podcast interview

Q&A: Energy leader on key trends, future of industry, and Houston's role in it all

Houston energy leader Barbara Burger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the energy transition's biggest challenges and her key takeaways from CERAWeek. Photo courtesy of CERAWeek

Last month, Barbara Burger participated in four panels at CERAWeek by S&P Global, and from her insider perspective, she had a few key takeaways from the event, which brought together energy leaders, tech startups, dignitaries, civil servants, and more.

In a recent podcast interview, Burger shared some of her key takeaways from the event — and how these trends are affecting the industry as a whole. Read through an excerpt or stream the full episode below.

Houston Innovators Podcast: I think most of the Houston energy world knows who you are, namely from your role leading Chevron Technology Ventures, which you left a few years ago now. So catch us up on what life looks like for you lately. I know you’re involved with a lot of organizations, so break down how you distribute your time with all of them?

Barbara Burger: The last two years since I left Chevron, I’ve built this portfolio of really interesting roles. Having been an executive for so long — executives are in there, doing stuff for the company — now, I’m an adviser or director at the company level, at the investor level, and at an investment bank, all in energy transition.

I have some challenges I want to work on that are really important to me — and those tend to not be in the for-profit space in education and performing arts.

I have some informal roles that I found I really enjoy — I mentor a wide variety of people. I have time to learn changes amid the energy transition and to attend conferences.

HIP: One of those conferences was CERAWeek last month. Why was that one important to Houston and what were your key takaways?

BB: CERAWeek is known as the "Super Bowl of Energy." It’s been going on for 40 years and really shows you the trends in energy across so many different dimensions. There’s so much in energy and you can get in your own narrow silo of working on something, and CERAWeek is an opportunity to actually see the bigger picture.

One takeaway was that it was a very practical approach. We need an energy system that focuses on climate, the economy, security — a lot of this is just the block and tackling of engineering, policy, economics, and community engagement. I think it was a practical discussion.

The other is that everybody has woken up and realized that our load growth — our demand — is growing, and because of all kinds of things pointing toward electrification. I think that the big one in the room was AI and the power demands for it.

It’s not just about the innovation — it’s really about scaling that innovation and that execution, because that’s when we get impact, when these technologies are actually used in the energy system, and when we create new businesses. It’s going to take investment, capabilities, a real understanding of the marketplace, and, in many cases, it’s going to take a relationship with the government.

Philanthropists were there, but I wish I'd seen more of a presence from private equity. Every year I see more people from outside of what I would call the conventional energy industry, and I think that’s really good.

There’s a lot pools of capital, and they’re different and siloed, and they even use different vocabulary. Making those transitions is really important. That’s where I think the private equity investors play a role here, and venture and private equity — those are two different places, but we’re starting to see collaboration between them.

HIP: The United States Department of Energy had a notable presence at CERAWeek this year. What do you think about the organization's efforts and recent approach to 

BB: In years gone by, DOE funding was much more focused on early stuff — research and development. We all know that if you cannot scale and put technologies into operation, you do not get the impact. So the DOE has developed programs to focus and deployments.

They aren’t trying to replace private capital, but they are trying to be catalytic — which is also a role philanthropists are doing. Go in where the market won’t make the right call to buy down some of the uncertainty. They've been really collaborative and have skin in the game on this one.

HIP: What keeps you up at night when you think of the future of energy?

BB: One of the biggest risks is that we do not act fast enough, and what I mean is that we somehow convince ourselves that we do not need to evolve — and that’s as companies, as a nation, or as a globe.

We’ve made tremendous progress in 10 years. But I believe that in 2050 that we will look back and say, "why didn’t we start earlier and why weren’t we consistent with our actions." The energy transition gets politicized, and we don’t move with conviction.

HIP: What about the role Houston plays in all of this?

BB: I've been bullish on Houston in the energy transition. I moved here 11 years ago, and I had no companies in my portfolio in CTV from Houston, and I wondered why. There are a few things I’m proud of in the ecosystem here, and one of theme is that it’s a very inclusive ecosystem — and I mean that there's all different startups — student founded, operator founded, and incumbent companies at the table, but the worst way to get people to not join a party is to not invite them.

No one company or organization is going to solve this. We have to get along. We have to stop thinking that the mode is to compete with each other because the pie is so big and the opportunity is so big to work together — and by and large I do see that happening.

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A View From HETI

Discovery Green's Earth Day event generated more than 3,800 pounds of garbage — and over 90 percent of it was diverted from landfills. Photo courtesy of Discovery Green

Discovery Green celebrated Earth Day with a major milestone this year — achieving it’s Zero Waste goal.

The nonprofit, along with Citizens’ Environmental Coalition and Houston Public Works, are announced that the 2024 Green Mountain Energy Earth Day, which generated more than 3,800 pounds of garbage, diverted the majority of that waste from landfills. "Zero Waste," as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is successfully diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill.

On Earth Day, Discovery Green composted 2,200 pounds of waste and recycled 1,300 pounds of trash.

“Part of Discovery Green Conservancy’s mission is to serve as a village green for our city and be a source of health and happiness for all. Our goal is to sustain an exceptional environment for nature and people,” Discover Green President Kathryn Lott says in a news release. “We are beyond thrilled to have achieved Zero Waste certification.”

The achievement was made possible by volunteers from the University of Houston – Downtown.

Steve Stelzer, president of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition’s board of directors, acknowledged how rare the achievement is in a public space in a major city like Houston.

“Discovery Green Conservancy stepped up and made a commitment to weigh, measure and record everything. They should be congratulated to have done this at this scale,” Stelzer adds. “The Conservancy said they were going to do it and they did. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

The 2024 event included:

  • 31,000 visitors in attendance
  • 60 + exhibitors
  • 100 + volunteers
  • 12 artists
    • 9 chalk artists
    • Donkeeboy and Donkeemom
    • Mark Bradford
  • 25 Mark Bradford artworks made of scrap presented in partnership with Houston First
  • 4 short films shown
  • 3,836.7 pounds of waste collected during Green Mountain Energy Earth Day

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