Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Sunnova Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Several years ago, Kelsey Hultberg decided to make a pivot. Looking for a role with career growth opportunities, the communications professional thought she'd find something at an oil and gas company, but then she met John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, who was looking for someone to stand up their communications team amidst the solar energy company's growth.

"He hooked me," Hultberg shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "He said, 'I've got big plans for this company. I see where this energy industry is going, I see that we're prime for a transition, and I want to take this company public.' And I started a few weeks later."

Hultberg has been telling the story for Sunnova — which equips customers with solar and storage technology, providing them with energy independence — ever since, through scaling, new technologies, and its IPO in 2019.



Each phase of the company represented different challenges for Hultberg and her communications team. As she explains on the podcast, consistently conveying a strong message is key in any industry, but especially energy.

"Communication is critical," Hultberg says, "having a strategy and really being able to articulate who you are, what you stand for, what is your mission, what is your vision — and really beyond that, what is your strategy for how you move forward. ... You can never say the same thing to the same people too many times, especially when you're a company that some people have never heard of before."

And while there's a unique challenge to communications for energy transition companies, Hultberg says she views it as a huge opportunity as long as you have the right structure in place.

"Of course communications and being as strategic as possible with the story that you're telling and the narrative that you're weaving for your different audiences, but then you layer on an industry that's rapidly changing and is tumultuous at times," she says. "Being able to come back to the core mission and values is really incredible."

Hultberg says that when she originally joined the team in 2017, she thought a solar energy company in Houston was an interesting choice — and it was. Texas was not one of Sunnova's biggest markets at the time, Hultberg explains, but things are different now.

"Over the last couple of years, especially after Winter Storm Uri, where you saw a lot of people go without power. ... We had a lot of customers say, 'That can't happen again,'" she says. "You're seeing the adoption and uptick in solar in storage because they are looking for grid reliability and affordability and they aren't getting it from their utility providers."

Last year's winter storm has made ERCOT a household name. CenterPoint Energy/Facebook

New ERCOT dashboards let Houstonians check energy supply in real-time

power check

With winter temperatures and last year's freeze still top of mind for many Texans, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, has rolled out new dashboards to help you keep tabs on the energy supply in real-time.

Local may not have heard of ERCOT until the winter storm in February 2021 that would go on to take the lives of 246 people after the freeze overwhelmed the power grid and left millions freezing in the dark.

Since that storm, anxiety has been high. But these dashboards may help Texans get a gauge on what we're dealing with at any given moment.

The ERCOT site features find nine different dashboards on the Grid and Market Conditions page. Each dashboard has a timestamp of when it was last updated and if you select "Full View," you'll get a detailed explanation of what the graphs mean.

If things are normal, the grid will be green. But if it's black, that means we're in an energy emergency level 3, so expect controlled outages. Energy conservation would also be critical.

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Continue reading and watch the full video on our news partner ABC13.

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Opinion: Houston energy expert weighs in on if the state's power grid is ready for winter

guest column

The Winter Storm Uri, which struck Texas in February of 2021, was an unprecedented event in both severity and duration. At its most extreme, temperatures were as much as 40 to 50 degrees below their historic averages. The storm resulted in the largest controlled blackout in U.S. history, forcing the shedding of more than 23 gigawatts of load, the loss of power to 4.5 million homes and businesses for periods of one to four days, and the tragic loss of hundreds of lives.

A crisis of this magnitude has resulted in an intense re-examination of the Texas power grid. Not surprisingly, it has also resulted in record levels of finger-pointing and an ongoing search to identify the parties responsible. Among the casualties were all three Public Utility Commissioners that regulate the industry and a virtual purge of ERCOT, the organization that operates and manages the grid.

The Texas 87th Legislature filed an inordinate number of bills to address the electric system's failings, and Governor Abbott’s office has been vocal and actively working to ensure that there will never again be a repeat of the events of February 2021. The principal focus of the now reconstituted and expanded Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) has been defining and implementing changes to system rules and operations in order to extract a greater degree of reliability from existing assets and incentivize the construction of significantly more MW of dispatchable generation. Many of the changes implemented by the PUCT will provide the market with a greater cushion against shocks to the system, moving the market away from a crisis management mode and towards a more proactive footing. We can expect even more change once current policies are assessed and more aggressive proposals are analyzed to determine whether they offer more benefit than harm to the market.

Amid all the debate, discussion, and wringing of hands, only one report has come close to identifying the smoking gun at the center of the crisis: the need for weatherization. The notion that weatherizing of generating assets is the key to future reliability has been discussed ad nauseum, but the report issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on November 16, 2021, attributes an equal share of the blame to the natural gas producing, processing, and transportation sector and its inability to perform reliably under the harsh conditions of Uri.

