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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Houston 3D printing company closes latest round of funding, plans to hire

money moves

Roboze — an Italian high-performance 3D printing company with its U.S. headquarters in Houston — closed a multimillion-dollar round of funding this month with investments from an international group of leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Investors include Nova Capital, Lagfin, Andrea Guerra, Luigi De Vecchi, Roberto Ferraresi, Luca Giacometti, Denis Faccioli and others, according to a statement.

“We are honored to have a group of investors of this caliber, who strongly believe in the vision of Roboze and in the change of production paradigm that our technology is enabling by replacing metals and producing parts without wasting raw materials," Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze, said in a statement.

Roboze aims to put the funds towards the research and development of a new "super material" developed in the company's R&D facility in Italy, where the company is also building a new chemistry lab.

The company added that it will also be implementing an aggressive hiring plan in 2022, hiring 60 experts in the next 12 to 18 months in fields such as materials science, chemistry, business development, aerospace, medical devices, and field and applications engineering. Half of the new jobs will be based in the U.S. while the others are slated to be located in Italy and Germany.

Roboze specializes in manufacturing industrial 3D printing technology, such as its ARGO1000, which the company says is the largest printer of its kind. Through a process called Metal Replacement 3D Printing, the company uses super polymers and composites like PEEK and Carbon PEEK to create large-scale, end-use parts for an array of industries—from aeronautics equipment to medical manufacturing.

The company currently works with GE, Bosch, and Airbus, among others, and announced in the statement that manufacturing giant Siemens Energy acquired its first 3D printer from the company.

"We think additive manufacturing is playing a key role in digitalization and cost out in the energy sector. At Siemens Energy we evaluated many companies and found that Roboze technology for high temperature polymers has met our engineering qualification and expectations," Andrew Bridges, Service Frame Owner at Siemens Energy, said in a statement. "As a result, we acquired our first machine and look forward to expanding our relationship with Roboze."

Atlanta growth equity firm acquires Houston health care startup

M&A moves

A Houston-based startup specializing in minimally invasive vascular procedures has made an exit.

Fulcrum Equity Partners, based in Atlanta, has announced the acquisition of Texas Endovascular Associates, a specialty physician practice across five locations in the greater Houston area. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to partner with the Texas Endovascular team to continue growing the impressive platform they have already built,” says Tom Greer of Fulcrum Equity Partners in a news release. “The company has created a differentiated service model and is well positioned to continue its growth in Texas. We look forward to building on this strong presence in the state as well as pursuing strategic acquisitions as we expand its geographical footprint.”

Fulcrum manages over $600 million in assets and provides expansion capital to rapidly growing companies within health care — including IT, B2B software, and more.

The new funding will spur Texas Endovascular's growth into its next phase of business.

“We knew that finding the right equity partner was critical to our long-term growth prospects,” said Sean Mullen, CEO of Texas Endovascular. “After an exhaustive search and after meeting with multiple prospective PE firms, we chose Fulcrum because of their healthcare experience, collaborative approach, and impressive track record. We are excited to enter this new chapter in our company’s life with Fulcrum as our partner."

The two entities collaborated with Founders Advisors LLC, a merger, acquisition, and strategic advisory firm serving middle-market companies.

“Working with the founders of the practice, Drs. Fox and Hardee, as well as the CEO, Sean Mullen, was a pleasure. The entire team at Texas Endovascular acted as a cohesive unit and persevered to find the right partner in Fulcrum," says Michael White, managing director at Founders Advisors. "We are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this process and we are looking forward to the future of Texas Endovascular in partnership with Fulcrum”.

New ERCOT dashboards let Houstonians check energy supply in real-time

power check

With winter temperatures and last year's freeze still top of mind for many Texans, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, has rolled out new dashboards to help you keep tabs on the energy supply in real-time.

Local may not have heard of ERCOT until the winter storm in February 2021 that would go on to take the lives of 246 people after the freeze overwhelmed the power grid and left millions freezing in the dark.

Since that storm, anxiety has been high. But these dashboards may help Texans get a gauge on what we're dealing with at any given moment.

The ERCOT site features find nine different dashboards on the Grid and Market Conditions page. Each dashboard has a timestamp of when it was last updated and if you select "Full View," you'll get a detailed explanation of what the graphs mean.

If things are normal, the grid will be green. But if it's black, that means we're in an energy emergency level 3, so expect controlled outages. Energy conservation would also be critical.

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Continue reading and watch the full video on our news partner ABC13.