It's only going to get hotter in Houston — can the grid take it? Switching to solar is a way to avoid having to worry about that question, says this expert. Photo courtesy of Freedom Solar

You know the old adage: "If you don't like the weather here, wait five minutes." Texas weather is not just unpredictable; it can be downright bipolar. I don't need to remind you of the knockout punch Old Man Winter delivered last February, even to parts of the state where hard freezes are few and a "snow event" usually amounts to a dusting. It will be a long time before Texans forget spending a week without power in single-digit temperatures — huddled together in their homes under mountains of blankets — with no heat, no way to bathe or cook, and no escape.

The massive power outages of Valentine's Day week spurred public outrage and a full-throated demand that state leaders take decisive steps to make Texas' electric grid sustainable. The legislature was only a month into its 140-day regular session at the time, but still failed to do anything substantial to fix the grid before adjourning May 31.

Now — well ahead of the hottest days of summer — Texans are wondering why the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is already asking them to set their thermostats at 78 degrees, turn off lights, avoid using their ovens or doing laundry in the evenings, and otherwise conserve energy. It was ERCOT's second such call since April. Some local energy companies have recommended setting thermostats even higher, and local rolling blackouts have continued in Dallas, Houston, and elsewhere in the state throughout the months of June and July. That may be fine for some people during Texas' scorching summer heat, but for others, it is untenable. For the elderly or infirmed, it could be deadly.

Experts have warned the grid is unreliable, the system is strained, and homeowners and businesses hover at near-constant risk for blackouts, unless the state does more to weatherize the grid, bring more generators back online, and provide more emergency backup power. Meanwhile, when temperatures hit triple digits and stay there for days, the blackout risks will skyrocket.

But there is one obvious solution to grid instability that will enable Texans to keep their homes and businesses comfortably cool during the hot summer months ahead, without setting their thermostats higher or timing their activities to government guidelines. Widespread distributed generation of solar energy, instead of the current emphasis on remotely located utility-scale solar, would provide a highly effective, long-term solution to decreasing strain on the ERCOT power grid.

That means dramatically increasing the number of solar installations on residential and commercial properties statewide. Consider the distance and infrastructure required to bring power from a West Texas solar farm to the state's big cities. That's not only a costly undertaking, it exposes the system to many vulnerabilities along the way. It makes more sense to install solar panels on-site, behind the meter, and pair them with storage for backup power.

The logic is simple: Increasing the number of homes and businesses with on-site solar power would decrease the burden on the grid and help insulate it against failure. Further, by installing home batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall for backup power, residents can control their own power supply and ensure its reliability, even during extreme weather events—summer or winter.

These technologies are cost-efficient and readily available today. A few months ago, Congress extended the 26 percent federal solar investment tax credit (ITC) — which also applies to batteries paired with solar — through 2021 (dropping to 22 percent in 2022), making the move to solar and backup power even more sensible.

State leaders have tried to lay the blame for last winter's power outages on renewable energy. But failures of natural gas power plants, not renewable generators, caused the grid failures that led to those deadly blackouts.

On July 6, months after declaring "everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas," Governor Abbott ordered the PUC to take steps to overhaul the state's electric system. But the solutions he's offering—like constructing new coal, gas, and nuclear power plants and building their transmission lines faster—are giveaways to the fossil fuel industry and will take a long time to complete. Texas needs reliable power NOW.

Meanwhile, state officials are increasingly emphasizing conserving power during extreme temperatures, which suggests they don't even believe their assurances that no more blackouts lie ahead. On-site solar power is the obvious solution, both today and for the long-term health of our rapidly growing state and rapidly warming planet.

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Bret Biggart is CEO of Austin-based Freedom Solar, the leading turnkey solar energy installer in Texas, providing high-quality, cost-effective, reliable solar solutions for the residential and commercial markets.

In light of the devastation caused by the recent winter storm that hit Texas, it's time for the state to invest in solar, says this expert. Photo courtesy of Freedom Solar

Expert: Texas must grow its solar infrastructure to prevent more weather-related power outages

guest column

As Texans begin to recover from last month's once-in-a-century winter storm, many wonder how the state — an icon of the oil and gas industry and home to Houston, "the energy capital of the world" — was thrust into darkness for days on end.

