Sunny Houston fails to place on Thumbtack's new list. Photo by Adrian N on Unsplash

As the cost of solar panel installation becomes more attainable to homeowners, more Americans are willing to reduce their carbon emissions and their electricity bills in the process.

So just where does Houston rank in new tech like solar panel installation? According to a new report from home service management platform Thumbtack, it doesn't.

Houston, which has no shortage of sun — as residents are well aware — fails to place in Thumbtack's new list of the top 15 most "solar" cities in the United States.

Austin leads the way for Texas, ranking the No. 3 most “solar” city in the U.S., per Thumbtack. Austin, with the highest net-new solar panel installations within the past year in Texas, splits up four Californian cities in the top five. Only San Diego (No. 1) and Los Angeles (No. 2) outranked Austin.

San Antonio follows not behind atNo. 9 and just outside the top 10 is Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 11.

For the curious, Texas Property Code 202.010 forbids homeowner associations from restricting the installation of solar panels, so any Texas homeowner can do it as long as they follow the standard procedure for “improving” their home to comply with a separate state law.

Thumbtack home expert David Steckel said in a press release that they chose to focus the report on cities with the most new solar installations because they wanted to “celebrate those [cities] making the biggest change.”

“When we looked at all solar projects – from installations to modifications, repairs, consultations and more – we found that unsurprisingly, California dominated the list with 9 out of the top 10 spots – given their long-term commitment to and adoption of solar energy," he said. "We really wanted to celebrate cities that are seeing a shift in behavior.”

The top 10 most “solar” cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – San Diego
  • No. 2 – Los Angeles
  • No. 3 – Austin
  • No. 4 – Palm Springs, California
  • No. 5 – San Francisco
  • No. 6 – Las Vegas
  • No. 7 – Phoenix
  • No. 8 – Orlando
  • No. 9 – San Antonio
  • No. 10 – Tampa, Florida

Steckel said the company has seen a year-over-year increase of up to 96 percent in solar energy projects among consumers for March 2023.

“We recently found that 71 percent of Americans are prioritizing sustainable, energy-efficient home improvement projects this year – with more than one-third of Americans planning to install solar panels in 2023 – showing an accelerating change in consumer behavior,” he said.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Going solar is now easier thanks to city and federal help. Photo courtesy of Houston Solar Tour

Houston charges up new program to help locals buy and install affordable solar panels

sunny days

Alternative-energy-seeking locals now have a sunny way to buy into a solar. The City of Houston has launched Texas Solar SwitchHouston, a new program aimed at helping Houstonians purchase and install rooftop solar panels and battery storage.

In partnership with Solar United Neighbors, the Solar Switch program offers hassle-free way to purchase solar panels by creating a massive, group discount for residents, be it home or small business needs.

This comes with the new Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy incentives and is part of the City of Houston's Climate Action Plan goal to generate 5 million MWh per year of local solar, per a press release. Customers who install solar also receive a 30-percent tax credit, thanks to the The Inflation Reduction Act.

Registration for the program is free and available online. The City of Houston assures that there is "no obligation for homeowners to purchase solar panels." Discounts and installers are determined through a competitive auction process, per the City.

"With energy prices increasing, homeowners and small businesses are looking for opportunities to save on their energy bills and increase their resilience to climate-related events," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "Texas Solar Switch Houston provides our community with a simple and straightforward way to become better informed about solar energy and access a competitive offer from a vetted, experienced solar installation company."

Signed and passed into law by the Biden Administration in August, the Inflation Reduction Act will invest some $369 billion in domestic energy production and manufacturing with a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. That federal mandate means locals can now take steps towards power backup, while potentially easing up on the beleaguered Texas grid.

“More and more Houstonians are looking to solar and battery storage for self-sufficiency, which has the added benefit of making our grid more resilient,” said Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director for Solar United Neighbors, in a statement. “With the recent passage of the IRA, now is a particularly good time to go solar.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A project that would create the largest urban solar farm in the country just got the greenlight. Photo via Getty Images

Houston gets approval to build $70M solar farm on former landfill property

greenlight

A vacant landfill that for decades endangered and diminished Houston’s low-income Sunnyside neighborhood has gotten the green light for conversion into a solar energy farm.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Earth Day, April 22, that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had granted a permit for the $70 million Sunnyside Solar Farm, which was originally announced last year.

The project will be anchored by 70 megawatts of solar panels installed across 224 acres. The farm will produce enough energy to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. The project also will feature a 2-megawatt community solar installation, an education hub, and an agricultural center

Image courtesy of the city of Houston

City officials say the project will be the largest urban solar farm in the country and will remove an estimated 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year.

“I am optimistic about the future of this land and the people who live in the resilient neighborhood that developed around this environmental injustice,” Turner says in a news release. “Most importantly, it will transform the built environment of a historically under-served and under-resourced community by bringing private investment to Sunnyside, a predominantly Black and brown community that struggles daily with historical inequities that have created present-day disparities.”

In conjunction with the project, 175 Houstonians will be trained at Houston Community College and Lone Star College for solar and solar-related jobs.

“We used an environmental justice lens to reimagine this landfill. And we made equity the central and most critical component of our site redevelopment plans for Sunnyside,” Turner says.

Sunnyside Energy plans to seek permission from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to connect to the electric grid serving the bulk of Texas.

The Sunnyside landfill opened in the 1930s; it was closed in the 1970s after high levels of lead were discovered at the site. The City of Houston owns the land and is leasing it to Sunnyside Energy, which will own and operate the solar farm, for $1. Sunnyside Energy is a subsidiary of Houston-based Wolfe Energy.

