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

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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Exclusive: Houston blockchain startup closes $4M series B round led by new investor

money moves

An industrial blockchain-as-a-service startup based in Houston has closed a series B funding round thanks to support from both new and returning investors.

Data Gumbo Corp., which uses its blockchain network GumboNet to optimize smart contracts for oil and gas supply chains, announced its first close in its $4 million series B funding round that was led by new investor L37, which has operations in the Bay Area and in Houston. The round also saw contribution from returning investors Equinor Ventures and Saudi Aramco Energy Venture.

The funds will go toward growing Data Gumbo's sales team, which has been busy with the company's growth. While providing their own set of challenges and obstacles, both the pandemic and drop in oil prices meant oil and gas companies are prioritizing lean operations — something DataGumbo is able to help with.

"The opportunity in all this is companies have got to cut expenses," Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder, tells InnovationMap. "What's happened to us is our sales have absolutely exploded — in a good way. We have a huge number of leads, and we have to be able to deliver on those leads."

Bruce says leading the sales growth is Bill Arend, who was hired Data Gumbo's chief commercial officer this spring. Data Gumbo also recently announced that Richard Dobbs, 30-year veteran of McKinsey and former director of the McKinsey Global Institute, has joined the board as chairman.

"Dobbs is a recognized strategic industry thinker," Bruce says in a release. "His distinct expertise will lend structure, support and validation to Data Gumbo as we experience aggressive company growth."

Of course, fundraising in this unprecedented time, isn't easy. Bruce says he and his team were able to succeed thanks to a new investor, L37, which came from an introduction within Bruce's network.

"Data Gumbo is the category leader for industrial smart contracts, which is an inevitable next step in digital transformation of the oil and gas industry," says Kemal Farid, a partner in L37, in a statement. "There is a lack of transparency, visibility and accuracy between counterparts of contracts that increases the costs of doing business and this has been greatly exacerbated by the current business landscape. We look forward to applying our experience to propel the company along its journey to bring transactional certainty and cost efficiency to commercial relationships."

Additionally, Bruce says he's very proud of his company's return investors, who are also clients of DataGumbo.

"[We also have] the continuous support by our original investors — Aramco and Equinor — they invested in us not just once but twice," Bruce says. "They have been tremendously supportive, not just from an investor perspective, but also proving the value. We've got multiple projects starting with both of those companies."

Bruce says he already has eyes for another venture capital round — perhaps sometime next year — for Data Gumbo, which has raised $14.8 million to date. However, the company isn't far from profitability and growth from that avenue too.

"We're going to have the luxury of choice," Bruce says. "We want to grow as aggressively as possible so we are probably going to go the venture capital route."


GumboNet: Smart Contacts Made Simple www.youtube.com

Houston coworking space to donate office space to startups affected by COVID-19

need some space?

A Houston-based commercial real estate company in the historic East Downtown District, is giving away free space to two startups who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Headquarters is currently accepting submissions from startups, founders, and entrepreneurs to be considered for free office space through Friday, October 2, with recipients set to be announced the week of October 5th.

Founded in 2014 by brother and sister duo, Peter and Devin Licata, Headquarters provides flexible office space and suites to startups and young businesses in a variety of industries. Inspired by creative office spaces in Denver and coworking sites to create a completely new way to work.

Devin and Peter Licata founded Headquarters six years ago. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

"For Devin and I being local Houstonians," says Peter. "It was very exciting to bring a product to Houston that we had never seen before in the city. When we started the search for a building, we had a very specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel, and the amenities we wanted to provide."

The building located on 3302 Canal St, was repurposed from an old warehouse built in the mid 20th century. The Licatas spent about eight months designing the building, which had sat vacant for seven years. The design features, evoke a feeling of a corporate campus but for small business which works perfectly for COVID-19 social distancing measures.

"One of the things we wanted was really wide hallways," says Devin. "Typical hallways here are about seven feet, when we were working with our architect we said, double it. The specific visuals are there to invoke a feeling, with an interior courtyard, and lots of natural light.

"Our architects weren't used to working with clients in commercial real estate who were designing based on an office where we would want to work, instead of a client who wanted to maximize every square footage."

The coworking space is adhering to social distancing recommendations. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

The wide open spaces, with hallways over 13 feet wide, high ceilings about 18 feet tall, and HVAC unit that does not recirculate air, along with the office suites that are on average 2 to 3 times larger than other coworking spaces allows all of their tenants to practice social distancing in a safe environment.

Headquarters is monitoring infection rates locally, while following safety guidelines to operate their facility safely. All guests are required to answer health screening questions upon entry and wear face coverings. They continue to clean all common areas and high touch surfaces with EPA-approved products and provide hand sanitizer at all points of entry.

With 35,000 square feet in total and 45 office suites, the Licatas say they chose the East End as their headquarters because of its close proximity to downtown and renewing growth of the community.

"The East End was an obvious location for us, we had been looking for buildings in the area for other development opportunities," says Devin. "Given it's proximity to downtown and its access to three different freeways, from a commuter standpoint it was really important as well as the community aspect."

Headquarters is located just east of downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

Mental health gets a spotlight at free online summit for Houston employers

Mental Health Matters

While the world's population has been focused on the physical effects of COVID-19, there hasn't always been as much attention paid to mental health amid the pandemic.

Every socio-economic class, demographic group, and industry has felt the strain, brought on by social isolation, job instability, and increased stress.

"It quickly became clear that these preventative measures, while recommended for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, were not providing the feeling of security for company employees that we had hoped for," says Next Level Urgent Care's chief medical officer, Karen Rakers, MD. "We needed to address employee mental health."

Next Level Urgent Care began COVID-19 testing across its 15 urgent care locations in March, and shortly after expanded into Houston workplaces, providing onsite COVID-19 testing and temperature checks for large employers in the Houston area.

When it became clear that mental health required more attention than it had been getting, the Next Level Health and Wellness team worked with clinical psychologist Ilyssa Bass, PhD, to assemble a group of diverse mental health and workplace wellness professionals.

Together, they worked to address mental health stigma in the workplace and educate employers on how to implement creative solutions to address employee mental health issues.

One of the major results is the Prioritizing Workplace Wellness Summit, a free five-day virtual event taking place September 28-October 2.

Attendees can look forward to interviews with more than 25 interviews experts, including such as Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D; Daryl Shorter, MD; Craig Kramer; Liz Kislik; Bill Judge, JD, LL.M; and Jeff Gorter, LMSW.

Here's a taste of what you'll discover during the summit:

  • How a multi-faceted approach to improving the mental health of an employee group leads to success
  • Which qualities make organizations resilient when responding to crises including the pandemic
  • Leadership skills and techniques that help maintain a strong workforce
  • Threat assessments and multidisciplinary workplace violence prevention programs to keep an employee group safe
  • How now, more than ever, technology can help reach the masses and deliver easily accessible solutions for common mental health issues
  • Steps employers can take to reduce stigma in their organizations
  • Why the time for action is right now during the pandemic

As a bonus, each free ticket also comes with access to an exclusive new report, "The Top Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Strategies."

Sign up to discover what's working today to optimize mental health in the workplace — your employees will thank you.