Friday AM January 18th, 2008

ERCOT says state power grid changes will cost more than expected…CB&I lands $285 million refinery expansion deal…Rice Alliance for Technology & Entrepreneurship and NASA to sponsor Earth/Space Life Sciences Innovation Award at 2008 Rice Business Plan Competition… The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says a plan to change the way the state power grid operates […]

ERCOT says state power grid changes will cost more than expected…CB&I lands $285 million refinery expansion deal…Rice Alliance for Technology & Entrepreneurship and NASA to sponsor Earth/Space Life Sciences Innovation Award at 2008 Rice Business Plan Competition…

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas says a plan to change the way the state power grid operates will cost about $62 million more than expected. ERCOT runs that grid. ERCOT’s board voted to raise the cost of switching to a “nodal” market to $311.3 million. The previous estimate had been $248.9 million. The costs will be passed on to electricity users in the form of a surcharge. The Dallas Morning News reports the surcharge would be about 17 cents for the average household, up from 13 cents. The surcharge technically would be paid by wholesale power companies, which could pass along the cost to customers. ERCOT is to switch to a new wholesale market system on December 1st to improve efficiency of the system. Electricity will be priced through about 4,000 nodes, rather than averaged across large regions. The switch is expected to more precisely identify costly bottlenecks or spots that could use new power plants. ERCOT says the cost of the switch rose because of changes to the scope of the project and higher-than-expected prices from a particular vendor.

Texas expanded its wind-energy capacity by 57 percent in 2007. A trade group reports that solidifies the state’s position as the nation’s leader in wind-generated power. The American Wind Energy Association says nationally, more than $9 billion in investments helped U.S. capacity grow by 45 percent last year. Industry officials say 2008 is poised to match those levels. The installed capacity for Texas jumped to 4,356 megawatts at the end of 2007–from 2,768 megawatts one year ago. Texas is followed by California, Minnesota, Iowa and Washington. What’s more, Texas has more than 1,200 megawatts under construction, far ahead of any other state. Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson says Texas understands the energy business, so it’s no great shock we’re out ahead of the pack when it comes to wind energy.

Chicago Bridge & Iron has been awarded a $285 million contract to expand an unnamed U.S. refinery, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Woodlands-based CB&I will take charge of engineering, procurement and fabrication of a sulfur recovery and hydrogen complex.

The number of newly laid-off workers filing applications for unemployment benefits has fallen for the third consecutive week. The Labor Department says new claims for unemployment benefits were down 21,000 last week to 301,000. That’s the lowest level for weekly claims since late September. Analysts had been expecting claims to rise this week. They still believe that the labor market is weakening under the strains of a serious downturn in housing and an overall economic slowdown.

New home construction fell in 2007 by the largest amount in 27 years. The Commerce Department says construction began on 1.353 million new homes and apartments last year, down 24.8 percent from 2006. It was the second-biggest annual decline on record. The biggest was a 26 percent plunge in 1980, when the Federal Reserve was pushing interest rates to post-world war ii records in an effort to combat inflation. Many economists believe that the current slump in housing will rival the dive in the late 1970s and early 1980s when housing construction fell for four straight years. It finally began to recover after the severe 1981-82 recession. For December, construction fell by a bigger-than-expected 14.2 percent.

Online registration has begun for this year’s Offshore Technology Conference. OTC is set for May 5th through the 8th at Reliant Center. The conference for offshore exploration and production professionals will cover more than 500,000 square feet, with some 300 technical presentations planned. This year’s Awards Luncheon keynote speaker is PEMEX Director General Jesus Reyes-Heroles.

The Rice Alliance for Technology & Entrepreneurship has teamed with NASA on the 2008 Rice Business Plan Competition. NASA is sponsoring a new $20,000 cash prize called the NASA Earth/Space Life Sciences Innovation Award. The prize will be awarded to the team with the best business plan presenting a life sciences technology with applications for NASA’s space life science program and for Earth-based use. That could include technology innovations that address medical issues such as bone loss or cardiovascular problems, sleep or human performance factors or smart medical devices. The winner of the NASA Award will also qualify to compete for the overall Grand Prize at the 2008 Rice Business Plan Competition in April.

Noble Corporation is selling its North Sea platform drilling business to Seawell Holding UK in a $35 million deal, according to the Houston Business Journal. Sugar Land-based Noble says the deal includes labor contracts covering 11 platform operations in the United Kingdom part of the North Sea, currently around 450 workers.

Houston-based Discover Houston Tours will offer neighborhood bus tours through Houston’s six historic wards beginning this Saturday. The tour will roll past the childhood homes of Jack Valenti and Mary Kay Wagner Ash, as well as past David Adickes’ sculptures of presidents and the Beatles. The tours begin at the Houston Visitors Center inside City Hall on Bagby.

The Houston Aeros have negotiated a three-game broadcast deal with Fox Sports Net, according to the Houston Business Journal. The American Hockey League team’s games will be on FSN Houston (Comcast channel 37) starting with the January 18th home game against Toronto.

Time Warner Cable says it’ll experiment with a new pricing structure for high-speed Internet access later this year. It says it plans to experiment with charging customers according to how much data they download. The nation’s second-largest cable television provider says it’ll start the trial in Beaumont. Time Warner says it’ll sell new Internet customers tiered levels of service there, based on how much data they download per month instead of the usual fixed-price packages with unlimited downloads. Company spokesman Alex Dudley said he did not know what the pricing tiers would be nor the download limits. He said the heavy users were likely using the network to download large amounts of video, most likely in high definition. It’s unclear when exactly the trial would begin, but Dudley said it would likely be around the second quarter. The tiered pricing would only affect new customers in Beaumont, not existing ones. Dudley said the trial was aimed at improving the network performance by making it more costly for heavy users of large downloads. Dudley said that a small group of super-heavy users of downloads, around five percent of the customer base, can account for up to 50 percent of network capacity.

The Houston-based Anime Network is now available to Mediacom cable customers as a subscription-based video-on-demand service. Anime Network’s total VOD distribution is now available to more than 33 million households, covering 95 percent of North America. Mediacom is the nation’s eighth-largest cable television company, focusing on smaller cities and towns in the United States.

Warren Buffett’s holding company continues to add to its stake in Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway now owns almost 18 percent of the nation’s second-largest railroad. Documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission show Berkshire bought 948,800 more shares of BNSF stock on Monday and Tuesday. Berkshire has reported purchases of BNSF stock three times this month and now owns 62.5 million shares. The latest filings say Berkshire paid between $77.69 and $78.18 for the BNSF shares this week. Last year Berkshire also invested in two other railroad companies, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific. But Berkshire reduced its investments in those two railroads in the second half of 2007.

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