Oil-Centric Houston to Experiment With (Coal-Powered) Electric Cars

Houston has long enjoyed its status as America's oil capital, the type of city where the local Petroleum Club threw a $100,000 gala during a period of then-record high gas prices. But things are changing, thanks to a light rail system that is exceeding ridership predictions and encouraging pedestrian-friendly development.

260xStory.jpgOne of Houston's new charging stations for plug-in hybrid vehicles. (Photo: Chronicle)

The city's latest attempt to break from its oil-centric culture: charging stations for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Houston Mayor Bill White yesterday announced a partnership with utility Reliant Energy to convert 10 Toyota Priuses from the city's vehicle fleet into plug-in hybrids, while installing 10 electric charging stations that would be open to the public at a small cost.

“We're committed to making Houston the nation's green energy capital,” White said in a statement on the Reliant deal. “That commitment begins at City Hall and these clean-running electric cars and the charging stations that will be available to all Houstonians will get us farther down that road.”

The Wall Street Journal was elated by the city's small-scale move, writing:

Unlike in green urbs like San Francisco or Seattle, it’s all but impossible to live here without wheels -- so they might as well be electric. It will probably be cheaper and easier to electrify urban sprawl than rein it in altogether.

Houston's electrified light rail got no mention in the piece, though the Journal did call the city's power network "fairly clean." Indeed, Texas has seen some growth in wind and other clean energy sources -- the federal government recently ranked it No. 5 for state renewable power generation -- but Reliant's record is hardly spotless.

In 2007, the same year that Texas got its No. 5 ranking, the state of New Jersey filed a lawsuit against Reliant's mid-Atlantic division, charging the company with violating the Clean Air Act by modifying a coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania to increase its pollution levels.

“It seems that we cannot rely on Reliant, except to put the public in harm’s way," Lisa Jackson, then New Jersey's environmental protection chief, said at the time of the lawsuit. Jackson has since become the chief of the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency.