What winter storm Uri ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability. Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Texas has landed itself in the middle of a fierce debate following what's been considered one of the worst winter storm in recent history for the state.

Uri wreaked havoc as it rolled through regions that were wholly unprepared for the sudden temperature drops, single digit wind chills, and unusual precipitation (e.g. thundersnow in Galveston). Rolling power outages and water shortages affected more than 4.5 million Texans. Businesses like grocery stores and restaurants — unable to wash food or sanitize equipment or even turn on the lights, —closed throughout the ordeal, leaving many families without food, water, or power.

For most, this was an unprecedented experience. The majority of catastrophes in Texas are in the form of warm weather events like floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes, which means that even if power is lost, freezing is rarely an issue. Uri turned this upside down. ERCOT's failure to provide reliable energy for days on end led to families sleeping in devastatingly cold temperatures, further water shortage due to municipal water facilities failing, carbon monoxide deaths, disruption in vaccine rollouts, hospitals overrun with people needing to charge essential medical equipment, and much more. Uri highlighted in harrowing detail the domino effect that energy (and lack thereof) has on everything around it.

A single source of ERCOT's failure is hard to pinpoint. The cold led to production shut-ins, exacerbating the existing natural gas supply shortage and resulted in the RRC prioritizing "direct-to-consumer" natural gas delivery (i.e. to residences, hospitals, schools, etc.) over natural gas for the grid. Iced-over gas lines disrupted this flow even further. Freezing temperatures shut off some wind turbines and solar panels (if they were not already covered in snow). Coal and nuclear plants in Texas also shut down due to frozen instruments and equipment.

Thrown into sharp relief was the importance of consumer access to natural gas and other fossil fuels like propane. Most homes that had completely electrified (including my own) were ill-prepared to heat their homes without access to the grid or backup generators. Residential and community solar did little to alleviate this problem in many cases as lower technology configurations either froze, were not able to capture enough energy from a low-light environment, or were covered in snow. Having access to gas for heating or a propane stove was a lifeline for most folks.

But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry.

What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability.

It wasn't enough for our grid to have five potential generation sources – they all failed in different ways. But what if we incorporated more geothermal, which is more cold-weather resistant? What if we upgraded our solar panels to all have trackers or heating elements to prevent snow accumulation? What if our grid had access to larger scale energy storage? What if consumers had more access to off-grid distributed energy systems like generators, residential solar, geothermal pumps, or even just really large home batteries? What if we had predictive solutions that were able to detect when the non-winterized equipment would fail, days before they did? What if we could generate power from fossil fuels without dangerous emissions like carbon monoxide?

All of these technologies and more are being created and developed in our energy innovation ecosystem today, and many in Houston. What we're building towards is diversity of our energy system — but not just diversity of source — which is often the focus – but diversity of energy transportation, energy delivery, and energy consumption. Energy choice is about being able to, as a consumer, have a variety of options available to you such that in extenuating circumstances like winter storms or other catastrophes, there is no need to depend on any single configuration.

In a state like Texas, which is not only the largest oil and gas producer but also the largest wind energy producer and soon to be home to the largest solar project in the US, innovation should and will happen across all energy types and systems. Uri can teach us about the importance of the word all and how critical it is to encourage startups and technology development to develop stronger energy choice. Texas is the perfect home for all of this — and our state's rather embarrassing failure around Uri should be exactly the kind of reminder we need to keep encouraging this paradigm.

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Deeana Zhang is the director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

Wind energy usage in Texas has been slowly creeping up on coal — and now the two are neck-and-neck. Getty Images

New report finds coal and wind energy usage tied in Texas for the first time

winds of change

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.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.