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

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.

A national solar energy organization is expanding in Houston to promote affordable sustainability. Getty Images

Solar energy co-op shines light on sustainability for Houston-area residents

join the club

A nationwide nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting and educating on the use of solar energy, has chosen a local solar installer business for its West Houston co-op.

Solar United Neighbors, also known as SUN, was established in 2007 to represent the interests and needs of solar owners and those interested in going solar. The nonprofit has already helped more than 4,600 solar owners with over 35,000 kW installed. SUN is currently active in the Houston area with two co-ops formed.

The West Houston co-op, which opened in January of 2020, is open to residents and small businesses from Brookshire to Memorial City and Richmond. The co-op will be open to new members until July 31st. However, members have already chosen a local business, Sunshine Renewable Solutions to install solar panels for the group.

"It is an honor to be selected because we know how thoroughly the co-op reviewed each bid," says Sid Chandrashekar, vice president of sales and operations for Sunshine Renewable Solutions. "SUN's mission is aligned with ours when it comes to education efforts for solar energy, they use a community approach that is really informative to anybody that is interested in solar, and that's how we see ourselves more as educators and consultants."

Hanna Mitchell, the Texas Program Director for Solar United Neighbors says a co-op is a great way to reduce costs for local citizens looking to go solar. The co-op is free to join and there is no commitment to purchase panels.

"Through our education programs and events we hope to demystify the process of going solar," says Mitchell. "There is never any pressure to go forward with the installation, our main goal is to provide access to information so our members can make informed energy choices."

The West Houston co-op committee members chose Sunshine Renewable Solutions from seven other installers that put in a bid. Solar co-op members selected the local installer for their competitive pricing, battery options, and workmanship warranty.

Co-op member Joseph Garfunkel served on the committee who volunteered to review bids and choose an installer. Initially, he joined to learn more about the process to get solar in his home.

"I joined the West Houston Solar Co-op to learn more about the process for installing solar at my house, and to also to get an idea of the cost," says Garfunkel. "The solar co-op has been very helpful in providing webinars and other information describing the entire process."

The experts at SUN were able to hold events to further educate the members of the West Houston co-op of the benefits of solar investment, even after the rise of the coronavirus pandemic moved gatherings to virtual events.

Garfunkel, along with fellow residents of the committee, was able to select the best candidate among those who presented a bid.

"I found that our discussion during that process was extremely helpful," says Garfunkel. "We were able to in better understand the features being offered by the different vendors, as well as the different costs and options that are available."

Sunshine Renewable Solutions, for their part, says they are thrilled to have been chosen from the other solar installers that were in the competition.

"We've worked hard to build our reputation and spread the love of clean energy and energy independence in the Houston area," says Chandrashekar. "We are ecstatic to help more people go solar by providing them with amazing customer experience at an incredibly low cost."

Those interested in joining the West Houston co-op will be presented with an individualized proposal based on the group rate, which leads to a significant number of dollars saved on the cost.

SUN will be recruiting more members for its East Houston co-op that will close at the end of August.

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.

John Berger, CEO of Houston-based Sunnova, is this week's Houston Innovators Podcast guest. Courtesy of Sunnova

Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The coffee company announced three Houston-area solar projects. Courtesy of Starbucks

Starbucks brews up solar energy initiative across Houston and Texas

Green coffee

Coffee shop chain Starbucks is plugging into Texas' solar energy industry in a big way.

Two 10-megawatt solar farms in Texas owned by Cypress Creek Renewables LLC are providing enough energy for the equivalent of 360 Starbuck stores, including locations in Houston, Humble, Katy, and Spring. Separately, Starbucks has invested in six other Texas solar farms owned by Cypress Creek, representing 50 megawatts of solar energy; Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek is selling that power to other customers.

Three of the eight solar farms in the Texas portfolio are just outside the Houston metro area. One is in the Fort Bend County town of Beasley, while two of the projects are in Wallis and Wharton.

