From entrepreneur networking opportunities to thought-provoking panels, here's where you need to be in December. Getty Images

Before everyone checks out of 2019, Houston has a couple more weeks filled with exciting entrepreneurial networking opportunities. Scroll through the curated list of innovation events you can't miss.

For a full calendar of Houston innovation events, head to Houston Exponential's page.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

December 3 — Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Omair Tariq and Dr. Brittany Barreto

Are you new to the Houston tech startup community? Thinking about moving here? Trying to figure out how to plug in? Come hear a comprehensive overview from local community leaders and get a chance to introduce yourself and ask questions at the Intro to the Houston Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Tickets are $10.

Details: The event is from 4 to 7 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 3 — Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement community forum

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement is gathering for a second time to discuss securing a Community Benefits Agreement with Rice Management Company as they develop the 16-acre Innovation District around the old Sears building and Fiesta at the edge of Third Ward.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, December 3, at Wesley Chapel AME Church (2209 Emancipation Ave.). Learn more.

December 3-4 — InvestH2O 2019 Forum: Investing in Resiliency

With nearly $1 trillion in losses over the past 5-7 years for FEMA and other federal agencies, states-counties-cities, private insurance and reinsurance companies, industry and business operations from water- and weather-related incidents, the need for alternative investment and resource allocation could not be more obvious. The event's programming will be focused on innovating solutions.

InnovationMap readers can attend for free through this link.

Details: The event is from Tuesday, December 3, to Wednesday, December 4, at various locations. Learn more.

December 4 — The Cannon & EPIcenter - Jumpstart your innovation Happy Hour

In partnership with The Cannon, EPIcenter's Incubator and Accelerator will be hosting a six-week seminar using the Wendy Kennedy curriculum, "So what? Who cares? Why you?" for innovators in any industry. Director of the EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator and certified Business Coach Andi Littlejohn will lead participants through a proven methodology to discover, define and describe the commercial opportunities of innovations.

Details: The event is from 4 to 6 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 4 — The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator Demo Day

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator will present its inaugural cohort of companies that are addressing the needs of Houston's people by deploying technology into the infrastructure and civic fabric that makes Houston so strong.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 4, at ion Accelerator and Prototyping Lab (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2100). Learn more.

December 5 — Houston Region Economic Outlook

The Greater Houston Partnership's Annual Houston Region Economic Outlook event will feature Partnership Senior Vice President of Research Patrick Jankowski who will deliver the 2020 employment forecast for the region. ConocoPhillips Chief Economist Helen Currie will follow with a presentation on the national economy.

Details: The event is from 9:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the Royal Sonesta (2222 West Loop S.). Learn more.

December 5 — Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation

Please join JLABS @ TMC for the 5th Annual Evening of Pediatric Device Innovation as top experts from Houston and across the country will discuss the latest in pediatric medical device innovation and updates on bringing a pediatric medical device to market.

Details: The event is from 3 to 6:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 5 — Meet & Greet with Flyover Capital

Meet Flyover Capital's Dan Kerr on his last night in town and learn how they are working to creating the next generation of technology success stories outside the coastal tech hubs.

Details: The event is from 6 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, December 5, at WeWork (708 Main Street, 3rd Floor). Learn more.

December 11 — ENRICH/LEAP Information Session

ENRICH and LEAP are 6-8 week fellowship programs where you and a team of your peers will work directly with established companies on one of a wide scope of projects. These invaluable programs allow people the ability to gain skills and insights that only professional work can offer. Come hear Enventure leadership discuss these programs and learn how you can get involved.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 8 pm on Wednesday, December 11, at the TMC Innovation Institute (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

December 12 — WeWork Labs x NextSeed Launch Event

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, December 12, at WeWork (708 Main Street). Learn more.

December 14 — Smart Infrastructure Hackathon

On Saturday, December 14, join Microsoft and The Cannon for a smart infrastructure hackathon. Bring your own ideas and team, or join a team when you arrive. Everyone is welcome, regardless of skill level.

Details: The event is from to 9 am to 7 pm on Saturday, December 14, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

December 14 — TEDxHoustonWomen 2019 : BOLD + Brilliant!

Connect with a locally rooted, globally connected community of people interested in leading the change they wish to see in the world; and sow the seeds to collaborate with innovative thinkers who catalyze ideas toward action.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 4 pm on Saturday, December 14, at Unity of Houston (2929 Unity Dr). Learn more.

December 17 — The Future of Work: Closing the Skills Gap

GA gathers Houston industry leaders to share how they approach the challenge of upskilling the workforce. In this discussion, we'll cover how to bridge the gap between current team capabilities and the skills needed to stay competitive. Whether radically reskilling existing teams or onboarding new talent, the companies who adapt fastest will stand the test of time.