A report from RMI, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, estimated that the more than 10,000 shuttered landfills across the U.S. could host 63 gigawatts of solar capacity, enough energy to power 7.8 million American homes.

The mayor announced the approval on Earth Day. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Two Houston-area research projects out of local universities have created new, greener technologies. Photo courtesy of Rice University

2 Houston research projects unveil revolutionary solar and battery technologies

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, two Houston institutions are working on clean energy innovation thanks to new technologies.

Rice University team develops seeds for growing solar energy collectors

Rice engineers discovered a self-assembly method for producing the films from "seeds," submicroscopic pieces of 2D crystals that serve as templates. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Man-made solar panels are continuing to be affixed to rooftops everywhere, but scientists at Rice University have just figured out a way to grow solar energy collectors in a more efficient way than ever before.

3D halide perovskite photovoltaic devices have been developed relatively reliably, but the Rice engineers have created microscopic seeds for growing 2D perovskite crystals that are both stable and highly efficient at harvesting electricity from sunlight, according to a release from Rice.

"We've come up with a method where you can really tailor the properties of the macroscopic films by first tailoring what you put into solution," said study co-author Aditya Mohite, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice. "You can arrive at something that is very homogeneous in its size and properties, and that leads to higher efficiency. We got almost state-of-the-art device efficiency for the 2D case of 17%, and that was without optimization. We think we can improve on that in several ways."

The study was published online in Advanced Materials by Mohite and his fellow chemical engineers from Rice's Brown School of Engineering. The seeds can be used to grow homogenous thin films that proved both efficient and reliable, a previously problematic combination for devices made from either 3D or 2D perovskites.

"Homogeneous films are expected to lead to optoelectronic devices with both high efficiency and technologically relevant stability," he says.

The process is more efficient and effective, as well as being cheaper. The Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Academic Institute of France and the Office of Naval Research supported the project.

Houston researchers are finding ways to improve EV batteries

Houston researchers are working on a new way to make electric vehicles more commercially viable with enhanced — and cheaper — batteries. Photo via uh.edu

Only a small fraction of vehicles on the road these days are electric — but that's going to change. It's projected that EVs will make up 30 percent of on-road vehicles in 2030. A team of scientists at the University of Houston are focusing on improving EV batteries — a major key in the commercialization of these greener vehicles.

The UH team — Yan Yao, Cullen Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston, and UH post doctorate Jibo Zhang — are taking on this challenge with Rice University colleagues — Zhaoyang Chen, Fang Hao, Yanliang Liang of UH, Qing Ai, Tanguy Terlier, Hua Guo and Jun Lou.

In a recently published paper in Joule, the team demonstrated a two-fold improvement in energy density for organic-based, solid state lithium batteries by using a solvent-assisted process to alter the electrode microstructure, according to a news release from UH.

"We are developing low-cost, earth-abundant, cobalt-free organic-based cathode materials for a solid-state battery that will no longer require scarce transition metals found in mines," says Yao in the release. "This research is a step forward in increasing EV battery energy density using this more sustainable alternative."

Yao, who is also Principal Investigator with the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, explains that there is increasing concern about the supply chain of lithium-ion batteries in the United States.

"In this work, we show the possibility of building high energy-density lithium batteries by replacing transition metal-based cathodes with organic materials obtained from either an oil refinery or biorefinery, both of which the U.S. has the largest capacity in the world," he goes on to say.

The cost of EV batteries declined to nearly 10 percent of their original cost over the past decade, and innovation and research like this project are only going to make EVs more commercially viable. The research was funded by the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as part of the Battery 500 Consortium.

Houstonians can now opt into a citywide solar co-op. Photo courtesy of Houston Mayor's Office

City of Houston joins forces with nonprofit to launch a citywide solar co-op

Climate action

One year ago, the city of Houston announced its Climate Action Plan and its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. This year, the city has another Earth Day announcement that builds upon CAP.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and solar nonprofit group, Solar United Neighbors, announced a citywide solar co-op on Earth Day — exactly one year since CAP launched. For an update on the plan's execution in Houston, click here for a report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

"As we celebrate Earth Day, I'm proud to welcome this community-driven initiative for local rooftop solar and thank Solar United Neighbors for being such a strong supporter of the Houston Climate Action Plan," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I encourage Houstonians to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the benefits of residential solar and how they can take part. Bulk buy programs like this will help our city meet our energy transition goals and grow local investment in renewable and resilient energy."

SUN is familiar with Houston, and, since 2018, the nonprofit has hosted six neighborhood solar co-ops in Spring Branch, Lake Olympia, East Houston, Central Houston, the Woodlands, and West Houston. According to SUN, Texas solar co-ops provide 569 kW of solar power, $1.64 million in local economic investment, and more than 18.4 million pounds of lifetime carbon offsets.

"The co-op will enable homeowners and business owners in and around the city of Houston to join the growing community of people taking control of their energy bills and improving grid resilience by harnessing solar power," says Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director for SUN, in the release. "Together, we're building a movement to transform our electricity system into one that is cleaner, fairer, and shares its benefits more broadly."

Data from Environment Texas shows that Houston's installed solar capacity has quadrupled from 2018 to 2020, and Houston is the nation's largest municipal user of renewable energy in the United States, according to the release. Additionally, Houston Permitting Center saw a 63 percent increase in solar installation permits from 2019 to 2020.

For more information on the co-op, visit SUN's Houston website. Or, sign up for one of the two information sessions on Thursday, May 6, at 6:30 pm, or Wednesday, May 19, at noon.

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.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.