Starbucks already relies on a North Carolina solar farm equipped with 149,000 panels to deliver solar energy equivalent to powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

"Our long-standing commitment to renewable energy supports our greener-retail initiative and demonstrates our aspiration to sustainable coffee, served sustainably," Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks' director of global environmental impact, says in an April 15 release about its solar investment in Texas. "Now, we are investing in new, renewable energy projects in our store communities, which we know is something our partners and customers can appreciate for their local economy and for the environment."

The solar commitment in Texas aligns with Starbucks' goal of designing, building, and operating 10,000 "greener" company-owned stores around the world by 2025. The Seattle-based retailer expects this initiative — whose features include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and waste reduction — to cut $50 million in utility costs over the next 10 years.

U.S. Bank's community development division teamed up with Starbucks and Cypress Creek on the Texas solar farms. Chris Roetheli, a business development officer at U.S. Bank, says solar tax equity investments like those undertaken by Starbucks are growing in popularity among non-traditional investors.

"Starbucks is taking a unique approach — investing in solar farms regionally to support a specific group of its stores," Roetheli says in the announcement of the solar collaboration. "This is a new concept, and one that I think other companies are watching and may follow. It's an interesting model that allows them to talk specifically about the impact of their investments."

Starbucks' investment comes as Texas' stature in the solar energy sector keeps rising, along with the state's role in the wind energy industry.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 2,900 megawatts of solar capacity are installed in Texas. That's enough energy to power nearly 350,000 homes. Among the states, Texas ranks fifth for the amount of installed solar capacity.

Solar investment in Texas exceeds $4.5 billion, with about 650 solar companies operating statewide, the association says. The solar energy industry employs more than 13,000 full-time and part-time workers in Texas, according to the Texas Solar Power Association.

With more than 4 gigawatts (over 7,000 megawatts) of solar capacity expected to be added in Texas over the next five years, the national solar association reported in 2018 that "Texas is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As it stands now, though, solar supplies less than 1 percent of Texas' electricity.

A 2018 state-by-state report card for friendliness toward solar power assigned a "C" to Texas, putting it in 34th place among the states.

The report card, released by SolarPowerRocks.com, lauds the backing of big Texas cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in encouraging residential solar installations.

However, the report card adds, outlying areas in Texas lag their urban counterparts in support of residential solar, "and we'd like lawmakers here to codify more protections and goals for solar adoption, but in the most populous areas, the Lone Star [State] shines."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup grows C-suite, Deloitte opens awards apps, SDO names leader, and more innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been especially busy this year, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, local organizations announce new innovators, Deloitte opens apps for its annual tech awards, Houston Tech Rodeo prepares for its annual events, and more.

Early stage accelerator names new Houston leader

Kate Evinger will lead gBETA Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston early-stage startup accelerator has named its new director. Kate Evinger has joined gener8tor's gBETA Houston as director. She will run the third gBETA cohort in Houston, adding to the 10 alumni from the two cohorts held in 2020.

Evinger has replaced Anu Pansare, who was previously named director in February. Pansare, who replaced the accelerator's inaugural director Eléonore Cluzel, moved on to another opportunity, Evinger says.

Based in Houston's Downtown Launchpad, gBETA's third cohort of early stage startups will soon start its free 7-week program, which is designed to help participating companies gain early customer traction and develop key metrics that will make them more marketable for future investment.

Evinger has been a part of the gener8tor family since 2016 when she joined the team as associate for gBETA Madison. She was promoted to program manager in 2019 when she graduated from Indiana University with degrees in finance, entrepreneurship and corporate innovation, according to a news release.

"Downtown Launchpad's inclusive set of tools, resources and opportunities empower Houston founders to accelerate and scale their businesses to solve humankind's boldest challenges," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston, in a news release. "Kate Evinger brings experience and valuable insights to the gBETA Houston program and will help us continue to support founders, Houston-based partners and the community."

Houston Tech Rodeo launches registration and names headliner

Master P will be the headlining guest for Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo courtesy of HTR

Houston Tech Rodeo, a week-long collaboration of events hosted by Houston Exponential, has opened registration and announced Percy Miller, also known as musical artist Master P, as the headliner.