Details: The event is from 8:30 to 11 am on Tuesday, December 17, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, 21st Floor). Learn more.

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston innovation leaders weigh in on cybersecurity, tech, and more at inaugural event

total knock out

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

Ten Houston innovators took the stage for five fights on the role technology plays in the future of industry. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Overheard: Local fighters land knockout statements at Houston's first Digital Fight Club

Eavesdropping in houston

On Wednesday, Houston's innovation ecosystem hosted the rowdiest crowd at a professional business event that the city has ever seen.

Digital Fight Club, a Dallas-based event company, had its first Houston event at White Oak Music Hall on November 20 thanks to presenting sponsors Accenture and InnovationMap. The event featured 10 fighters and five referees across five fights that discussed cybersecurity, the future of primary care, and more.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Michael Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

If you missed the showdown, here are some of the nights zingers made by the entrepreneurs and subject matter experts that were the fighters of the evening.

"I believe that computers can get a lot of information to create [something new]. That's my job, that's what I do, and I see it done."

Pablo Marin, senior AI leader at Microsoft, during the fight on robotics and AI in the workforce. Marin's argument was that artificial intelligence and robotics can and will replace all repetitive jobs. However, he also believes that computers have the ability to create, as well, based on their ability to see the whole world and have access to all the world's information.

"AI is mostly bullshit."

Matthew Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems. Hager, who won the first fight of the night, responded to Marin that, while businesses like to believe that AI is actually able to deliver results so that they can sell more, the technology hasn't actually arrived yet. Plus, Hager says AI will never be creative without the human element. "Creativity is about who created it. It's about the photographer, not the camera," he says.

"What if the seatbelt laws and the speed limits were defined by Dodge, Ford, or Chrysler?"

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and co-founder of Security Gate, who argued for government to take the reigns of cybersecurity. He adds that companies are never going to be able to agree to one set of rules. "We gotta get one group to set the standard, and it's up to everyone else to refine that and innovate for it," he says.

"Compliance doesn't mean you're secure."

Tara Khanna, managing director and security lead at Accenture, who won the fight on cybersecurity needing to be figured out by the business industry. She argues that the private sector wins the war on talent and recruiting, so it has the money and resources to dedicate to the issue in more ways than the government ever will.

"I was born, I'm going to die, and there is nothing like earth in the universe as we know it. It is worth preserving and protecting."

Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone, in the fight over the oil and gas industry's responsibility to the environment. He argued that it's going to be a mix of policy and corporate initiatives that changes the industry.

"I think the free market is going to get there if the consumer has the choice to pick what they want to do."

Michael Szafron, commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, who took home the win for the oil and gas and the environment fight. Szafron's argument was that corporations are going to do what their consumers want, so that's who would drive them to action. "Let's look at California —very regulated environmentalists, and a million of those people get moved to Texas," he says.

"Disconnecting our personal lives from technology would not only limit ourselves, but it would also limit our capacity to adopt those tools to the needs of our society." 

Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs, during the fight on digital in our personal lives. Fadul argues that not only does technology allow us to connect worldwide, but disconnecting would prevent that technology from developing further.

"I love tech, but now that it's on all the time everywhere, we need to make time to unplug."

Grace Rodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, who won the fight on personal technology. She says that yes, technology can help international connectivity, but it does more harm than good as people use personal tech as a default or distraction from humans right in front of them. "When your with people, be present," she says.

"Part of our innovation to redesign primary care is really to deploy technology out there to seamlessly provide care."

Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist, who argued that the future of primary care is new innovations within traditional medicine. He adds that virtual care, which is something Methodist is working on, can help improve accessibility.

"The future of primary care is here. It's called direct primary care." 

Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, who won the fight on the future of primary care with his argument for a new, free market approach to medicine. Direct primary care opens up treatment and access to physicians with a monthly fee for patients to work outside of health care plans.

The city of Houston and METRO announced a pilot program that's getting passengers online. Photo via ridemetro.org

METRO announces free Wi-Fi program for select Houston routes

Digital upgrade

METRO is test driving a new feature for its passengers. Select vehicles on a few routes will come with free Wi-Fi on board.

The transportation organization selected the 54 Scott and 204 Spring Park & Ride bus routes and the Green and Purple METRORail lines for the pilot program — in part because of their vicinity to universities and schools, according to a news release from METRO.

"I'm excited we can bring this service to some of our riders. Be it for work, entertainment or personal business, Wi-Fi allows them to stay connected while in transit and improves the overall customer experience," says METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman in the release.

The pilot program, which will run through mid-January, is being funded by $110,220 from the Microsoft Digital Alliance that includes installation and service for over 40 routers. The public-private partnership is also supported by Synnex Corporation, Sierra Wireless, Tracking for Less and AT&T.