When the Texas power grid began failing in communities statewide, many in positions of power quickly laid the blame at the feet of the renewables industry. But with solar and wind power accounting for only 28.6 percent of the state's energy supply, clearly, renewables were not the sole, or even primary, culprits responsible for the massive outages. The facts point to a much more complex set of circumstances — a series of extreme weather events, one after the other; a burgeoning population; and a grossly unprepared system — all of which combined to cause an increasingly strained, aging grid to fail spectacularly.

The events of last month were a not-so-subtle demonstration of the inadequacy of our current power structure, but what does that mean for the future of Texas energy? Obviously, Texas leaders and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) must begin updating the state's grid with the resources necessary to sustain the rapidly increasing demand for reliable power. Undoubtedly, that will cause a hike in consumer energy costs, especially in deregulated markets like Houston, where profitability and demand drive prices.

Widespread distributed generation of solar energy—rather than the state's current emphasis on utility-scale solar generation — would provide a highly effective, long-term solution to minimizing strain on Texas' power grid. This means dramatically increasing the number of local solar installations on residential and commercial properties statewide. Think about it: The distance and infrastructure required to bring power from West Texas solar farms to the state's urban centers leaves too much room for vulnerabilities. Solar makes more sense on-site, behind the meter, and paired with storage for backup power.

Simply stated, the more businesses and residences who have solar power, the less burden on the grid and the more insulated the grid is against failure. Further, by installing batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall for backup power, solar customers control their own power supply and ensure its reliability, even during extreme weather events like the one we just experienced. These batteries are mass market-ready, reliable and cost-efficient today.

With the increasing volatility of the Texas energy market, home and business owners are finding solar is a more appealing investment than ever before.

The amount of solar power required to power a home or business depends on the amount of energy the owner seeks to offset. For example, a solar array geared toward reducing an energy bill will be significantly smaller than a system designed to take the customer off the grid entirely. Backup power solutions are similarly dependent, with options ranging from a single battery capable of powering small household appliances to a bank of several batteries or a generator able to power a whole household or commercial space. Either way, the combination of solar power and backup provides reliability many Texans wished they had during the record freeze we just endured.

The public outcry over the massive power outages has laid a mandate at the feet of state leaders: Do what is necessary to make the power grid sustainable. At the same time, utilities statewide are looking at what they can do to increase reliability in their own communities. Deregulated energy prices will only rise because of continuing population growth and the need to update grid infrastructure.

No matter how you look at it, enlarging the state's independent solar infrastructure is a reliable way to protect businesses and homeowners alike against surging energy costs and weather-related power outages.

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Bret Biggart is the CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar.

With stay-at-home mandates across the state, renewable energy helps reduce the strain of the grid. Photo courtesy of Freedom Solar

Now is the time for Houstonians to invest in solar energy, says expert

Guest column

Largely due to the growing popularity and falling prices of solar energy in Texas, including incentives at the federal, state, and local level, the number of solar panel installations continues to trend upward throughout the state and especially in Houston.

For the third year in a row, Houston was named the top municipal user of green energy in the nation by the United States EPA, using more than 1 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of solar and wind power. With 92 percent of the city of Houston's energy coming from green power, solar has solidified its place in the Houston energy market.

With solar panel system prices dropping 38 percent over the past five years, solar power is also growing in popularity among individual homeowners and business owners who want to take control of their energy costs and become more self-sufficient.

As the recent COVID-19 pandemic continues to shake industries across the nation, Freedom Solar is working tirelessly to keep our team safe, healthy, and employed. Solar installers provide critical electric generation infrastructure that helps us reduce the strain on the ERCOT grid, especially with higher electricity usage as people stay at home under local shelter in place orders and as we head into the warmer spring and summer months.

The health and safety of our customers and employees is our top priority, and as an essential business we are following strict operating protocols that are in line with the guidance provided by local, state, and federal authorities. Although these challenging times often result in a pause in investments, I argue that for customers who have been considering investing in solar, now is still the time to do so.

During these tumultuous times, for many home and business owners, investing in solar energy remains appealing as a smart and stable financial decision. A solar power system is an income-producing asset that will generate a stable return for 25 or more years. The ability to finance that investment without putting cash down upfront allows customers to get the financial benefits of solar now while keeping their money in the securities markets until they recover from the current economic downturn.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, overseas manufacturing has been disrupted for months, resulting in shortages in the global supply chain across many industries. These shortages could increase the price of solar panels, inverters and related equipment if US warehouses run low on inventory. For customers who have long been on the fence about investing in solar, I would urge them to reevaluate the numbers now in anticipation of potential price increases in the coming months in the wake of COVID-19.

