All aboard

Houston-to-Dallas high-speed train hires major international operator

The high-speed train is chugging along. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

The high-speed railroad from Houston to Dallas has acquired a key new player that will run day-to-day operations.

Renfe, an international railway company based in Spain, has been hired by Texas Central, the project developers, as the train's operating partner. The selection of Renfe as an operating partner marks another major step forward for the Houston-to-North Texas high-speed railroad.

Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar says in a statement that Renfe was chosen after a review of the best railroad operators in the world.

"Renfe has established a reputation for excellence in railroad operation in Spain and across the world, and we welcome them aboard," Aguilar says. "With their decades of expertise, they were a natural fit to join our other partners. Having the operator, the design build, and technology teams all on board and able to collaborate will ensure all aspects of the railroad are integrated and efficient."

A release calls Renfe "one of the world's most significant railways operators," running 5,000 trains daily on 7,500 miles of track. The company is integral to the transport system in its home base of Spain, handling more than 487 million passengers and 19.6 million tons of freight moved in 2017.

Renfe, in partnership with Adif, which manages Spanish railway infrastructure, will be responsible for running the trains; maintaining system components, such as engines, signals, and other equipment; and overseeing ticketing, passenger loyalty programs, and other services.

It will also provide technical advice on the design and construction of the Texas train and assist in the further development of Texas Central's operation and maintenance plans, preparing the railroad for passenger service.

Renfe is one of the biggest companies in Spain, employing nearly 14,000 people and recording revenues of 3.6 billion euros in 2017. Its high-speed systems were used by more than 36 million passengers in 2017. In March, Renfe announced that it had posted a net profit of 70 million euros in 2017, thanks in part to a jump in the number of its high-speed passengers, chalking up five consecutive years of growth.

Renfe president Isaías Táboas says the deal is a boon for Texas and for the Spanish railway industry.

"Texas Central represents a large high-speed train project in a country with high-growth potential, for which the Spanish experience will be of great help," he says. "Both Renfe Operadora and Adif have accumulated years and miles of high-speed railway development with professional teams, extensive experience, and specialized knowledge. We are committed to the success of Texas Central in improving the mobility of Texans and others in the U.S."

The agreement comes about a week after Texas Central engaged multinational firm Salini Impregilo ­– operating in the U.S. market with The Lane Construction Corporation – to lead the civil construction consortium that will build the passenger line, including viaducts, embankments, and drainage.

Spain's first high-speed line between Madrid and Seville was dedicated in 1986 and Renfe's first high-speed service connected the cities in 1992.

Its second high-speed line, from Madrid to Barcelona, was completed in 2007. Renfe also operates high-speed service from Barcelona to Paris, Lyon, and Toulouse in France. Among other major international projects, Renfe operates the recently opened high-speed train between Mecca and Medina, in Saudi Arabia.

The 200-mph train will link Houston and Dallas in 90 minutes, with a midway stop in the Brazos Valley.

The Texas train will be based on the latest generation of Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen train system, the world's safest mass transportation system. It has operated for more than 54 years with a perfect record of zero passenger fatalities or injuries from operations, and an impeccable on-time performance record.

Texas Central and its partners are refining and updating construction planning and sequencing, guided by the Federal Railroad Administration's recently released draft environmental impact statement. The FRA now is working on a final environmental review that will help determine the project's timeline and final route.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

The coffee company announced three Houston-area solar projects. Courtesy of Starbucks

Coffee shop chain Starbucks is plugging into Texas' solar energy industry in a big way.

Two 10-megawatt solar farms in Texas owned by Cypress Creek Renewables LLC are providing enough energy for the equivalent of 360 Starbuck stores, including locations in Houston, Humble, Katy, and Spring. Separately, Starbucks has invested in six other Texas solar farms owned by Cypress Creek, representing 50 megawatts of solar energy; Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek is selling that power to other customers.

Three of the eight solar farms in the Texas portfolio are just outside the Houston metro area. One is in the Fort Bend County town of Beasley, while two of the projects are in Wallis and Wharton.

Starbucks already relies on a North Carolina solar farm equipped with 149,000 panels to deliver solar energy equivalent to powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

"Our long-standing commitment to renewable energy supports our greener-retail initiative and demonstrates our aspiration to sustainable coffee, served sustainably," Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks' director of global environmental impact, says in an April 15 release about its solar investment in Texas. "Now, we are investing in new, renewable energy projects in our store communities, which we know is something our partners and customers can appreciate for their local economy and for the environment."

The solar commitment in Texas aligns with Starbucks' goal of designing, building, and operating 10,000 "greener" company-owned stores around the world by 2025. The Seattle-based retailer expects this initiative — whose features include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and waste reduction — to cut $50 million in utility costs over the next 10 years.

U.S. Bank's community development division teamed up with Starbucks and Cypress Creek on the Texas solar farms. Chris Roetheli, a business development officer at U.S. Bank, says solar tax equity investments like those undertaken by Starbucks are growing in popularity among non-traditional investors.

"Starbucks is taking a unique approach — investing in solar farms regionally to support a specific group of its stores," Roetheli says in the announcement of the solar collaboration. "This is a new concept, and one that I think other companies are watching and may follow. It's an interesting model that allows them to talk specifically about the impact of their investments."

Starbucks' investment comes as Texas' stature in the solar energy sector keeps rising, along with the state's role in the wind energy industry.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 2,900 megawatts of solar capacity are installed in Texas. That's enough energy to power nearly 350,000 homes. Among the states, Texas ranks fifth for the amount of installed solar capacity.

Solar investment in Texas exceeds $4.5 billion, with about 650 solar companies operating statewide, the association says. The solar energy industry employs more than 13,000 full-time and part-time workers in Texas, according to the Texas Solar Power Association.

With more than 4 gigawatts (over 7,000 megawatts) of solar capacity expected to be added in Texas over the next five years, the national solar association reported in 2018 that "Texas is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As it stands now, though, solar supplies less than 1 percent of Texas' electricity.

A 2018 state-by-state report card for friendliness toward solar power assigned a "C" to Texas, putting it in 34th place among the states.

The report card, released by SolarPowerRocks.com, lauds the backing of big Texas cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in encouraging residential solar installations.

However, the report card adds, outlying areas in Texas lag their urban counterparts in support of residential solar, "and we'd like lawmakers here to codify more protections and goals for solar adoption, but in the most populous areas, the Lone Star [State] shines."