"Bringing connectivity to Houston METRO riders is a step forward in the smart city journey, and Microsoft is proud to partner with the city to bring the pilot program to life," says Cameron Carr, director of internet of things strategy, scale and smart city, from Microsoft Corp, in the release.

The announcement is another piece of Mayor Sylvester Turner's Smart City initiative to bring innovation across the city.

"When we first sat down with Microsoft and METRO as part of the Smart City discussions, the first thing we discussed was how can we make the Smart City initiatives inclusive for all residents," says Mayor Turner in the release. "That is why connectivity for everyone, and more efficient public transit was our priority."

Photo via rideMETRO.org

The inaugural Smart Cities accelerator in Houston will have its cohort create solutions for a set of problems the city faces. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

5 things you need to know about Houston's Microsoft- and Intel-backed accelerator program

New to town

At a Microsoft IoT in Action event in April, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the city would launch the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator — a program that would task a set of startups and entrepreneurs with creating digital and technical solutions to key problems within Houston.

"As a result of incorporating smart technologies, Houston will have the ability to create a more resilient and mobile-friendly city, and in turn accelerate our city's economic growth and prepare for the needs of 21st Century citizens," Mayor Turner says in a release.

While there's still a lot to finalize within this new program before the first cohort begins in September, here are the five things you need to know about the accelerator.

It's an effort from multiple parties.  

There are several major players behind the initiative. Station Houston will host the accelerator — first in its current headquarters and then later from The Ion when it opens in 2020. Station will also team up with TX/RX, a nonprofit makerspace in East Downtown, to be a resource for engineering and design elements.

Microsoft and Intel are backing the program — both monetarily and various other support roles.

"For me, having been doing this for a few years now, it's such a huge step for the city," Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, tells InnovationMap. "We are not only talking about major companies in the world of technology to make a significant investment in our startup community, but that investment that they are making is in our city as well. That is not to be underestimated."

The first cohort's goals will be to find solutions within mobility and resilience. 

Key stakeholders within the program identified mobility and resilience as the two focus points the first cohort will work within. Currently, the stakeholders are again narrowing down the topics to identify 10 problems within mobility and resilience, which the cohort will then be tasked with solving.

The accelerator, which is currently set up to have one cohort a year, Rowe says, will then identify other various issues within Houston in subsequent cohorts.

"There will be, what seems at this point, an endless array of challenges the entrepreneurs in the accelerator can address," Rowe says.

Should the opportunity arise, Rowe says, the organization could also launch a concurrent cohort in six months, rather than waiting until next year.

The cohort will come from across the country. 

Once the list of 10 problems to solve has been finalized, the organization will go on a national search to find the cohort.

"Of course we hope we will be able to find some fabulous companies here at home, but we are also hoping we are enabling companies from around the rest of the United States to discover Houston," Rowe says.

A selection committee made up of stakeholders from all the participating organizations will evaluate the applications and selections.

"We not only want to be sure we are bringing in geographic diversity, but we also want to bring in industry diversity because that will allow challenging perspectives when problem solving," says Rowe.

A key part of this process is getting the word out about the program. Station hosted a launch event on May 30 to introduce the program to Houston.

"We can only be successful as the companies we can attract to be a part of the accelerator," Rowe says.

How it will work.

The 10-month program will have 10 startups per cohort, and the programming will be broken down into three phases. The first three months will be a time of discovery and ideating with a structured curriculum designed around mobility and resiliency. Next, the startups will prototype and validate their products. The second half of the accelerator will be pilot programs within the city of Houston.

The ultimate goal is to better Houston as a whole.

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator is different than anything else Houston has to offer, Rowe says, mainly because its primary goal is creating solutions for some of Houston's biggest problems.

"We now finally for Houston to take the advancements we've made in innovation — especially in tech — and bring it into the lives of everyone," Rowe says. "It's wonderful in so many ways, but it puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on our shoulders to make sure we are doing this with the communities of Houston as opposed to doing it to the communities of Houston."

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

XR express

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says.

As more companies are introducing this type of technology into the workforce, there's a growing need for developers and experts to design these programs. Currently, it's rare for a company to have employees with XR expertise.

"Working on commercial accounts, I see a lot of customers who have done enterprise software — web pages and forums — but it's a very different skill set from simulations," says Jared Bienz, senior software engineer at Microsoft.

So, companies are faced with hiring developers and designers to create these training programs. Ethan LeSueur, who oversees immersive technology at ExxonMobil, says his team benefitted from the cut-throat game design industry. So many developers want to go into video game creation, but there's not enough jobs. At Exxon, developers get to create games — but for training purposes. LeSueur says he looks for a diversity of programming experience when hiring for these types of jobs.

"It's important to not have one skill set," he says. "We're looking for the people who are sort of a swiss army knife. You don't have to know everything, but if they have more than one specific skill set, that's really important."