Additional macro trends and current events continue to demonstrate the value of home solar power. According to a 2020 study by the financial institution Fundera, the number of regular telecommuting employees has grown by 115% since 2005. As more and more people are required to work remotely, especially during the current and indefinite "Stay in Place" orders, electricity usage and utilities have inevitably increased for many households.

Investing in solar for your home can help offset increased utility costs, especially while working remotely and in the rapidly approaching summer months. Current events may be accelerating the long-term trend, and even when the immediate crisis is over, the way many people work could be transformed.

As the energy industry continues to evolve, the reasons why Houston customers choose to invest in solar power evolve and grow. Going solar is no longer solely a testament to your sustainability practices but also a sound long-term investment. The federal solar tax credit — also known as the investment tax credit (ITC) — allows homeowners and businesses to deduct a significant percentage of the cost of installing solar from their federal income taxes.

The credit remains at 26 percent for the remainder of 2020 but will decrease to 22 percent in 2021 and then in 2022 will drop to 10 percent for businesses and will go away entirely for homeowners. With more than 90 percent of Houston's energy consumption deriving from green power, it is clear that solar is here to stay.

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Bret Biggart is the CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar.

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Power grid tech co. with Houston HQ raises $25M series B

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A Norway-based provider of technology for power grids whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston has raised a $25 million series B round of funding.

The venture capital arm of Polish energy giant Orlen, Norwegian cleantech fund NRP Zero, and the Norway-based Steinsvik Family Office co-led Heimdall Energy's round. Existing investors, including Investinor, Ebony, Hafslund, Lyse, and Sarsia Seed, chipped in $8.5 million of the $25 million round.

“This funding gives us fuel to grow internationally, as we continue to build our organization with the best people and industry experts in the world,” Jørgen Festervoll, CEO of Heimdall, says in a news release.

Founded in 2016, Heimdall supplies software and sensors for monitoring overhead power lines. The company says its technology can generate up to 40 percent in additional transmission capacity from existing power lines.

Heimdall entered the U.S. market in 2023 with the opening of its Houston office after operating for several years in the European market.

“Heimdall Power has built itself a unique position as an enabler for the ongoing energy transition, with fast-increasing electricity demand and queues of renewables waiting to get connected,” says Marek Garniewski, president of Orlen’s VC fund.

Heimdall says it will put the fresh funding toward scaling up production and installation of its “magic ball” sphere-shaped sensors. In the U.S., these sensors help operators of power grids maximize the capacity of the aging power infrastructure.

“In the United States alone, there are over 500,000 miles of power lines — most of which have a far higher transmission capacity than grid operators have historically been able to realize. To increase capacity, many have launched large-scale and expensive infrastructure projects,” Heimdall says.

Now, the U.S. government has stepped in to ensure that utilities are gaining more capacity from the existing infrastructure, aiming to upgrade 100,000 miles of transmission lines over the next five years.

Heimdall's technology enables grid operators and utilities to boost transmission capacity without undertaking lengthy, costly infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, the company kicked off the largest grid optimization project in the U.S. with Minnesota-based Great River Energy.

Houston energy data SaaS co. partners with trading platform

team work

In an effort to consolidate and improve energy data and forecasting, a Houston software company has expanded to a new platform.

Amperon announced that it has expanded its AI-powered energy forecaststoSnowflake Marketplace, an AI data cloud company. With the collaboration, joint customers can seamlessly integrate accurate energy forecasts into power market trading. The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector.

“As Amperon continues to modernize energy data and AI infrastructure, we’re excited to partner with Snowflake to bring the most accurate energy forecasts into a single data experience that spans multiple clouds and geographies," Alex Robart, chief revenue officer at Amperon, says in a news release. "By doing so, we’re bringing energy forecasts to where they will be accessible to more energy companies looking to increase performance and reliability."

Together, the combined technology can move the needle on enhanced accuracy in forecasting that strengthens grid reliability, manages monetary risk, and advances decarbonization.

“This partnership signifies Amperon’s commitment to deliver world-class data-driven energy management solutions," Titiaan Palazzi, head of power and Utilities at Snowflake, adds. "Together, we are helping organizations to easily and securely access the necessary insights to manage risk and maximize profitability in the energy transition."

With Amperon's integrated short-term demand and renewables forecasts, Snowflake users can optimize power markets trading activity and manage load risk.

