Rice University, which works with Houston-based Moonshot Compost, reported a milestone achievement this month. Photo via Getty Images

Rice University and its campus community have officially diverted over 1 million pounds of food waste from landfills.

The university, which works with Houston-based Moonshot Compost, reported the milestone achievement this month. The program was originally launched in November 2020.

“The genesis of the current composting program was a partnership between Housing and Dining, the Office of Sustainability and an undergraduate student named Ashley Fitzpatrick,” says Richard Johnson, senior executive director for sustainability at Rice, in a news release.

“We spent quite a bit of time developing options for food waste composting at Rice with those efforts really ramping up in 2019. After a pilot project, further reflection and an interruption due to the pandemic, we found Moonshot Compost, and they proved to be the partner we needed.”

Fitzpatrick, the student who started it all went on to graduate and now works for Moonshot Compost. She did leave a legacy of student involvement in the program, and Isabelle Chang now serves as an undergraduate student intern in the Office of Sustainability. The role includes liaising with students and other major players on campus who have feedback for the program.

Rice previously had a composting program, but it never reached the same level of scale, per the news release.

“Many years ago — from the late 1990s to about 2007 — we had an on-campus composting device called the Earth Tub that provided food waste composting at one campus kitchen,” Johnson said. “However, the device failed, and frankly, the process of operating the device, getting the food waste into the device and maintaining it all proved onerous. Interest in composting remained after we decommissioned the Earth Tub, and for years we looked for alternatives [before finding Moonshot Compost].”

Launched in July 2020 by Chris Wood and Joe Villa, Moonshot operates with a team of drivers utilizing its data platform to quantify the environmental benefits of composting. The duo went on to team up with energy industry veteran Rene Ramirez to harness their compost into clean hydrogen power.

Last fall, Moonshot Hydrogen signed a memorandum of understanding with the Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization. The agreement includes facilitating the first operating commercial pilot that biologically turns food waste into hydrogen.

ESG has certainly come a long way, but has it come too far, actually? Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy tech entrepreneur on if 'ESG' is a dirty word

guest column

Whose responsibility is it to care for the social good? That’s an important, yet hopelessly complex question, particularly when aimed at sustainability.

When it comes to businesses and other profit-seeking firms, they tend to search for a balance between success today and success overtime. Too much focus in either direction can be deadly.

An apt analogy is a virus: too much reproduction too fast and the host dies, which is why the most successful viruses find the threshold for maximizing reproduction without overly weakening the host.

Payment is about to be due, but from whom?

The ESG movement encapsulates targets from ethical investing related to environmental issues, social values and corporate governance. As it relates to climate, people are working hard to determine how much cumulative effect of human activity is too much for our survival. And there continues to be open questions about how businesses should react to the scientific consensus that climate conditions will continue getting worse, without immediate and severe corrective action. If the consensus is that this is a problem for businesses to fix, whose money do they spend to do it?

Greed was good, once

Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman famously advocated for firms to focus primarily on returning value to shareholders. With respect to social good, he advocated that shareholders use their returns to pursue them; businesses should just chase profit. His 1970 article in the New York Times Magazine is worth a read, particularly his last paragraph, where he observes that corporate dollars spent advancing social responsibility represent the theft of money from investors, customers, or employees. The challenge is, how many negative externalities do we absorb before seeking to redirect corporate profits?

Making impact be part of the analysis

Others have argued that firms have a social responsibility and should pursue, using the term John Elkington coined in 1994, a triple bottom line approach, focusing on profit, people, and planet. Adherents to this approach believe you only get what you measure, and therefore,businesses should measure more than just profit. The challenge is, who is smart enough to balance these accounts?

ESG to the rescue?

The term ESG itself was the result of good intentioned actors in the investment space who wanted to track the efficacy of investing in businesses that scored well for social responsibility. They theorized, and had some support, that these companies outperformed the market. The result was the formation of the Principles for Responsible Investment in 2013, with its six core principles for “incorporating ESG issues into investment practice.”

