the biggest threats to its survival in one of the world’s most lucrative oil and natural gas basins.

“We have determined that the dunes sagebrush lizard is in danger of extinction throughout all of its range,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. It concluded that the lizard already is “functionally extinct” across 47 percent of its range.

Much of the the 2.5-inch-long (6.5-centimeter), spiny, light brown lizard's remaining habitat has been fragmented, preventing the species from finding mates beyond those already living close by, according to biologists.

“Even if there were no further expansion of the oil and gas or sand mining industry, the existing footprint of these operations will continue to negatively affect the dunes sagebrush lizard into the future,” the service said in its final determination, published in the Federal Register.

The decision caps two decades of legal and regulatory skirmishes between the U.S. government, conservationists and the oil and gas industry. Environmentalists cheered the move, while industry leaders condemned it as a threat to future production of the fossil fuels.

The decision provides a “lifeline for survival” for a unique species whose “only fault has been occupying a habitat that the fossil fuel industry has been wanting to claw away from it,” said Bryan Bird, the Southwest director for Defenders of Wildlife.

“The dunes sagebrush lizard spent far too long languishing in a Pandora’s box of political and administrative back and forth even as its population was in free-fall towards extinction,” Bird said in a statement.

The Permian Basin Petroleum Association and the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association expressed disappointment, saying the determination flies in the face of available science and ignores longstanding state-sponsored conservation efforts across hundreds of thousands of acres and commitment of millions of dollars in both states.

“This listing will bring no additional benefit for the species and its habitat, yet could be detrimental to those living and working in the region,” PBPA President Ben Shepperd and NMOGA President and CEO Missi Currier said in a joint statement, adding that they view it as a federal overreach that can harm communities.

Scientists say the lizards are found only in the Permian Basin, the second-smallest range of any North American lizard. The reptiles live in sand dunes and among shinnery oak, where they feed on insects and spiders and burrow into the sand for protection from extreme temperatures.

Environmentalists first petitioned for the species' protection in 2002, and in 2010 federal officials found that it was warranted. That prompted an outcry from some members of Congress and communities that rely on oil and gas development for jobs and tax revenue.

Several Republican lawmakers sent a letter to officials in the Obama administration asking to delay a final decision, and in 2012, federal officials decided against listing the dunes sagebrush lizard.

Then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said at the time that the decision was based on the “best available science” and because of voluntary conservation agreements in place in New Mexico and Texas.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in Friday's decision that such agreements “have provided, and continue to provide, many conservation benefits” for the lizard, but “based on the information we reviewed in our assessment, we conclude that the risk of extinction for the dunes sagebrush lizard is high despite these efforts.”

Among other things, the network of roads will continue to restrict movement and facilitate direct mortality of dunes sagebrush lizards from traffic, it added, while industrial development “will continue to have edge effects on surrounding habitat and weaken the structure of the sand dune formations.”