It's all about the money — or lack thereof. Photo by Natalie Harms/EnergyCapital

Houston has a ton of potential to be a major hub for hydrogen — but who's to pick up the tab on the progress that is needed to advance the alternative energy source? A panel at a recent event sat down to talk it out.

The Hydrogen Technology Expo, a two-day conference at NRG Center last week, brought in dozens of companies and hundreds of attendees to Houston to discuss the most pressing topics of the energy transition. One panel — moderated by Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston's Future — looked specifically at the challenges for the hydrogen economy.

The biggest challenge: Money. Perlman starts the conversation asking panelists if Wall Street is showing up to back hydrogen projects.

"Everyone talks about investing in hydrogen, and very few people actually do it," says Sean Shafer, managing partner of Energy and Industrial Advisor Partners, "outside of the big strategics and some technology plays — electrolyzers, fuel cells, and stuff like that."

Timing is an issue, adds Brian Hodges, partner at Aurum Capital Connect. Hodges, who previously was at Bank of America, saw first hand the money that a bank was willing to put into clean energy and decarbonization. But, when presenting options to deploy this funding, Hodges hears a familiar refrain — it's too early, it's too small, the pieces aren't in place yet.

"There is a gigantic pool of capital out there — whether its traditional banks, financial institutions, sovereign wealth funds," he says. "Literally everyone and their dog is interested in the space. ... We're right on the cusp of this, but when you look at Europe, they're 10 years ahead of us."

And that decade of experience is what attracts more funding, Hodges says. And it's not just Europe when it comes to markets getting ahead. Texas can't compete with the likes of California, says Roxana Bekemohammadi, founder and executive director of US Hydrogen Alliance, especially when it comes to policy. The state has had legislation addressing zero-emission vehicles since 1989.

"California policies are unique beasts, and I like to explain this because it's really important when I talk to other state legislators," Bekemohammadi says, explaining that the state mandates action and has larger teams to put policy into place. "You're looking at such a mature industry, if you want to call it an industry, but it's really a policy institution."

The panelists agree on the obstacle of policy. Tanya Peacock, managing director of EcoEngineers, works directly with project developers looking for financing and investment funds and financiers looking for projects.

"Everybody is waiting for the guidance on the IRA 45V Production Tax Credit," she says. "I think that's really the game changer for the industry, but the uncertainty around how the credit is going to be implemented is what's holding back a lot of the investment at the moment."

Texas doesn't have state incentives, Shafer points out, but the work is easy to get done with the workforce in the region, so that's also a missed opportunity. Some other factors, he adds, include offtake and lack of debt providers. He says the demand hasn't been established yet to provide a good opportunity for offtake negotiations — it's a chicken and egg problem. Meanwhile, project finance tends to have a debt provider involved, but there aren't providers willing to underwrite debt hydrogen projects.

"One of the other big things is there seems to be a lack of middle capital to get smaller companies to get their projects more backed," Shafer continues his list. "People want to write the big checks. They don't want to write the small checks — and I think one of the reasons is they don't want to lose all their capital. There's no downside protection in this industry."

Perlman, who addressed the crowd in a presentation about Texas as a hydrogen hub earlier in the day, remains bullish on the city's future in the space. Last year, CHF and several other organizations worked together to create the plan for the HyVelocity Hub — and a pitch to receive U.S. Department of Energy Regional Clean Hydrogen Hub funding to make it a reality.

"What we want to do in Texas is jumpstart the market," Perlman says, adding that HyVelocity can help accomplish this goal. "This market can happen in Texas because we are the right place with the right resources. ... What we need to do as an industry is accelerate development."

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Houston company plans to install the first commercial direct lithium extraction plant in the US

coming soon

Houston-based International Battery Metals, whose technology offers an eco-friendly way to extract lithium compounds from brine, is installing what it’s billing as the world’s first commercial modular direct-lithium extraction plant.