ESG has certainly come a long way from Milton Friendmen, though it’s challenging to say how the movement is going. From one perspective, it looks like everyone is in trouble. Banks for investing in companies who are not moving fast enough. Energy companies and other producers of consumer products for greenwashing their efforts. Private equity firms for forcing ESG standards that some view as a step-too-far. Financial service companies for assisting in greenwashing. And, of course, the worst offenders are “the woke.” From the other perspective, we are finally starting to see some incentives for companies to address and solve long-ignored problems.

One size fits no one

The question of “Who is responsible for ESG?” reminds me of a presentation I attended in spring 2022, given by a senior executive of a large landfill operator. Before he began his discussion of the environmental impacts of operating a landfill, he noted that his billion dollar company did not really create any trash, it simply collected and received trash from all of us! He was begging the question, “Am I solely responsible for your bad decisions?”

And that’s really the issue with ESG, is it not? Who, for example, is responsible for creating pollution? The energy companies for producing oil and natural gas from underground reserves, or the members of the public who drive cars, buy plastic goods, and flip on the lights? The government for letting those things happen? The answer is sadly both none of us and all of us.

Regulators, mount up

Regulating and investing are often in conflict, but they share one common characteristic: few people have ever done either well. That doesn’t mean we quit trying. There are those among us who can find the signal in the noise, who can stare at a pile of numbers and find the rule that answers the question, or at least correlates well to the desired outcome.

People change expensive behaviors

Charlie Munger famously said, “Show me the incentive, and I’ll show you the outcome.” If I had a magic wand, I would want the power to create global markets for the right to release harmful pollutants / emissions or deposit certain types of waste in landfills. It has worked before, and it will likely be what leads us where we need to go. Until we create marketplaces limiting the release of pollutants and disposal of waste, society will continue to fall prey to complex regulatory solutions that are easy for incumbent industries to strike down. Instead, putting a price on these activities will allow the incumbents to innovate and new companies to compete.

When it comes to ESG, I think we fear two outcomes equally: a world that feels a little out of control and a class of people, or institutions of government, who appear all too confident they have the answers. Maybe we can turn the heat down in the ESG debate by prioritizing what we measure and report and creating marketplaces that incentivize people to solve the most pressing problems.

———

Chris Wood is the co-founder of Houston-based Moonshot Compost.

Houston energy transition folks — here's what to know to start your week. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy transition events not to miss, expert commentary on climate crisis, and more things to know

take note

Editor's note: Start your week off strong with three quick things to catch up on in Houston's energy transition: a roundup of events not to miss, a new Houston energy executive to know, and more.

Events not to miss

Put these Houston-area energy-related events on your calendar.

    • Future of Energy Summit is Tuesday, February 6, at AC Hotel by Marriott Houston Downtown. Register.
    • The 2024 NAPE Summit is Wednesday, February 7, to Friday, February 9, at the George R. Brown Convention Center. It's the energy industry’s marketplace for the buying, selling and trading of prospects and producing properties. Register.
    • The De Lange Conference, taking place February 9 and 10 at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, is centered around the theme “Brave New Worlds: Who Decides? Research, Risk and Responsibility” this year. Register.
    • The Future of Energy Across the Americas: Helping Lawyers Predict and Adapt — the 2024 Houston Energy Conference — is February 27 to March 1. Register.
    • CERAWeek 2024 is Monday, March 18, to Friday, March 22, in the George R. Brown Convention Center. Register.

    ​Commentary: Chris Wood, co-founder of Moonshot Compost, on loving the climate apocalypse​

    Chris Wood knows that the last thing anyone wants to be reminded of in 2024 is the impending climate apocalypse, but, as he writes in his guest column, "There is a scientific consensus that the world climate is trending towards uninhabitable for many species, including humans, due in large part to results of human activity."

    He cites a report that 93 percent “believe that climate change poses a serious and imminent threat to the planet.”

    "Until recently reviewing this report, I was unaware that 93 percent of any of us could agree on anything," he writes. "It got me thinking, how much of our problem today is based on misunderstanding both the nature of the problem and the solution?" Read more.