"Amperon on Snowflake enables us to easily integrate our different data streams into a single unified view," Jack Wang, senior power trader and head of US Power Analysis at Axpo, says. "We value having complete access and control over our analytics and visualization tools. Snowflake allows us to quickly track and analyze the evolution of every forecast Amperon generates, which ultimately leads to better insights into our trading strategy."

Amperon, which recently expanded operations to Europe, closed a $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital and tripled its team in the past year and a half.

In March, Amperon announced that it replatformed its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure.

Learn more about the company on the Houston Innovators Podcast episode with Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Rice research on bond and stock market differences, earnings variations

houston voices

At the end of every quarter, publicly traded companies announce their profits and losses in an earnings report. These updates provide insight into a company’s performance and, in theory, give investors and shareholders clarity on whether to buy, sell or hold. If earnings are good, the stock price may soar. If they’re down, the price might plunge.

However, the implications for the stock price may not be immediately clear to all investors. In the face of this uncertainty, sellers will ask for high prices, and buyers will offer low ones, creating a significant “bid-ask spread.” When this happens, it becomes more costly to trade, and the stock becomes less liquid.

This is a well-documented effect on equity stock markets. However, according to research by Stefan Huber (Rice Business), Chongho Kim (Seoul National University) and Edward M. Watts (Yale SOM), the corporate bond market responds differently to earnings news. This is because bond markets differ from stock markets in a significant way.

Stocks v. Bonds: What Happens When Earnings Are Announced?

Equities are usually traded on centralized exchanges (e.g., New York Stock Exchange). The exchange automatically queues up buyers and sellers according to the quote they’ve entered. Trades are executed electronically, and the parties involved are typically anonymous. A prospective buyer might purchase Microsoft shares from someone drawing down their 401(k) — or they could be buying from Bill Gates himself.

Corporate bond markets work differently. They are “over-the-counter” (OTC) markets, meaning a buyer or seller needs to find a counterparty to trade with. This involves getting quotes from and negotiating with potential counterparties. This is an inherent friction in bond trading that results in much higher costs of trading in the form of wider bid-ask spreads.

Here’s what Huber and his colleagues learned from the research: Earnings announcements prompt many investors to trade. And on OTC markets, potential buyers and sellers become easier to find and negotiate with.

A Stronger Bargaining Position for Bonds

According to Huber, “When earnings information comes out, a lot of people want to trade. In bond markets, that makes it much easier to find someone to trade with. The more options you have to trade, the stronger your bargaining position becomes, and the lower your trading costs go.”

He compares the process to shopping in a market with a flexible approach to pricing.

“Let's say you're at a farmers market and you want to buy an apple,” Huber says. “If there is only one seller, you buy the apple from that person. They can ask for whatever price they want. But if there are multiple sellers, you can ask around, and there is potential to get a better price. The price you get depends on the number of options you have in trading partners.”

What’s at Stake?

Although bonds receive less attention than equities, the stakes are high. There is about $10 trillion in outstanding corporate debt in the U.S., and more than $34 billion in average daily trading volume.

A detailed record of bond trades is available from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which requires that trades be reported via their Trade Reporting and Compliance Engine (TRACE).

The study from Huber and co-authors uses an enhanced version of TRACE to examine trades executed between 2002 and 2020. The team analyzed the thirty-day periods before and after earnings announcements to gather data about volume, bid-ask spreads and other measures of liquidity.

They find that, like on the stock market, there are more investors and broker-dealers trading bonds around earnings announcements. However, unlike on the stock market, transaction costs for bonds decrease by 6 to 7 percent in the form of bid-ask spreads.

What Sets This Research Apart?

“Taking a purely information asymmetry-based view would predict that what happens to stock liquidity would also happen to bonds,” Huber says. “A piece of information drops, and some people are better able to work with it, so others price protect, and bid-ask spreads and the cost of trading go up.”

“But if you consider the search and bargaining frictions in bond markets, you get a more nuanced picture. While information asymmetry increases, like it does on stock markets, the information prompts more investors into bond trading, which makes it easier to find counterparties and get better transaction prices. Consequently, bid-ask spreads go down. This search and bargaining friction does not really exist on equities exchanges. But we cannot ignore it in OTC markets.”

As corporate debt markets continue to grow in importance, it will become crucial for investors and regulators to understand the nuanced factors influencing their liquidity. This study provides a solid foundation for future research.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see “Earnings News and Over-the-Counter Markets.” Journal of Accounting Research 62.2 (2024): 701-35.