The mobile facility is located at US Magnesium’s operations outside Salt Lake City. The plant, expected to go online later this year, will process brine produced from lithium-containing waste-magnesium salts. The resulting lithium chloride product will provide feedstock for high-purity lithium carbonate generated by US Magnesium.

Under its agreement with US Magnesium, International Battery Metals (IBAT) will receive royalties on lithium sales, as well as payments for equipment operations based on lithium prices and performance.

IBAT says its patented technology is the only system that delivers a 97 percent extraction rate for lithium chloride from brine water, with up to 98 percent of water recycled and with minimal use of chemicals.

“Commercial operations will serve growing lithium demand from automakers for electric vehicle batteries, as well as energy storage batteries to support growing electricity demand and to balance the grid from increased renewable energy integration,” IBAT says in a news release.

Initially, the less than three-acre plant will annually produce 5,000 metric tons of lithium chloride. The modular plant was fabricated in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

“Our commercial operations with US Mag will advance a productive lithium extraction operation,” says Garry Flowers, CEO of IBAT. “Given current lithium demand, supply dependence on China, and permitting challenges, our expected commercial operations are coming at an ideal time to produce lithium at scale in the U.S.”

IBAT says the technology has been validated by independent reviewers and has been tested in Texas, California, Michigan, Ohio, and Oklahoma, as well as Argentina, Canada, Chile, and Germany.

IBAT says its modular concept positions the company to be a key supplier for rising U.S. lithium demand, providing an alternative to China and other global suppliers.

John Burba, founder, CTO and director of IBAT, says the modular extraction technology “will be the basis of future lithium extraction from brine resources around the world.”

Houston hospital system to launch all-electric fleet of delivery drones

looking up

A Houston hospital system has announced that it has plans to launch a drone delivery service that will replace traditional car deliveries in 2026.

Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it intends to be the first health care provider in Houston to roll out drone delivery services from San Francisco-based Zipline, a venture capital-backed tech company founded in 2014 that's completed 1 million drone deliveries.

"As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve. Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them," Alec King, executive vice president and CFO for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

Zipline boasts of achieving delivery times seven times faster than traditional car deliveries and can usually drop off packages at a rate of a mile a minute. The drones, called Zips, can navigate any weather conditions and complete their missions with zero emissions.

Per the release, the service will be used to deliver medical supplies and prescriptions to patients or supplies or samples between its locations.

"Completing more than one million commercial deliveries has shown us that when you improve health care logistics, you improve every level of the patient experience. It means people get better, faster, more convenient care, even from the comfort of their own home," adds Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. "Innovators like Memorial Hermann are leading the way to bring better care to the U.S., and it's going to happen much faster than you might expect."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Know before you go: Offshore Technology Conference 2024

things to know

An annual conference that showcases technology for the offshore energy business is taking over Houston's NRG Park for the majority of the week.

Here's what you need to know before you go out to the event, which will take place Monday, May 6, to Thursday, May 9.

Attend the Distinguished Achievement Awards on Sunday, May 5

OTC's annual awards reception, the Distinguished Achievement Awards, will kick off the week on May 5. The three award honorees for OTC 2024 have been named and will be honored at the event. Click here to learn more about this year's honorees.

Visit the Energy Transition Pavilion 

The Energy Transition Pavilion will feature panels and presentations about the future of sustainability in the energy industry. The programming takes place Monday through Wednesday, and the exhibit is located at NRG Center in Hall C.

Zoom in on offshore wind

This year, OTC is featuring a dedicated thread to offshore wind technology. A mix of panels, keynotes, and technical presentations, the programming will take place over Monday through Wednesday.

Don't miss the exhibition hall

Over a thousand companies will be exhibiting at OTC this year, and the hall can be a bit overwhelming. Check the program or the map online to see who's exhibiting and where to find them.

Catch the three university showcases 

OTC's University R&D Showcase will feature three schools — the University of Houston, Texas A&M International University, and the University of São Paulo. You can find each university's booth open all four days of OTC.