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

 
 

After working with thousands of interns, Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals says she's now got a product to upskill and train new hires for employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

After seeing success with her internship training and matchmaking platform, Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, has expanded the concept to include a new hire training service that allows employers to better optimize the onboarding process and have a well-trained new staff member from day one.

In just over a year, Ampersand has worked with over 7,000 professionals through its original concept of upskilling and matching young professionals to internship programs. A few months ago, Danziger and her team expanded to include career development training for students first entering the workforce with the City of Houston's Hire Houston Youth program. Danziger says it was developing out the platform for this program that proved there was a need for this type of training.

"While we have focused on matching professionals with businesses for paid internships, we recognized a further gap with employers that have their own recruiting/talent acquisition teams, or just their own preferred way of bringing on entry-level talent, and didn’t have a need for our matching platform," Danziger tells InnovationMap. "But, they recognized the benefit of our proven training platform that pre-vets and de-risks their hires, and still wanted access to the training for their own hires."

The new program has evolved from training interns to new hires, so parts of the program that focuses on interviewing or applying for a job have been removed. Instead, the 8.5 hours of training focuses on networking, best practices for working with a manager and team, performance reviews, common software training, and more.

Danziger says usually new hires need the most experienced mentor or manager, but they don't usually get that support — especially when it comes to businesses that don't have their own built-out mentorship or training program.

"Ampersand’s new training product fills that gap — it gives employers of any size any easy solution to provide basic job readiness training to employees, access to our team of dedicated coaches, and a detailed report at the end of their training summarizing how their new hire did in the training and any trends recognized and tips for managing this employee based on what the platform uncovered," she says. "Businesses can also sign up for additional coaching sessions and customize training materials, as an add-on if interested."

The program costs the employer $100 per new employee, and checkout online takes less than a minute. Through both this program and the original internship program, Ampersand is constantly evolving its training content.

"These professionals are going through the same training experience that we have proven out over the last year, and we are constantly adding to based on data we see in the user experience," Danziger says.

Danziger recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast discuss some of the benchmarks she's met with Ampersand, as well as the importance of investing in Gen Z hires. Listen to that episode below.


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