    New hire: Bracewell names new partner to advise clients on energy transition tax incentives

    Bracewell announced that Jennifer Speck has joined the firm's tax department as a partner in the Houston office. Speck will advise clients on energy transition tax incentives.

    Some of her experiences include onshore and offshore wind, solar, carbon capture, clean hydrogen and clean fuel projects. She recently served as senior manager of tax and regulatory compliance at Navigator CO2 Ventures LLC. She graduated in 2010 with a B.F.A. in mental health psychology from Northeastern State University, and received her J.D., with honors, from The University of Tulsa College of Law in 2012. Read more.

    Houston climate tech founder weighs in on his observations on what's true, what's exaggerated, and what all humans can agree on about the climate crisis. Photo via Getty Imagees

    Houston expert: Why climate action needs better PR and how to love the climate apocalypse

    guest column

    The last thing anyone wants in 2024 is a reminder of the impending climate apocalypse, but here it is: There is a scientific consensus that the world climate is trending towards uninhabitable for many species, including humans, due in large part to results of human activity.

    Psychologists today observe a growing trend of patients with eco-anxiety or climate doom, reflecting some people’s inability to cope with their climate fears. The Edelman Trust Barometer, in its most recent survey respondents in 14 countries, reports that 93 percent “believe that climate change poses a serious and imminent threat to the planet.”

    Until recently reviewing this report, I was unaware that 93 percent of any of us could agree on anything. It got me thinking, how much of our problem today is based on misunderstanding both the nature of the problem and the solution?

    We’ve been worried for good reason before 

    It’s worth keeping in mind that climate change is not the first time smart people thought humans were doomed by our own successes or failures. Robert Malthus theorized at the end of the 18th century that projected human fertility would certainly outpace agricultural production. Just a century and a half later, about half of all Americans expected a nuclear war, and the number jumped to as high as 80 percent expecting the next war to be nuclear. Yes, global hunger and nuclear threats still exist, but our results have outperformed the worst of those dire projections.

    We are worried for good reason today 

    Today changing climate conditions have grabbed the headlines. The world’s climate is changing at a rate faster than we can model effectively, though our best modeling suggests significant, coordinated, global efforts are necessary to reverse current trends. While there’s still lots to learn, the consensus is that we are approaching a global temperature barrier across which we may not be able to quickly return. These conclusions are worrisome.

    How did we get here?

    Our reliance on hydrocarbons is at the heart of our climate challenge. If combusting them is so damaging, why do we keep doing it? We know enough about our human cognitive biases to say that humans tend to “live in the moment” when it comes to decision making. Nobel Prize-winning economic research suggests we choose behaviors that reward us today rather than those with longer term payoffs. Also, changing behaviors around hydrocarbons is hard. Crude oil, natural gas and coal have played a central role in the reduction of human suffering over time, helping to lift entire populations out of poverty, providing the power for our modern lives and even supplying instrumental materials for clothes and packaging. It’s hard to stop relying on a resource so plentiful, versatile and reliable.

    How do we get out of here?

    Technological advances in the future may help us address climate in new and unexpected ways. If we do nothing and hope for the best, what’s the alternative? We can take confidence that we’ve addressed difficult problems before. We can also take confidence that advancements like nuclear, solar, geothermal and wind power are already supplementing our primary reliance on hydrocarbons.

    The path forward will be extending the utility of these existing alternatives and identifying new technologies. We need to reduce emissions and to withdraw greenhouse gasses (GHGs) that have already been emitted. The nascent energy transition will continue to be funded by venture capitalists, government spending/incentives and private philanthropy. Larger funding sources will come from private equity and public markets, as successful technologies compete for more traditional sources of capital.

    Climate Tech will be a large piece of the climate puzzle

    My biases are likely clear: the same global capitalism that brought about our complicated modern world, with its apparent abundance and related climate consequences, has the best chance to save us. Early stage climate tech funding is increasing, even if it’s still too small. It has been observed that climate tech startups receiving funding today fail to track solutions for industries in proportion to their related production of GHGs. For instance, the agriculture and food sector creates about 18 percent of global GHGs, while climate tech companies seeking to address that sector receive about 9 percent of climate tech funding. These misalignments aside, the trendlines are in the right direction.

