Eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Three panelists representing the real estate, banking, and health care industries weighed in on innovation in Houston. Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

Wind energy usage in Texas has been slowly creeping up on coal — and now the two are neck-and-neck. Getty Images

In an electrifying sign for the renewables sector of Houston's energy industry, wind for the first time has essentially tied with coal as a power source for Texas homes and businesses.

In 2019, wind (19.97 percent) and coal (20.27 percent) were locked in a statistical dead heat to be the No. 2 energy source for customers of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Natural gas ranked first (40.2 percent). The Austin-based nonprofit manages about 90 percent of the state's electrical grid.

Houston stands to benefit greatly from these winds of change.

Long dominant in the oil and gas industry as the Energy Capital of the World, Houston is adapting to the shifting tide from traditional energy sources to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Over 30 companies involved in wind energy are based in the Houston area. Major local players in wind energy include BP Wind Energy North America Inc., EDP Renewables North America LLC, and Pattern Energy Group Inc. In addition, many of the state's more than 130 wind-generation projects are operated from Houston.

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, says the region's "unparalleled experience" with massive energy initiatives supplies an edge in the burgeoning renewable energy sector.

"Houston's talent base knows energy, from development to commercial operations, and the region offers a competitive advantage to renewable energy companies looking to develop projects both domestically and around the world," Harvey says. "Houston and Texas are well positioned as leaders who are developing large-scale renewable energy projects in both wind and solar."

Harvey says ERCOT's aggressive pursuit of wind and solar power also bodes well for Houston and the entire state.

"When combined with our natural advantages of great sites for wind and solar, our market structure has made Texas a global leader in the transition to low-carbon power generation," he says. "We expect Houston will continue to play a major role as wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources continue to rise on a global scale."

Susan Sloan, vice president of state affairs at the American Wind Energy Association, notes that Texas leads all states for wind energy, with 25 gigawatts of capacity generated by nearly 14,000 wind turbines. The Lone Star State produces about one-fourth of the country's wind power, and the wind energy industry employs more than 25,000 Texans.

With another 9 gigawatts of capacity coming online, "Texas continues to champion investment in wind energy as the state's electric load continues to increase," says Sloan, who's based in Austin. "Wind is an established and growing part of the Texas energy economy, and will be for years to come."

Texas has made great strides in wind energy in the past decade. In 2010, wind represented only 7.8 percent of ERCOT's power generation and ranked as the grid's No. 4 energy source, while coal stood at 39.5 percent and ranked first.

In September 2019, Norwegian energy research firm Rystad Energy predicted wind will bypass coal as a Texas energy source in 2020. Rystad Energy, which has an office in Houston, expects wind to generate 87 terawatt-hours of electricity in Texas this year compared with 84.4 terawatt-hours from coal. One terawatt-hour equals the output of 1 trillion watts over a one-hour period.

"Texas is just one of many red states that have recently 'gone green' by harnessing their great wind-generation potential," Carlos Torres-Diaz, head of gas market research at Rystad Energy, said in a release. Renewable energy sources like wind "are reaching a level where new installations are not driven solely by policies or subsidies, but by economics," he added.