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

 
 

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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