guest column

Houston expert: Winter storm Uri's devastation should be a reminder to prioritize innovative energy solutions

What winter storm Uri ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability. Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Texas has landed itself in the middle of a fierce debate following what's been considered one of the worst winter storm in recent history for the state.

Uri wreaked havoc as it rolled through regions that were wholly unprepared for the sudden temperature drops, single digit wind chills, and unusual precipitation (e.g. thundersnow in Galveston). Rolling power outages and water shortages affected more than 4.5 million Texans. Businesses like grocery stores and restaurants — unable to wash food or sanitize equipment or even turn on the lights, —closed throughout the ordeal, leaving many families without food, water, or power.

For most, this was an unprecedented experience. The majority of catastrophes in Texas are in the form of warm weather events like floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes, which means that even if power is lost, freezing is rarely an issue. Uri turned this upside down. ERCOT's failure to provide reliable energy for days on end led to families sleeping in devastatingly cold temperatures, further water shortage due to municipal water facilities failing, carbon monoxide deaths, disruption in vaccine rollouts, hospitals overrun with people needing to charge essential medical equipment, and much more. Uri highlighted in harrowing detail the domino effect that energy (and lack thereof) has on everything around it.

A single source of ERCOT's failure is hard to pinpoint. The cold led to production shut-ins, exacerbating the existing natural gas supply shortage and resulted in the RRC prioritizing "direct-to-consumer" natural gas delivery (i.e. to residences, hospitals, schools, etc.) over natural gas for the grid. Iced-over gas lines disrupted this flow even further. Freezing temperatures shut off some wind turbines and solar panels (if they were not already covered in snow). Coal and nuclear plants in Texas also shut down due to frozen instruments and equipment.

Thrown into sharp relief was the importance of consumer access to natural gas and other fossil fuels like propane. Most homes that had completely electrified (including my own) were ill-prepared to heat their homes without access to the grid or backup generators. Residential and community solar did little to alleviate this problem in many cases as lower technology configurations either froze, were not able to capture enough energy from a low-light environment, or were covered in snow. Having access to gas for heating or a propane stove was a lifeline for most folks.

But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry.

What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability.

It wasn't enough for our grid to have five potential generation sources – they all failed in different ways. But what if we incorporated more geothermal, which is more cold-weather resistant? What if we upgraded our solar panels to all have trackers or heating elements to prevent snow accumulation? What if our grid had access to larger scale energy storage? What if consumers had more access to off-grid distributed energy systems like generators, residential solar, geothermal pumps, or even just really large home batteries? What if we had predictive solutions that were able to detect when the non-winterized equipment would fail, days before they did? What if we could generate power from fossil fuels without dangerous emissions like carbon monoxide?

All of these technologies and more are being created and developed in our energy innovation ecosystem today, and many in Houston. What we're building towards is diversity of our energy system — but not just diversity of source — which is often the focus – but diversity of energy transportation, energy delivery, and energy consumption. Energy choice is about being able to, as a consumer, have a variety of options available to you such that in extenuating circumstances like winter storms or other catastrophes, there is no need to depend on any single configuration.

In a state like Texas, which is not only the largest oil and gas producer but also the largest wind energy producer and soon to be home to the largest solar project in the US, innovation should and will happen across all energy types and systems. Uri can teach us about the importance of the word all and how critical it is to encourage startups and technology development to develop stronger energy choice. Texas is the perfect home for all of this — and our state's rather embarrassing failure around Uri should be exactly the kind of reminder we need to keep encouraging this paradigm.

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Deeana Zhang is the director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

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Building Houston

 
 

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more in the month of October. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's busy business event season is in full swing, and there are ton of local innovation and entrepreneurship-focused programming across the city. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for October when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

October 4 — Softeq Venture Studio Happy Hour

The Softeq Venture Studio is excited for you to meet the newest startups accepted into its 2H 2022 Cohort. Meet the teams and learn more about how they secured $125K in funding.

You'll have the chance to meet the startup founders, learn about the problems being solved, and learn more about how the Softeq Venture Studio de-risks growing startups.

The event is Tuesday, October 4, at 5 pm, at Yardhouse (City Centre). Click here to register.

October 5 — State of the Airports

Houston Airports is one of North America's largest and busiest multi-airport systems in the world and plays an important role in the greater Houston region's position as a great global city.

State of the Airports features Houston Airports Director, Mario Diaz, who will share the latest information and growth plans for Houston's three airports. Diaz will also address the important role the Houston Airports plays in bolstering Houston's position as an international air gateway.

The event is Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at the Marriott Marquis. Click here to register.

October 11 — State of Space

Earlier this month, Space City celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation delivered at Rice Stadium, "We choose to go to the moon." Many decades ago, these words showed the world that Houston holds a place as the epicenter for the world's biggest space endeavors and while space exploration has changed tremendously since those famous words, Houston's reputation in aviation and aerospace only grows stronger.

Join the Greater Houston Partnership for State of Space on Tuesday, October 11, to hear from some of the sharpest minds in aerospace and aviation technology who continue to chart a vibrant future for Houston centered around NASA's Johnson Space Center and one of the world’s only truly urban commercial spaceports.

Speakers include:

  • Featured speaker and panelist: Vanessa Wyche, Director, NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Stephen Altemus, President & CEO, Intuitive Machines
  • Peggy Guirges, General Manager of Space Systems, Collins Aerospace
  • Panel Moderator: Arturo Machuca, Director, Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport

The event is Tuesday, October 11, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at Impact Hub Houston (1801 Main street 10th Floor). Click here to register.

