thinking small

Houston Climathon winning microgrid solution is more important now than ever

One of the winning teams at Climathon has an idea for a microgrid system in Houston's emerging innovation corridor. Photo via houston.org

More than 6,000 participants in 145 cities around the world gathered virtually for last year's Climathon, a global event put on by Impact Hub Houston to unite innovators and collaborate on climate solutions. When Winter Storm Uri left the Texas energy grid in a state of crisis, one Climathon Houston team's proposal for energy reliability became all the more important.

Last year, the City of Houston unveiled its first Climate Action Plan to address the city's challenges and strive to lead the energy transition. It was the perfect roadmap for Climathon Houston, a hackathon where eleven teams gathered to develop and pitch a concept to align with the city's new plan.

Of the three winning teams, one idea was prescient in its approach to energy. Six energy-focused Texans drew up plans for InnoGrid, a cost-effective strategy to build the first microgrid in Houston. What started as a pitch has become a developed proposal gaining collaborator and city interest in the wake of Uri.

Bryan Gottfried, Edward D. Pettitt II, Andi Littlejohn, Paresh Patel, Ben Jawdat, and Gavin Dillingham created InnoGrid to to help achieve the CAP's energy transition and net-zero emissions goals. With climate events increasing rapidly, the team of innovators saw an opportunity to create a sustainable solution — the first Houston microgrid.

In just an hour and a half of brainstorming, the team sought to create a similar model to Austin's Whisper Valley microgrid — a project that's currently in development. While Whisper Valley is a master plan community, the team wanted to create a microgrid to support a larger picture: the city of Houston.

"I had been following transactive energy models [such as] peer-to-peer electricity trading like Brooklyn Microgrid/LO3 Energy and Power Ledger since their inception. This inspired my vision for a novel microgrid that would demonstrate such technologies in the energy capital of the world that is otherwise primarily focused on oil and gas, and natural resources," explains Patel, founder and CEO of e^2: Equitable Energy.

When Pettitt joined the group, he proposed the growing Houston Innovation Corridor as the home to InnoGrid. The four-mile stretch between the Texas Medical Center and Downtown is already home to green technology, making it an ideal fit.

"You're going into an area that was already being redeveloped and had this innovation kind of mentality already," explains Gottfried, a geoscientist and current MBA student at University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

After winning Climathon Houston, the team continued to meet weekly in hopes of making InnoGrid a reality.

The case for a microgrid

The InnoGrid team started with the goal of making energy reliable and resilient in the face of climate change. While previous storms like Hurricane Ike have left millions of Texans without power, Winter Storm Uri was one of the most destructive tragedies to face Texas. The unexpected February storm left 4.5 million Texans without electricity and resulted in at least 111 deaths.

As InnoGrid's team members struggled with burst pipes and loss of power, the team juggled the task of submitting a grant application to the Department of Energy during a catastrophic winter storm. The timing was not lost on them.

"It underscored the need for us to do something like this," shares Gottfried.

To understand how impactful a Houston microgrid can be, you first must understand how a microgrid works. A microgrid is a local energy grid made of a network of generators combined with energy storage. The microgrid has control capability, meaning it can disconnect from a macro grid and run autonomously.

Ultimately, microgrids can provide reliability and drive down carbon emissions. Using smart meters, the grids can even provide real-time energy data to show the inflow and outflow of electricity. In the instance a microgrid does go down, it only affects the community — not the entire state. Likewise, during a power outage to the main grid, a microgrid can break away and run on its own.

Microgrids have been deployed by other cities to mitigate the physical and economic risks caused by power outages, but the use of a project like InnoGrid feels especially timely given recent events and the limitations of the Texas Interconnect.

The Texas grid is isolated by choice, separated from the eastern and western interconnects. Texas' isolated energy grid resulted in a massive failure, proving deregulation can certainly backfire. Updating the electric grid has an expensive price tag, but microgrids show a promising and cost-effective model for the future.