Miller, who began his career as an international rap artist, later became a CEO, investor, and founder of Nemesis RR.

"I'll be sharing my journey, my secrets, my success, my feelings, and my rebuilding. Transitioning from international artist to CEO to investing in philanthropy, I want to educate you and give you that gain," says Miller in a news release. "I want to add diversity into technology and the automotive industry."

HTR kicks off May 16 at Saint Arnold Brewing Company with live music, beer, and swag bag pick ups with registration. The week concludes on May 23. Registration is free and available online.

Houston industrial blockchain company expands C-suite

Data Gumbo has a new C-level executive. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based industrial smart contract network powered by blockchain — announced that it has brought on Robin Macmillan as chief corporate development officer to lead the company's corporate development team.

"The sheer breadth of Macmillan's experience will serve as an invaluable asset to Data Gumbo as we continue to exponentially grow and mature our company into new industrial markets and further solidify our leadership in energy," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Macmillan has the experience to expand Data Gumbo's commercial market penetration to aid companies in undertaking digital transformation with smart contracts to reveal streamlined efficiencies and cost savings, sustainability insights across supply chains and transactional certainty in any commercial relationship."

Macmillan has over 40 years of experience in the energy industry, most recently at National Oilwell Varco and is the vice president of drilling services at the International Association of Drilling Contractors,

"There is tremendous opportunity right now to change how business is executed," says Macmillan in the release. "Data Gumbo is poised to deliver trust through automated, auditable blockchain-backed smart contracts that execute transactions in real-time. I am thrilled to be a part of the Data Gumbo executive team as the company is in a period of hyper growth into new industries, serving as a harbinger for significant digital transformation across commercial relationships and transparent, accurate sustainability impact data."

Deloitte opens annual tech awards nominations

Calling all fast-growing tech companies. Image via Deloitte

Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 awards — which celebrate the fastest growing, most innovative technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and energy tech companies in the country — has opened applications for its 2021 program.

Applications opened online on April 9 and will remain open until June 29. Winners will be announced on November 15. The program ranks applicants based on percentage of fiscal year revenue growth and the list is compiled from applications. For more information, visit the Technology Fast 500 website.

"Each year, we are excited to see the variety of Houston's Fast 500 applicants, which represent the city's positive momentum in both diversifying its core competencies and highlighting the boom in technology innovations coming to market," says Amy Chronis, vice chair and Houston managing partner at Deloitte LLP. "We look forward to seeing what Houston's innovators will bring in 2021."

Energy incubator announces latest cohort

Fifteen energy startups are joining the Plug and Play family. Gif courtesy of Plug and Play

Plug and Play Tech Center has announced 154 startups into its 2021 summer program — 15 of which were named to the Houston-based Batch 8 Energy Program. During the course of the next three months, these companies will receive access to our corporate, venture capital, and mentor network.

The new energy cohort consists of the following companies:

Texas expert: Energy reliability and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive

Guest Column

It's no secret that Texas has long been a leader in energy production, but it may surprise you to learn that Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation, producing 28 percent of all US wind-powered electricity in 2019.

We're not just producing a lot of renewable energy, we're increasingly consuming it.

Contrary to the caricaturistic portrayal of Texans in mainstream culture, a recent study by the University of Houston revealed that 4 out of 5 Texans believe the climate crisis is real.

In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, more and more households are making the decision to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. And this adoption isn't isolated to core urban areas. We're witnessing a diverse spread in smaller, more rural markets.

These reasons and more are why Bulb, one of Europe's fastest growing company that provides 100 percent renewable energy, chose Texas as its first home in the U.S. Less than a year after launching here, it's safe to say we made the right choice as we're experiencing even faster growth in Texas than we did in our early stages in the United Kingdom.

One of the many reasons Texans have rapidly adopted our simpler, cheaper and greener energy is because they no longer have to choose between being budget and climate conscious. Sadly, the progress the state has made could be knocked back following the recent winter storm.