October 12 —  Making an Impact in the Houston Tech Ecosystem

You may have heard that Jay Steinfeld was the founder and CEO of Global Custom Commerce, which operates the world’s top online window coverings retailer Blinds.com. Boot-strapped in 1996 for just $3,000 from his Bellaire garage, Global Custom Commerce was acquired by The Home Depot in 2014. Jay remained its CEO and later joined The Home Depot Online Leadership Team. After stepping away from these roles in early 2020, he has increased his involvement on numerous private company boards and serves as a director of the public company Masonite (NYSE: DOOR). He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and supports numerous charities. Jay is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Technology Center. Active as an industry speaker on corporate culture, core values, how to scale a start-up, and disruption, he has more than 100 published articles.

But did you know that many of Jay’s former employees have started businesses of their own, formed angel investment funds, developed and led some of Houston’s best technology teams, and grown into pillars of the HouTech community?

Come hear what’s sure to be an intriguing panel discussion with Jay and several ex-Blinds.com’ers as they discuss company culture, core values, lessons learned, and thoughts on the HouTech ecosystem and take questions from the audience.

The event is Wednesday, October 12, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 13 — October Transitions on Tap

Transition On Tap is Greentown Labs' monthly networking event devoted to fostering conversations and connections among the climate and energy transition ecosystem in Houston and beyond. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, discuss solutions, and engage with our growing community. If you’re looking for a job in climatetech or energy, trying to expand your network, or perhaps thinking about starting your own energy-related company, this is the event for you.

The event is Thursday, October 13, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

October 14 — Tech, Tools and Tips: Digital Training Day at Impact Hub Houston

Struggling with a process in your business? There's probably a tech tool for that. Impact Hub Houston invites YOU to attend an extended edition of its Tech, Tools, and Tips Series hosted in partnership with Frost Bank.

The goal for this session is to provide small business owners with an overview of various digital tools that can help your day to day operations. By attending this event, you will learn about various digital tools and also have an opportunity to network with other small business owners.

The event is Friday, October 14, 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, at the Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

October 14-16 — Incubate Galveston + the Ion Hackathon 2022

A hackathon is a social design sprint that brings together the community to work in teams creating innovative solutions. Basically, it’s a party, and a 48-hour race between teams competing to develop solutions to problem-sets for cash prizes. Participants will work in small teams that have a collection of experts, entrepreneurs, students, and community members to tackle the below identified challenges:

  • Increase food access in urban core neighborhoods
  • Create opportunities for green initiatives, including environmental education, coastal resilience, and conservation
  • Propose home refurbishment programs and housing
  • Develop capacity for education and workforce skills development
  • Solve the plastic pollution issue in Galveston: Plastic trash in the water supply, on the beaches, and in the waterways of Galveston and surround areas affects the community in many ways (e.g., beaches look dirty, the plastic has chemicals harmful to health, and microplastics get into the environment and remain there for long periods of time. How can we solve this problem, removing and reducing waste and its downstream impacts, and make our community safer and cleaner? The plastic pollution problem can be address in the way of innovative preventive steps, innovation treatments, and public education, etc.
  • Offer creative solutions to other challenges

The event is Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 16, at the Marmo Plaza. Click here to register.

October 19 — How to Build an App without Code, Part 1: Info Session (In-Person & Online)

Join Heather Wilson, a UX Researcher, Service Designer and Google Design Sprint Facilitator, as she teaches you how to build an app without code!

Benefits of building an app without code:

  • building a custom app could take months to a year to develop
  • coding could present problems when your mobile strategy is pivoting
  • allows for customization and the ability to make changes as needed
  • high costs can be associated with building am app
The event is Wednesday, October 19, at 6 pm, online. Click here to register.

October 20 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

Rising electricity prices, increasing concerns about grid reliability, and achieving carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 have refocused attention on the role of nuclear in the energy transition. This comes after a decade of low investments, accumulating nuclear waste, an aging fleet of reactors, public opposition, and regulatory mandates that stalled nuclear’s growth and led to declines in production. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has maintained its safety record, made remarkable progress in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors, and improved operating safety and efficiency.

The first topic of the 2022-2023 Energy Symposium Series, The Future of Nuclear in the Energy Transition, will address if and how headways in advanced nuclear reactors, fusion, and waste management can overcome the challenges of economic feasibility, efficient and safe waste disposal, and build public and regulatory support for the increased deployment of nuclear energy in the U.S. We are excited to bring our panel discussion of Critical Issues in Energy back on campus this year.

The event is Thursday, October 20, at 6 pm, at Hilton University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom . Click here to register.

October 26-27 — Fuze

Fuze is bringing together the builders and innovators in energy tech. Shutting down 5 blocks in downtown Houston for two days and covering three content tracks, the event is focused on discovering breakthroughs in energy technology.

The event is Wednesday, October 26, to Thursday, October 27, at 8th Wonder Brewery. Click here to register.

October 27 — Aerospace Investment & Engagement

Join the Houston Angel Network as they discuss the current and future state of aerospace innovation and investment, followed by pitches.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 8 am to 1 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 27 — Space-Related Technology Development and the Houston Innovation Community

In these presentations, Mr. Montgomery Goforth and other aerospace subject matter experts will discuss the technology development challenges faced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the surrounding Aerospace community in our ongoing efforts as the hub of human spaceflight. Presentations will focus on the ways in which these challenges, and the associated opportunities, can be leveraged by Houston’s innovation community.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 4 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

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