"I thought if microgrids and mini-grids are enabling millions in off-grid frontier markets at the base of the pyramid [like Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.] to essentially leapfrog legacy energy infrastructure, why should we not upgrade our aging power system with the latest tech that is digitalized, decarbonized, decentralized/distributed, and democratized at the top of the pyramid," asks Patel.

Many hospitals, universities, and large technology firms have already established their own microgrids to protect equipment and provide safety. Still, smaller businesses and homes in the community can suffer during outages.

InnoGrid's proposal seeks to use existing and proven renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy. The storage technologies used would include battery, kinetic, compressed air, and geomechanical pumped storage.

"From the perspective of an early-stage hardware startup, one of the most important things is finding a way to validate and test your technology," explains Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra and adviser to the InnoGrid team. He explains that the microgrid "can also be a testbed for new technologies, specifically, new energy storage technologies," through potential partnerships with companies like Greentown Labs, which is opening its Houston location soon.

Battling inequity 

While the outlook for a community microgrid is enticing, there are also challenges to address. One key challenge is inequity, which is a key focus of Pettitt who was drawn to the team's goal of providing stability for companies and residences in Houston.

Pettitt, who is seeking a Ph.D. in urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has a background in public health and frequently works with the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement. "I'm really looking at the intersection of the built environment and how to make cities healthier for its residents," he shares.

"A lot of companies are trying to prevent this climate crisis where we have climate refugees that can't live in certain areas because of ecological damage. But in the process, we don't want to create economic refugees from the gentrification of bringing all of these companies and higher-wage jobs into an area without providing folks the ability to benefit from those jobs and the positive externalities of that development," explains Pettitt.

The InnoGrid would plan to provide positive externalities in the form of energy subsidies and potentially even job training for people who want to work on the grid.

Power to the consumer

Much like the gamification in feel-good fitness trackers and e-learning tools, reward systems can inspire friendly competition and community engagement. InnoGrid's proposal seeks to challenge other major cities to build their own grids and compete with a gamified system.

The Innovation Corridor is currently undergoing major redevelopment, the first 16 acres of which are being developed by Rice Management Company and will be anchored by The Ion, which is opening soon. The timing of this redevelopment would allow a prospective project like InnoGrid to build in visual and interactive aspects that depict energy usage and carbon offsetting.

The microgrid's statistics would also engage Houstonians by sharing up-to-date data through dashboards, apps, and even billboards to track Houston's carbon footprint. Pettitt paints a picture of interactive sidewalk structures, leaderboards, and digital billboards in the public realm to showcase how energy is used day-to-day. The team hopes to build positive feedback cycles that encourage tenants and building owners to be more energy-efficient.

"If we're having an Innovation Corridor, an innovation district, I think the built environment should be innovative too," explains Pettitt.

The future of InnoGrid

Every innovation has to start somewhere. While InnoGrid is in its early stages, the team is working to establish partners and collaborators to make the project a reality.

Inspired by projects like the Brooklyn Microgrid, InnoGrid is in the process of pursuing partnerships with utilities and energy retailers to form a dynamic energy marketplace that pools local distributed energy resources. The team hopes to collaborate with microgrid experts from around the nation like Schneider Electric and SunPower. Other potential collaborators include The Ion, CenterPoint, Greentown Labs, and Rice Management Company.

Can Houston remain the energy capital of the world as it transitions to a net-zero energy future? The InnoGrid team wants to make that happen. The argument for a microgrid in Houston feels even more fitting when you look at the landscape.

"If we are going to create an innovative microgrid that also functions as a testbed for innovators and startups, [we] have proximity to some of the biggest utilities and power generation players right in that sector," explains Patel, who is also an inaugural member of Greentown Labs Houston.

"The microgrid itself is not novel. I think what makes it compelling is to situate that right here in the heart of the energy capital as we, again, reincarnate as the energy transition capital world," Patel continues.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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