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In the Sixth Ward

This Old House saves energy: Bob Vila drawn to Houston's own Innovation Avenue

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Reliant's smart energy expert Wayne Morrison explains how to use the energy monitor; Bob Vila joked about the spike in energy use that this homeowner will be able to detect on the devise. Photo by Whitney Radley
News_Reliant Energy_Innovation Avenue_Mayor Annise Parker
Mayor Parker designated October 11, 2011 as Innovation Avenue Day. Photo by Whitney Radley
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Homeowner Doug Shoemaker explains to Vila how the e-Monitor iPad application has helped his family. Photo by Whitney Radley
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News_Reliant Energy_Innovation Avenue_Mayor Annise Parker
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Home improvement expert and TV personality Bob Vila visited Houston on Tuesday, to check out Reliant Energy's 'living laboratory.' Vila is pleased to see that his passion for historic preservation is gaining momentum in a new and inventive way.

Reliant Innovation Avenue is a block into the historic Sixth Ward, just minutes from downtown. The energy company contacted neighborhood homeowners in early 2011 with a proposal to implement energy alternatives free of cost, and most of the homeowners were (understandably) skeptical at first.

But Reliant performed energy audits, made improvements where it found weaknesses and gave the homeowners technology to track their daily energy usage by email or by web application.

 "It's great," Bob Vila said. "Much more than I would have expected. It's especially nice to see a demonstration project here, in Houston — the energy cradle of America." 

Now there are 12 houses (including this 1896 bungalow), old and new, specifically outfitted with advanced energy technology to best fit their energy needs. The homeowners will provide feedback to Reliant over the next two years about how the energy solutions affect their energy usage. The aim is to use the data to refine, adjust and understand the solutions to make energy consumption and savings as informative and convenient as possible.

"Reliant worked with the city and with CenterPoint Energy to identify the neighborhood," said Pat Hammond, director of communications for Reliant. "We wanted to prove that energy efficiency and preservation can go hand in hand. This is a very diverse street, which makes the feedback very useful. . . It's kind of a microcosm of our customers."

Doug Shoemaker owns an historic home — built in 1893 — in the Sixth Ward neighborhood. He and his wife, Michelle Dugan, moved into the home in 1996 and renovated in '97. They were resigned to wasting their money on excess energy before Reliant's smart energy expert Wayne Morrison knocked on their door.

"It's interesting to see that new technology is as available to our historic home as to Mike and Lorrenda [Lechtenberg's] new one across the street," Shoemaker said. "We're now much more cognizant of when, where and how we're using our energy."

Mayor Annise Parker, who is an avid preservationist, made reference to her "own historical money pit" at the press conference. She is convinced that once people see how easy it is to implement an energy-saving plan, and how cost-effective it is in the long run, they will join in as well.

"Everybody wants to see that something works first," Parker said. "It's all about looking for opportunities and bringing Houstonians along with us."

Vila praised Reliant, Mayor Parker and the City of Houston for the forward-thinking attitude of this project. He revealed to CultureMap that he would never have imagined a scenario like this when he began his television restoration career in 1978.

"Thirty years ago, we were all still high on the 1976 bicentennial. In '78 we began shooting This Old House — the issues of saving energy money were not front and center at that time," Vila said. "In just 10 years we've come leaps and bounds, using wireless technology to gauge energy use. It's great. Much more than I would have expected. It's especially nice to see a demonstration project here, in Houston — the energy cradle of America."

Some of these applications — like weekly energy-use email updates and online account management functions — are available to existing Reliant customers with smart meters. To find out if you have one, contact customer service at Reliant or CenterPoint Energy.

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