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Houston takes flight at Paris Air Show just in time for Space City Month​

A delegation from Houston consisting of former astronauts, aircraft experts, and local leaders were invited to the Paris Air Show to represent the Space City. Photo courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

As we move closer to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 in mid-July, eyes around the world are turning to the United States and to Houston's NASA Johnson Space Center in celebration of the historic mission that first brought mankind to the moon. Thanks to that unprecedented interest, Houston was asked to be a featured partner of the USA Partnership Pavilion at the Paris Air Show last month.

Drawing nearly 2,500 exhibitors from 49 countries and more than 316,000 total visitors, the Paris Air Show continues to be the world's premier aerospace and aviation industry event. Houston's historic achievements set the stage to showcase how the region continues to be a global hub for technology and innovation.

A delegation of top Houston organizations brought distinct assets that showcased a collective advantage in competing for aerospace business. Led by the Greater Houston Partnership under the promotional banner Space City: The Gateway to Innovation, the group included:

  • Houston Spaceport, one of the nation's 10 licensed commercial spaceports co-located at Ellington Field (EFD).
  • Rice Space Institute, which has helped to establish Rice University's international reputation in all areas of space research by investing in efforts to further the development of new ideas and innovation in the broad area that is space exploration and utilization.
  • SpaceCom, the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition, an annual two-day conference that connects NASA technology with the private sector to fuel future innovation
  • Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center and a leading science and space learning center.
  • Blue Bear Capital, a Houston-based venture capital firm investing in fast-growing private companies that apply data driven technologies and innovative business models to the global energy supply chain.
  • Trumbull Unmanned, A Forbes Top 25 Veteran Founded startup based out of the Houston Spaceport that collects, analyzes, and visualizes critical data for the energy sector, primarily supporting oil and gas and environmental efforts.

As an anchor NASA community and home to the sharpest minds in aerospace, life sciences, energy and innovation, it was only fitting that Houston have a prominent presence in the show at Le Bourget. Among the 300 exhibitors representing the United States in the USA Partnership Pavilion, twenty of which were states, Houston was the only city with a major presence. Throughout the week, the Houston delegation participated in a schedule of high-profile thought-leadership and hospitality events to engage and educate global industry and government decision-makers and influencers.

For our part at the Greater Houston Partnership, we were able to conduct a series of meetings with companies from around the world, gathering more than 40 international and domestic economic development leads. The show is also a great media opportunity that allowed us to secure nearly 20 interviews for our delegation members with print and broadcast outlets from across the U.S. and Europe.

The USA Partnership Pavilion's week-long celebration of innovation and human achievement was led Apollo Astronauts Brig. Gen. Charlie Duke, and Houston-natives Col. Walt Cunningham and Col. Al Warden. Their presence served as a tangible way to connect our nation's achievements to the innovative future of the global aerospace industry.

"The 50th anniversary is such a unique time in history. It gives us an opportunity to think back about what we did, realize where we are today, and where we want to be in the future," says Col. Al Worden, "The most important thing about the space program was not so much about putting a man on the moon, it was about developing the technology to get there. Those technologies have made this country so successful, and I hope we continue to see that type of commitment to technology development in the future."

Houston delegates were asked to participate in several thought leadership panels.

"As we continue to explore further into the universe, there are a myriad of technical challenges that need to be overcome," says David Alexander, director of Rice Space Institute, who moderated a panel discussion on advancing technologies that will help humans physically and mentally adapt to deep space exploration. He was joined by industry leaders from United Launch Alliance (ULA), Lockheed Martin, Virgin Galactic, and Harris Corporation for the conversation centered around the use of artificial intelligence, 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

Governments around the globe including those in Europe, China and of course the United States have accelerated a discussion about sending humans back to the moon as a key step in our continued human exploration of deep space. This concept is also proving attractive to private companies, with an increase in public-private partnerships and a broader role being played by commercial entities in government aspirations.

Former astronaut and Space Station Commander turned venture capital leader Tim Kopra participated in a panel discussion on this very topic alongside representative from United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Lockheed Martin, Deloitte, and the U.S. Air Force. Although Kopra's Blue Bear Capital's primary target are data-driven technologies in the energy industry, he notes that "there are a lot of intersections between energy and aerospace, and Houston's melting pot of global industries has turned the region into a hot bed for innovation with broader application of technologies."

The centerpiece of the Houston delegation's presence at the Paris Air Show was an executive briefing on June 19 featuring keynote remarks from Kopra that helped set the tone for the work Houston continues to do in innovation and aerospace technology. Kopra discussed his background with NASA, the transition into the funding scene that supports the region's growing innovation ecosystem, and what Houston has to offer businesses looking to expand their operations in the areas of aerospace, manufacturing, and digital technology.

A panel discussion followed, addressing topics that included educating the next generation of engineers and explorers, the intersection of NASA technology and the private sector, the next frontier of space exploration and the unique position that Houston has in pioneering those efforts.

"Over the past 58 years, Johnson Space Center has led the U.S. and the world in human exploration, discovery, and achievement in space," Kopra tells the audience. "Now we are in a position of transitioning a lot of those capabilities into the civilian sector."

The Houston Spaceport is one big step in that ongoing evolution. As the only commercial spaceport in the nation centered in a large metropolitan area, the Houston facility will have unmatched access to resources for companies and operators, said Arturo Machuca, general manager of the spaceport.

"The Houston Spaceport is being developed to ensure Houston stays relevant in commercial aerospace and aviation activities," he says. "Houston continues to hold a strong value proposition for companies looking to enter the aerospace industry with a unique set of advantages including the proximity to NASA's Johnson Space Center, unparalleled infrastructure through the Houston Airport System, and a strong talent base."

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Josh Davis is the director of International Investment and Trade at the Greater Houston Partnership and organized the Partnership's participation at the Paris Air Show and gathered the delegation.

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.