After the nation witnessed Texas' massive outages during the winter storm, our state leaders understandably feel the pressure to "do something," quickly.

We share our leaders' determination in avoiding another crisis of this magnitude, but we fear that Texas may be heading in the wrong direction. In the mad rush to avoid another catastrophe, some regulators and politicians wrongly and disproportionately blamed renewable energy sources for the outages.

Numerous media outlets and energy experts have overwhelmingly refuted these claims. An AP fact check described the efforts to blame renewable energy sources as "false narratives." And, they're not alone in their conclusion.

According to Reuters' fact check, "These claims are misleading, as they shift blame for the crisis away from what appears, so far, to be the root cause...The state's woes mainly stem from issues surrounding its independent power grid. The cold weather affected all fuel types, not just renewables."

Determining what went wrong isn't a blame game. A proper diagnosis is essential to any problem solving. And a failure to conduct a thorough analysis could have serious consequences. Currently, a number of legislative solutions are floating around the state Capitol that would shift the blame and consequences to renewable energy.

These proposals would increase the financial burden on Texas consumers, many of whom are still recovering from the storm, and hamper new investments in renewable energy. Additionally, and perhaps even more concerning, they don't adequately address the root cause of the winter storm energy crisis, further exposing Texans to another meltdown.

Texas' leadership on renewable energy production is no small feat, and it didn't happen by chance. For two decades, our lawmakers have made strategic decisions that led to the advancement of renewable energy production, and it has paid dividends in terms of jobs, economic growth, energy reliability, sustainability and even the state's reputation.

We are at a critical juncture, but Texas doesn't have to choose between reliability, affordability and sustainability. We can offer reliable energy and green energy, stop another crisis before it happens again and move forward with renewable energy investments.

Continuing to promote policies that pushed Texas to its leadership position will unleash even more investments and innovation, which is good for Texas, good for Texans and good for the planet.

As we observe Earth Day, we would urge our leaders to consider the possibilities. Rather than turn the clock back, let's use this storm as an opportunity to innovate further.

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Vinnie Campo is the general manager for Bulb U.S., a new type of energy company that aims to make energy simpler, cheaper, and greener by providing renewable electricity to its members from Texas wind and solar. He is based in Texas.

Houston-based software startup aims to connect workers with wages in real time

there's an app for that

Could you incur an unexpected $400 expense if it hit your bank account today? According to Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Houston-based Pronto Pay, many hourly workers could not. He's set out to change that.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says.

A recent graduate from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, Price founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books. Currently the company has seven staff members, is actively hiring and is looking to expand outside of Houston soon.

Pronto Pay partners with the employers to seamlessly build out connections with their time and attendance system and payroll processor. After the company signs up, ProntoPay automatically creates an account for each employee, which allows them to view their accrued wages and withdraw their earnings instantly from the app or next-day for automated clearing house payments — all via the Pronto Pay App. When an employee wishes to withdraw funds prior to their normal pay cycle, Pronto Pay applies a small fixed fee — $2.99 — for completing the transaction. .

Come pay day, the employer's system will automatically balance the difference and route the withdrawn money back to Pronto Pay. As Price describes it, Pronto Pay aims to compete "directly with (while severely undercutting the price of) payday and other predatory lenders."

The idea was born out of a series of simple questions Price started to ask himself when he envisioned what his newborn son's first job would be earlier this year.

"My wife and I were having our son and it challenged me to ask questions like, 'Hey, why do we get paid bi-weekly? If I can Venmo 100 bucks in real time, why can't a company do that?'" Price recalls.

Apart from the impact of advanced pay, Price envisions that earned wages access will improve workplace culture and retention, too. Pronto Pay has already on-boarded users in the local staffing and warehousing markets, in the janitorial and security guard fields, and at call centers. As Price describes, Pronto Pay's clients "typically have a lot of hourly employees that struggle with employee retention and keeping folks at the same job for longer than three to 12 months."

"We're hoping that we can permanently change that employee-employer relationship," he adds. "And help those employees."

Jeff Price is the founder and CEO of Pronto Pay.