    What can you do?

    From a psychological perspective, healthy coping means making small decisions that address your fears, even if you can’t eliminate the root causes. Where does that leave you?

    Be a voice for reasonable change. Make changes in your behavior where and when you can. Also, take comfort when you see existing industries adopting meaningful sustainable practices at faster rates. Support the companies you believe are part of the solution.

    We are already seeing a burgeoning climate tech industry across the globe and here at home. With concerted efforts like the Ion and Greentown Labs, the Houston climate tech sector is helping to lead the charge. In what was even recently an unthinkable reality, the United States has taken a leadership role. Tellingly, we are not leading necessarily by setting targets, but instead by funding young startups and new infrastructure like the hydrogen hubs. We don’t know when or where the next Thomas Edison will emerge to shine a new light in a dark world. However, I do suspect that that woman or man is alive today, and it’s our job to keep building a world worth that person saving.

    ---

    Chris Wood is the co-founder of Houston-based Moonshot Compost.

    Moonshot Compost has announced its plans to create green hydrogen at scale. Photo via Getty Images

    Houston startup launches clean energy business to turn compost into hydrogen

    waste to power

    You may already know Moonshot Compost, a Houston company devoted to collecting food waste all over Texas. Now, meet Moonshot Hydrogen.

    Founders and brothers-in-law Chris Wood and Joe Villa have joined forces with energy industry veteran Rene Ramirez to harness their compost into clean hydrogen power.

    Earlier this month, the new branch of the existing company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Purdue Innovates Office of Technology Commercialization. The agreement comes close to a year after Ramirez first began working with Purdue University Northwest professors, Robert Kramer and Libbie Pelter, and Purdue University’s professor, John Patterson. The result is the first operating commercial pilot that biologically turns food waste into hydrogen.

    This revelation comes just days after the Biden-Harris administration announced that it had set aside $7 billion to H2Hubs, a collection of seven regional hydrogen power stations, including one in the Houston area.

    “We love the timing. There’s just a lot of interest right now,” Wood tells EnergyCapital in a video call with Villa and Ramirez. “It's been fun to watch Rene's long relationship with Purdue come to fruition on behalf of that hydrogen at the same time that the DoD is moving forward with their announcement on the hydrogen hubs.”

    Wood and Villa founded Moonshot Compost three years ago.

    “The thought was, 'waste is so valuable, and there's so much of it in the trash.' So we wanted to focus on, ‘Let's get our hands on as much food waste as possible,’ and always be focused on doing the best thing with our food waste,” Wood says.

    Initially, that meant making compost, which saved the waste from a landfill and produced high-quality, nutrient-rich soil. Customers include both private homes and commercial accounts. Those include heavy hitters like Rice University, Conoco Phillips and Texas Children’s Hospital, as well as beloved restaurants ranging from Bludorn to Tacodeli. And that’s just in Houston. The company now collects from businesses in Austin, Dallas and Waco, too.

    That extended footprint will be important to Moonshot Hydrogen.

    “Our big dream is ideally that we have one of these hydrogen facilities in almost every city that we can think of. Your city has that ability to charge up or refuel the cars with hydrogen at-location and not have to worry about going 300 miles away,” says Ramirez.

    Filling up your car with zero-emission hydrogen made from compost? It could be a reality sooner than you think. According to Wood, Moonshot is already in the preliminary stages of discussions with a facility to pilot just such a program.

    “We’ve been thrilled with how receptive people are. There does seem to be a general acknowledgment that this would fit well with Houston’s desire to be the energy transition capital of the world,” he says.

    Their patent-protected technology assures that Moonshot is the only company with this novel solution to food waste. Most exciting is the fact that the institutions with which Moonshot already partners could be on the ground floor of being at least partially powered by their own discarded scraps.

    “Everyone loves the circularity aspect of it,” says Ramirez. And with a potential launch as soon as next March, it’s one step closer to a reality for the Energy Transition Capital.