In the areas affected worst by the storm, gas production in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana fell by more than 50 percent at its lowest point when compared to average production in the prior month. The Railroad Commission, not the Public Utility Commission, regulates natural gas transmission, and it was slow off the mark given the focus on generation. The Railroad Commission has now begun to implement weatherization requirements, with new initiatives slated to be in full effect for the winter of 2023.

It is imprudent to use “never” as a time scale, but I would place the probability at “remote” that Texas will see a recurrence of the events of February 2021 in 2022. In the unlikely event we did, the impacts would likely pale in comparison to those experienced last February. This is due both to the heightened state of preparedness with which the industry will approach the coming winter and the impact of changes put into effect by the PUCT as of January 1, 2022.

Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee. Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

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Don Whaley is president at OhmConnect Texas and has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation.

A new report from the University of Houston zooms in on Uri's damage by the numbers. Photo via CenterPoint Energy/Facebook

Report: Nearly 70 percent of Texans lost power during Winter Storm Uri, new UH report says

Uri by the numbers

Texans are painfully aware of the bitter loss caused by Winter Storm Uri; many are still coping with the after effects of the storm that set in on February 13.

But now, new figures reveal how ravaging the freeze was to the Lone Star State and its beleaguered residents.

At its peak, Uri left close to 4.5 million homes and businesses without power, killed more than 100 people, and caused an estimated $295 billion in damage. The storm is the single biggest insurance claim event in state history, as CultureMap previously reported.

More than two out of three Texans – some 69 percent – lost electricity at some point during the storm, for an average of 42 hours. Meanwhile, almost half – 49 percent – lost access to running water for an average of more than two days.

Additionally, nearly one-third of residents reported water damage in their home.

These numbers come from a just-released report by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. According to UH, the Hobby School conducted the online survey of Texas residents 18 and older who live in the 213 counties served by the Texas Electrical Grid, which is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT).

The full Hobby School report is available here.

Highlighting the frustrations millions have expressed since the storm has passed, nearly three out of four Texans – 74 percent – say they disapprove of ERCOT's performance during the winter storm — with 65 percent strongly disapproving. Some 78 percent of respondents claim they do not believe that the power outages in their area were carried out in an equitable manner.

Just how many Texans were okay with the council? Only 6 percent say they approve of ERCOT's widely criticized handling of the storm, per the survey. In the aftermath of the storm, seven ERCOT board members resigned following the near total failure of the state's power grid.

More than three-quarters of residents surveyed support policy reforms, which include requiring electricity generators to weatherize and boost their reserve capacity and natural gas companies to weatherize in order to be able to participate in the Texas market.

However, a majority of respondents oppose proposals that would require consumers to pay an additional fee in order to fund electricity generator weatherization efforts and to increase the amount of reserve electricity generation capacity, per the study.

The Hobby data produced other notable findings, including:

  • Some 61 percent of Texans prepared for the storm by buying additional food, 58 percent bought bottled water, and 55 percent filled their vehicle with gas. The next most common preparations were insulating pipes, covering or moving plants, and storing tap water.
  • A large number — 75 percent — reported difficulty obtaining food or groceries, 71 percent lost internet service, and 63 percent had difficulty obtaining bottled water.
  • When they lost electrical power and heat, 18 percent left their home, with 44 percent going to a local relative's home.
  • Of those who remained in their home without power, 26 percent used their gas oven or cooktop as a source of heat, 8 percent used a grill or smoker indoors, and 5 percent used an outdoor propane heater indoors.
  • Nearly half of Texans disapprove of Gov. Greg Abbott's performance during the winter storm, compared to 28 percent who approve.
  • More than half relied either a great deal, somewhat, or a little on three information sources before, during and after the storm hit: 68 percent on local TV news; 63 percent on neighbors and friends; and 55 percent on The Weather Channel.

The survey was fielded by YouGov from March 9 through March 19, with 1,500 YouGov respondents, resulting in a confidence interval of +/-2.5. Respondents were matched to a sampling frame on gender, age, ethnicity/race, and education, and are "representative of the adult population in these 213 Texas counties," per UH.

"Winter Storm Uri was a catastrophic weather event that impacted millions of lives across our state," said Kirk P. Watson, founding dean of the Hobby School, in a statement. "By digging deeper into its impact on Texans, we are learning critical information that will help inform future plans so a tragedy of this magnitude never happens again."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Richard Seline of Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how it's time for the world to see Houston as the resilient city it is. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Expert says Houston is the prime spot for creating and testing game-changing resilience solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 72

The city of Houston, along the rest of the Lone Star State, has been hit from every direction — pandemics, hurricanes, winter storms, and more.

"We're just whipsawed," says Richard Seline, co-founder at the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub Collaboratory. "We've gone from back-to-back storms and hurricanes to COVID to snow and ice and its impact on energy. People are just exhausted."

Now, Seline says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, this exhaustion is festering into frustration and anger — and calling for change. The things that need to change, Seline says, includes growing investment and innovation in resilience solutions.