But hiring a team might not be the only option to AR/VR development. Working with startups has been an avenue for major companies seeking out XR programs.

"People talk about digital transformation all the time, but half the time we wouldn't know what that looked like if that slapped us in the face," LeSueur says. "That's what we're asking startups to do — help slap us in the face."

LeSueur says that proving cost effectiveness is extremely important for startups looking to win big companies as clients, but so is passion. The complexity of the process as well as all the red tap of business calls for passion from a startup.

"We're trying to take a complicated physical process and digitize it," LeSueur says. "That means there's going to be a lot of back and forth."

From the startup perspective, it's not always easy working with major corporations – especially within oil and gas. Amanda, who works with construction clients and larger companies as an instructor at ITI, recommends having someone on the inside to look out for you.

"I think it's really important to have an internal champion who really owns the product and wants to see it through to its last degree of integration."

On display

Courtesy of Station Houston

After the panel, Station Houston VR companies showed off their programming.

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Houston experts give advice for startups seeking financial aid from the CARES Act

from the profesisonals

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

"There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.

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.

Economists dive into the economic impact of COVID-19, low oil prices on Houston

double teamed

Houston's economy continues to suffer as a result of the coronavirus-fueled economic slide and the collapse in oil prices. But just how much are these twin crises injuring Bayou City?

Economic data and forecasts present an increasingly grim outlook for Houston.

A new Moody's Analytics analysis commissioned by the Wall Street Journal provides one measurement of the economic damage being inflicted on Houston. The analysis, published April 2, indicates business closures in Harris County — which represents two-thirds of the region's population — have caused a 27 percent drop in the county's daily economic output.

Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says the 27 percent figure is likely lower than the actual number. He thinks it's closer to 50 percent.

"The reason is that we are talking about output — actual work getting done — and not including monetary transfers from the bailout bill or unemployment insurance," Hirs says.

The lingering daily decline undoubtedly will bring down the Houston area's total economic output for 2020. In 2018, the region's economic output (GDP) added up to nearly $478.8 billion. By comparison, the 2018 economic output for the nation of Austria totaled $455.3 billion, according to the World Bank.

Harris County ranks as the third largest county in the U.S., as measured by population. The Moody's Analytics study shows the country's two largest counties — Los Angeles County in California and Cook County in Illinois — have been hit with even bigger decreases in daily economic output. Los Angeles County's loss sits at 35 percent, with Cook County's at 30 percent.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a podcast interview published April 2 that it's difficult to accurately gauge how the economic climate is hurting Houston right now. That's because economic data lags present-day economic reality.

"The situation is changing daily," Jankowski says. "There's so many unknowns out there. This is unprecedented."

Economists predict the Houston area's workforce will see massive losses as a result of the coronavirus and energy downturns.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could siphon as many as 44,000 jobs from the region's economy by the end of this year. A more dire forecast from The Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm, envisions the Houston area losing nearly 256,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 shutdown and racking up $27 billion in coronavirus-related economic losses.

Jankowski anticipates the Houston area tallying job losses of at least 200,000, meaning losses would be less severe than the 1980s energy bust but more severe than the Great Recession.

"If we're still working from home after May, everyone's job is at risk," says Jankowski, adding that this would trigger more furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts.

Aggravating Houston's situation is the coronavirus clampdown on restaurants and hotels.

According to survey data released March 30 by the Texas Restaurant Association, 2 percent of the state's more than 50,000 restaurants already had closed permanently, and another 32 percent had closed temporarily. An additional 12 percent of Texas restaurants anticipated shutting down within the next 30 days.

If you add the 2 percent of restaurants that have closed to the 12 percent that expect to close, that would equal roughly 7,000 shuttered restaurants.

"Restaurants are in a fight for survival. The statistics from this survey provide a mere snapshot of the extreme economic impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on one of the most important industries in Texas," Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says in a release.

In the lodging sector, Texas is projected to lose 44 percent of its jobs, or more than 64,000 positions, according to a mid-March forecast from the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Experts predict some Texas hotels won't survive the coronavirus crisis.

"COVID-19 has been especially devastating for the hotel industry. Every day, more hotels are closing, and more employees are out of a job," Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the hotel association, says in a March 26 release.

While the restaurant and hotel sectors face a shaky future, the energy industry is grappling with the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as depressed demand for crude oil and gasoline. Jankowski says gas prices could stay low through mid-2020 or even the end of 2020 as the energy industry copes with a prolonged oil glut.

Relief funds coming from Washington, D.C., will help stabilize the energy sector and other industries, Jankowski says, but will not "juice" the economy and spark growth.

"We're going to need to move beyond the pandemic," he says, "and we're going to need for some consumer confidence and business confidence to come back before we start to see growth returning again."