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    Equinor makes big investment into lithium projects in Arkansas, East Texas

    eyes on LI

    A Norwegian international energy company has entered into a deal to take a 45-percent share in two lithium project companies in Southwest Arkansas and East Texas.

    Equinor, which has its U.S. headquarters in Houston, has reached an agreement with Vancouver, Canada-based Standard Lithium Ltd. to make the acquisition. Standard Lithium retaining operatorship, while Equinor will support through its core competencies, like subsurface and project execution capabilities.

    “Sustainably produced lithium can be an enabler in the energy transition, and we believe it can become an attractive business. This investment is an option with limited upfront financial commitment. We can utilise core technologies from oil and gas in a complementary partnership to mature these projects towards a possible final investment decision,” says Morten Halleraker, senior vice president for New Business and Investments in Technology, Digital and Innovation at Equinor, in a news release.

    Standard Lithium retains the other 55 percent of the projects. Per the deal, will pay $30 million in past costs net to the acquired interest. The company also agreed to carry Standard Lithium's capex of $33 million "to progress the assets towards a possible final investment decision," per the release. Additionally, Equinor will make milestone payments of up to $70 million in aggregate to Standard Lithium should a final investment decision be taken.

    Lithium is regarded as important to the energy transition due to its use in battery storage, including in electric vehicles. Direct Lithium Extraction, or DLE, produces the mineral from subsurface reservoirs. New technologies have the potential to improve this production method while lowering the environmental footprint.

    Earlier this month, Houston-based International Battery Metals, whose technology offers an eco-friendly way to extract lithium compounds from brine, announced that it's installing what it’s billing as the world’s first commercial modular direct-lithium extraction plant located at US Magnesium’s operations outside Salt Lake City. The plant is expected to go online later this year.

    Texas joins in on lawsuit over rules on gas-powered trucks in California

    road block

    A large group of Republican attorneys general on Monday took legal action against the Biden administration and California over new emissions limits for trucks.

    Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers is leading the group of GOP attorneys general who filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to overturn an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting truck emissions.

    Texas joined Nebraska's latest action against the EPA, along with Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and several others.

    A separate lawsuit against California claims a phased-in ban on internal-combustion trucks is unconstitutional and will hurt the U.S. economy.

    Hilgers in a statement said the EPA and California rules “will devastate the trucking and logistics industry, raise prices for customers, and impact untold number of jobs across Nebraska and the country.”

    “There’s not one trucking charging station in the state of Nebraska,” Hilgers later told reporters. “Trying to take that industry, which was built up over decades with diesel and fossil fuels-based infrastructure, and transforming it to an electric-based infrastructure – it’s probably not feasible.”

    EPA officials have said the strict emissions standards will help clean up some of the nation’s largest sources of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

    The new EPA rules are slated to take effect for model years 2027 through 2032, and the agency has said they will avoid up to 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades.

    Emissions restrictions could especially benefit an estimated 72 million people in the U.S. who live near freight routes used by trucks and other heavy vehicles and bear a disproportionate burden of dangerous air pollution, the agency has said.

    A spokesperson for the EPA declined to comment on the legal challenge to the new rules Monday, citing the pending litigation.

    California rules being challenged by Republican attorneys general would ban big rigs and buses that run on diesel from being sold in California starting in 2036.

    An email seeking comment from California’s Air Resources Board was not immediately answered Monday.

    California has been aggressive in trying to rid itself of fossil fuels, passing new rules in recent years to phase out gas-powered cars, trucks, trains and lawn equipment in the nation’s most populous state. Industries, and Republican leaders in other states, are pushing back.

    Another band of GOP-led states in 2022 challenged California’s authority to set emissions standards that are stricter than rules set by the federal government. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit last month ruled that the states failed to prove how California’s emissions standards would drive up costs for gas-powered vehicles in their states.

    Beyond range anxiety: The social dynamics powering EV adoption

    Guest Column

    Imagine a world where electric vehicles are as commonplace as smartphones. Not so long ago, this seemed like a distant dream, primarily due to the dreaded “range anxiety.” But today, the landscape is shifting dramatically thanks to a mix of technical advancements and social dynamics.