"As a fourth generation Houstonian, it's just so hard to see my hometown get hit persistently with a lot of these weather and other type of disasters," Seline says.

These unprecedented disasters — which are of course occurring beyond Houston and Texas — have also sparked a growing interest in change for insurance companies that have lost a trillion dollars on the United States Gulf Coast over the past seven years, Seline says. Something has got to change regarding preparation and damage mitigation.

Creating conversations about change is exactly what Seline and the Resilience Innovation Hub, which is based out of The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston, is focused on. Following all these catastrophic events, the industry is overwhelmed with data — and now is the time to put it to use on innovation and tech solutions.

"We are drowning in data and hungry for intelligence — actionable intelligence," Seline says, adding that now innovators and entrepreneurs are taking on this data and creating solutions.

The challenge then becomes convincing decision makers to pivot from what they know and are comfortable with to what they don't know and what they aren't comfortable with.

And, Seline says on the show, that needs to happen across the board — from public and private companies to government entities and nonprofits both locally and beyond.

"I think that it's time to flip this on its head and say to the world, 'we got it.,'" Seline says. "Because we know these challenges, we are opening the world to the best ideas to be piloted and demonstrated. All I ask is that we get elective and appointed officials who are open to ideas and solutions. That's how innovation occurs."

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


What winter storm Uri ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability. Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Houston expert: Winter storm Uri's devastation should be a reminder to prioritize innovative energy solutions

guest column

Texas has landed itself in the middle of a fierce debate following what's been considered one of the worst winter storm in recent history for the state.

Uri wreaked havoc as it rolled through regions that were wholly unprepared for the sudden temperature drops, single digit wind chills, and unusual precipitation (e.g. thundersnow in Galveston). Rolling power outages and water shortages affected more than 4.5 million Texans. Businesses like grocery stores and restaurants — unable to wash food or sanitize equipment or even turn on the lights, —closed throughout the ordeal, leaving many families without food, water, or power.

For most, this was an unprecedented experience. The majority of catastrophes in Texas are in the form of warm weather events like floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes, which means that even if power is lost, freezing is rarely an issue. Uri turned this upside down. ERCOT's failure to provide reliable energy for days on end led to families sleeping in devastatingly cold temperatures, further water shortage due to municipal water facilities failing, carbon monoxide deaths, disruption in vaccine rollouts, hospitals overrun with people needing to charge essential medical equipment, and much more. Uri highlighted in harrowing detail the domino effect that energy (and lack thereof) has on everything around it.

A single source of ERCOT's failure is hard to pinpoint. The cold led to production shut-ins, exacerbating the existing natural gas supply shortage and resulted in the RRC prioritizing "direct-to-consumer" natural gas delivery (i.e. to residences, hospitals, schools, etc.) over natural gas for the grid. Iced-over gas lines disrupted this flow even further. Freezing temperatures shut off some wind turbines and solar panels (if they were not already covered in snow). Coal and nuclear plants in Texas also shut down due to frozen instruments and equipment.

Thrown into sharp relief was the importance of consumer access to natural gas and other fossil fuels like propane. Most homes that had completely electrified (including my own) were ill-prepared to heat their homes without access to the grid or backup generators. Residential and community solar did little to alleviate this problem in many cases as lower technology configurations either froze, were not able to capture enough energy from a low-light environment, or were covered in snow. Having access to gas for heating or a propane stove was a lifeline for most folks.

But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry.

What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability.

It wasn't enough for our grid to have five potential generation sources – they all failed in different ways. But what if we incorporated more geothermal, which is more cold-weather resistant? What if we upgraded our solar panels to all have trackers or heating elements to prevent snow accumulation? What if our grid had access to larger scale energy storage? What if consumers had more access to off-grid distributed energy systems like generators, residential solar, geothermal pumps, or even just really large home batteries? What if we had predictive solutions that were able to detect when the non-winterized equipment would fail, days before they did? What if we could generate power from fossil fuels without dangerous emissions like carbon monoxide?

All of these technologies and more are being created and developed in our energy innovation ecosystem today, and many in Houston. What we're building towards is diversity of our energy system — but not just diversity of source — which is often the focus – but diversity of energy transportation, energy delivery, and energy consumption. Energy choice is about being able to, as a consumer, have a variety of options available to you such that in extenuating circumstances like winter storms or other catastrophes, there is no need to depend on any single configuration.

In a state like Texas, which is not only the largest oil and gas producer but also the largest wind energy producer and soon to be home to the largest solar project in the US, innovation should and will happen across all energy types and systems. Uri can teach us about the importance of the word all and how critical it is to encourage startups and technology development to develop stronger energy choice. Texas is the perfect home for all of this — and our state's rather embarrassing failure around Uri should be exactly the kind of reminder we need to keep encouraging this paradigm.

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Deeana Zhang is the director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.