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

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.

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.


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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

student-focused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.