    In 1996, General Motors' EV1 emerged as the first modern-day all-electric vehicle, boasting a modest range of 74 miles – adequate for city driving but limiting for longer trips, especially with public charging stations scarce. For the next 15 years, this narrative was slow to change.

    Fast forward to today: The Lucid Air boasts an estimated range of 516 miles, more than the average gasoline-powered car can travel on a single tank. In 2022, the average range of an electric car sold in the U.S. reached 291 miles. By May 2023, more than 138,100 public charging outlets were available nationwide. Despite a concentration of these stations in California, the trend is evident: EVs now offer unprecedented range, complemented by an ever-growing network of charging stations.

    Yet, the specter of "range anxiety" lingers. Why?

    The answer lies not in statistics or technology but in human behavior. A recent study of new EV registrations in 11 U.S. markets revealed a "cluster effect" in EV adoption. Prospective buyers are often influenced by EV owners within their social circles ― neighbors, family, or colleagues. This phenomenon, sometimes known as peer pressure, social contagion, or the “neighborhood effect,” underscores a simple truth: seeing is believing. In other words, the best predictor of a person driving an EV is someone in their inner circle driving one first. (As an EV driver, my own experience resonates with this finding. Three of my friends switched to EVs after hearing about how much my family was enjoying ours, and how much we were saving.)

    The report cited two key factors of peer influence in helping new EV drivers overcome possible sources of anxiety, like range limitations. The first factor ― interpersonal communication and persuasion ― includes observation of specific choices (i.e., a new Tesla in the neighbor’s driveway), word-of-mouth communication, and the influence of trusted community leaders. The second ― normative social influence ― holds that social norms are passively communicated as shared standards of behavior within a group. Even without talking to the neighbor, the sight of their new Tesla suggests that driving one allows you to “fit in” too.

    If peer influence helps convince EV buyers that range is no obstacle, charging stations are doing their part to influence cluster buying as well. California had more than 14,000 of the nation’s 51,000 public charging stations as of March and also the highest number of registered EVs. Consumer Reports reported in June that “charging logistics” was the number-1 reason holding back potential EV buyers. It only makes sense that the threat of a broken EV charger or a long stretch of road without one is lessened where more chargers are available. The number of public charging stations has increased by 40 percent since Jan. 2021, and figures to rise further as public- and private-sector investment dollars flow into public charging.

    More than the availability of public charging stations, the ability to charge one’s EV at home overnight is a practical antidote to range anxiety. Charging overnight can add 40 to 50 miles of range, enough for an average driver on an average day. A 2022 survey by J.D. Power indicated 27 percent of homeowners are "very likely to consider” buying an EV, compared to 17 percent of those who rent. “Not only are homeowners more affluent, on average,” the report notes, “but are more likely to be able to charge an EV at their residence.”

    Here too, the cluster effect makes sense. In areas where renters are concentrated (think apartment complexes), all it takes is one EV driver to inform their neighbors where the nearest charging stations are, eliminating a logistical barrier to range anxiety. In areas where homeowners are concentrated (think new-construction suburban communities of family homes), all it takes is one EV driver to demonstrate the utility of overnight charging in a standard garage or driveway outlet.

    Advancements in charging technology also play a critical role. The advent of affordable Level 2 chargers and ultra-fast Level 3 chargers, like Electrify America's 20 miles-per-minute chargers, further eases range concerns.

    The availability and affordability of charging technology might be the best weapons in the fight against range anxiety, but they are of little use without a first-hand introduction on the part of someone in your social circle. The key to accelerating EV adoption lies in nurturing these social “clusters,” fostering a network of influence that propels us towards an electrified, sustainable future. In this journey, our greatest allies are the conversations in our living rooms, the examples in our driveways, and the shared experiences within our communities. As these clusters expand, they forge a path toward a cleaner, more environmentally conscious world.

    ———

    Kate L. Harrison is the co-founder and head of marketing at MoveEV, an AI-backed EV transition company that helps organizations convert fleet and employee-owned gas vehicles to electric, and reimburse for charging at home.