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.

Texans have been rightfully wary of the grid. Photo by Getty Images

ERCOT announces plan to improve Texas power grid reliability

a better grid

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott recently demanded aggressive action from state utility regulators to shore up the power grid.

Now, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, is revealing its plan to address improvements.

On Tuesday, July 13, ERCOT released a 60-item roadmap it said will be updated regularly through the end of the year. The council says it includes both existing and new initiatives.

Here are a few of the items, according to ERCOT:

  • Taking a more aggressive approach by bringing more generation online sooner if it's needed to balance supply and demand. The grid operator is also purchasing more reserve power, especially on days when the weather forecast is uncertain.
  • Requiring CEO certifications. After a rule change, all market participants who own or operate generation resources and/or transmission/distribution power lines will be required to submit a letter signed by their CEO twice a year certifying their companies have completed their weatherization preparations to protect the electric grid for the summer and winter seasons.
  • Adding new requirements for generation owners. ERCOT is proposing a new market rule that requires generators to provide operational updates more frequently.
  • Assessing on-site fuel supplies. ERCOT is reviewing the need for on-site fuel supplies for some generators.
  • Performing unannounced testing of generation resources. ERCOT says this testing helps verify that generators have provided accurate information about their availability.
  • Addressing transmission constraints in Rio Grande Valley. ERCOT and the PUC (Public Utility Commission) are initiating a process to address RGV transmission limitations and provide increased market access for resources in the Valley. ERCOT says this will improve reliability for customers during normal conditions and high-risk weather events.


ERCOT and grid woes continue to be top of mind for Texans. At least 220 generators were offline the week of June 14 when council officials called for Texans to conserve power.

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Continue reading on our news partner ABC13.

A new report from the University of Houston zooms in on Uri's damage by the numbers. Photo via CenterPoint Energy/Facebook

Report: Nearly 70 percent of Texans lost power during Winter Storm Uri, new UH report says

Uri by the numbers

Texans are painfully aware of the bitter loss caused by Winter Storm Uri; many are still coping with the after effects of the storm that set in on February 13.

But now, new figures reveal how ravaging the freeze was to the Lone Star State and its beleaguered residents.

At its peak, Uri left close to 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, killed more than 100 people, and caused an estimated $295 billion in damage. The storm is the single biggest insurance claim event in state history, as CultureMap previously reported.

More than two out of three Texans – some 69 percent – lost electricity at some point during the storm, for an average of 42 hours. Meanwhile, almost half – 49 percent – lost access to running water for an average of more than two days.

Additionally, nearly one-third of residents reported water damage in their home.

These numbers come from a just-released report by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. According to UH, the Hobby School conducted the online survey of Texas residents 18 and older who live in the 213 counties served by the Texas Electrical Grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

The full Hobby School report is available here.

Highlighting the frustrations millions have expressed since the storm has passed, nearly three out of four Texans – 74 percent – say they disapprove of ERCOT's performance during the winter storm — with 65 percent strongly disapproving. Some 78 percent of respondents claim they do not believe that the power outages in their area were carried out in an equitable manner.

Just how many Texans were okay with the council? Only 6 percent say they approve of ERCOT's widely criticized handling of the storm, per the survey. In the aftermath of the storm, seven ERCOT board members resigned following the near total failure of the state's power grid.

More than three-quarters of residents surveyed support policy reforms, which include requiring electricity generators to weatherize and boost their reserve capacity and natural gas companies to weatherize in order to be able to participate in the Texas market.

However, a majority of respondents oppose proposals that would require consumers to pay an additional fee in order to fund electricity generator weatherization efforts and to increase the amount of reserve electricity generation capacity, per the study.

The Hobby data produced other notable findings, including:

  • Some 61 percent of Texans prepared for the storm by buying additional food, 58 percent bought bottled water, and 55 percent filled their vehicle with gas. The next most common preparations were insulating pipes, covering or moving plants, and storing tap water.
  • A large number — 75 percent — reported difficulty obtaining food or groceries, 71 percent lost internet service, and 63 percent had difficulty obtaining bottled water.
  • When they lost electrical power and heat, 18 percent left their home, with 44 percent going to a local relative's home.
  • Of those who remained in their home without power, 26 percent used their gas oven or cooktop as a source of heat, 8 percent used a grill or smoker indoors, and 5 percent used an outdoor propane heater indoors.
  • Nearly half of Texans disapprove of Gov. Greg Abbott's performance during the winter storm, compared to 28 percent who approve.
  • More than half relied either a great deal, somewhat, or a little on three information sources before, during and after the storm hit: 68 percent on local TV news; 63 percent on neighbors and friends; and 55 percent on The Weather Channel.

The survey was fielded by YouGov from March 9 through March 19, with 1,500 YouGov respondents, resulting in a confidence interval of +/-2.5. Respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, ethnicity/race, and education, and are "representative of the adult population in these 213 Texas counties," per UH.

"Winter Storm Uri was a catastrophic weather event that impacted millions of lives across our state," said Kirk P. Watson, founding dean of the Hobby School, in a statement. "By digging deeper into its impact on Texans, we are learning critical information that will help inform future plans so a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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

Houston expert: Winter storm Uri's devastation should be a reminder to prioritize innovative energy solutions

guest column

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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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.