Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss hardtech and Houston as an energy transition city. Photo via LinkedIn

The energy transition has momentum, according to Wogbe Ofori. But there's still a ways to go.

Ofori, the founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, is an adviser to Nauticus Robotics and strategist to Intuitive Machines and Jacobs, he's also served as a mentor across the local innovation community. He's narrowed in on hardtech and has has gotten a front-row seat to observing what's happening in Houston amid the energy transition, as he explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Listen to the episode and read an excerpt below.

EnergyCapital: Looking back on some of the recent trends of the energy transition, what have you observed?

Wogbe Ofori: The energy transition has been something that — through the last hype cycle that started in the second half of 2020 and lasted until the first quarter of 2022 — was part of that momentum along with Web3. Now, the energy transition is continued as Web3 has fallen off a cliff and now been replaced by AI, but the energy transition is continued. Where I think moving into the next major stage where now it’s time for them to actually be proven out. And these things are hard and take time to be proven out and these technologies to mature. Then for the products and services that are derived from them, to really find the right place within the market and the right use cases. The idea that there is some sort of silver bullet — whether it be hydrogen or something else — that's going to solve the problem for all use cases is completely unrealistic. The issue is that a lot of folks especially the big energy players — the O&G majors here — they know that.

EC: So, what does this next stage look like?

WO: Now we're moving into what I think is a really interesting period where it's going to be, “well do we really have the legs for this race?” Because we sprinted, and everybody got really excited. Now you starting to hear, “well you know some investors are a little worried that cleantech 2.0 might suffer some of the same fate as cleantech 1.0.” How do we avoid that? Will investors have the patience to continue to make investments into energy transition plays for the longer term, because we’re going to need that to make these transitions. It's not going to happen overnight.

EC: Where does Houston come in on all this?

WO: Well the other big question that’s being asked around is, “Can Houston actually lead this?” It's difficult for an incumbent to disrupt itself. We’ve been positioning ourselves as moving from the energy capital of the world to the energy transition capital. I'm all for it, and I'm 100 percent behind it. Now we are just at the place where we're really going to start to see the difference between those who were caught up in the excitement of the energy transition, and those who really have the faith to see this thing through. The ones who do have the faith to see this through are going to create some fantastic companies that are going to create real value and that will materially change the way we live. But it’s going to take time and be hard.

Square Robot's Houston office has the ability to showcase the technology to its potential customers. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Boston-based tech company grows Houston team to deliver robotics to energy industry

do the robot

The robots are coming. Although the rise of Chat GPT has frightened plenty of professionals, we’re not on the precipice of the singularity just yet. And some of Houston’s coolest robots are contained in above-ground tanks, simply doing jobs that are too expensive and difficult for humans. The mechanical helpers in question come courtesy of Square Robot.

Square Robot co-founder and chief technology officer Jerome Vaganay started the company in 2016 in Boston. The company opened its Houston office in August of 2019.

“A lot of our partners and client base is out of here,” says director of operations, Matt Crist.

Karishma Prasad, director of technical operations, who joined the team in Houston earlier this year, adds “It’s a great centralized place for us. Houston is a great hub both nationally and internationally. There is so much energy transition innovation happening here.”

Square Robot is indeed a robotics company, but it trades in a very specific type of robot. The SR-1 is an innovative tank inspector.

“Since the ‘60s there’s been a traditional way of going into a tank. People would go inside and clean it with a variety of products," Crist explains. "Once it was clean, they would come in and inspect it repair it and that could take months.”

In fact, it could often cause a 15 or 16-week outage, he says.

Square Robot’s brainstorm was to take the human element out of the process. In other words, robots can do the job more safely, efficiently and quickly than a human ever could by collecting 18,000 data points per square foot, while allowing the product — most often diesel — to stay in the tank.

Square Robot saves those vast weeks of time, but perhaps even more importantly, says Prasad, “We’re avoiding emissions being released into the atmosphere.”

With its key location in Houston, Square Robot has worked with most of the major names in the energy world, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Crist’s former employer, Phillips 66.

The latest robot is the SR-3, which is currently being tested in Houston. Curious webwatchers can see its progress on Square Robot’s website. Unlike the flagship SR-1, the new robot boasts a side launcher that allows it to be completely immersed in a tank before being launched.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about Square Robot’s 15-human Houston office is its test tank. There, potential partners can see exactly what the company’s ingenious creation can do. Square Robot will participate in ILTA, the International Operating Conference & Trade Show, which takes place from May 21-24. On the 24th, the company will host an open house from noon to 3 p.m. to allow potential users to see the SR-3 in action in the 42-foot-long test tank.

Square Robot will complete its hundredth tank inspection in May. It is also growing beyond the oil and gas world to include work with the power industry and was recently selected as a finalist in the Incubatenergy Lab Start Up program. This is one robot that we will happily allow to take over formerly all-too-human responsibilities.

Square Robot has a team of 15 in Houston. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.


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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott demands answers from Houston power company following Beryl

investigation incoming

With around 270,000 homes and businesses still without power in the Houston area almost a week after Hurricane Beryl hit Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Sunday said he's demanding an investigation into the response of the utility that serves the area as well as answers about its preparations for upcoming storms.

“Power companies along the Gulf Coast must be prepared to deal with hurricanes, to state the obvious,” Abbott said at his first news conference about Beryl since returning to the state from an economic development trip to Asia.

While CenterPoint Energy has restored power to about 2 million customers since the storm hit on July 8, the slow pace of recovery has put the utility, which provides electricity to the nation’s fourth-largest city, under mounting scrutiny over whether it was sufficiently prepared for the storm that left people without air conditioning in the searing summer heat.

Abbott said he was sending a letter to the Public Utility Commission of Texas requiring it to investigate why restoration has taken so long and what must be done to fix it. In the Houston area, Beryl toppled transmission lines, uprooted trees and snapped branches that crashed into power lines.

With months of hurricane season left, Abbott said he's giving CenterPoint until the end of the month to specify what it'll be doing to reduce or eliminate power outages in the event of another storm. He said that will include the company providing detailed plans to remove vegetation that still threatens power lines.

Abbott also said that CenterPoint didn't have “an adequate number of workers pre-staged" before the storm hit.

Following Abbott's news conference, CenterPoint said its top priority was “power to the remaining impacted customers as safely and quickly as possible,” adding that on Monday, the utility expects to have restored power to 90% of its customers. CenterPoint said it was committed to working with state and local leaders and to doing a “thorough review of our response.”

CenterPoint also said Sunday that it’s been “investing for years” to strengthen the area’s resilience to such storms.

The utility has defended its preparation for the storm and said that it has brought in about 12,000 additional workers from outside Houston. It has said it would have been unsafe to preposition those workers inside the predicted storm impact area before Beryl made landfall.

Brad Tutunjian, vice president for regulatory policy for CenterPoint Energy, said last week that the extensive damage to trees and power poles hampered the ability to restore power quickly.

A post Sunday on CenterPoint's website from its president and CEO, Jason Wells, said that over 2,100 utility poles were damaged during the storm and over 18,600 trees had to be removed from power lines, which impacted over 75% of the utility's distribution circuits.

Things to know: Beryl in the rearview, Devon Energy's big deal, and events not to miss

taking notes

Editor's note: Dive headfirst into the new week with three quick things to catch up on in Houston's energy transition.

Hurricane Beryl's big impact

Hundreds of thousands of people in the Houston area likely won’t have power restored until this week, as the city swelters in the aftermath of Hurricane Beryl.

The storm slammed into Texas on July 8, knocking out power to nearly 2.7 million homes and businesses and leaving huge swaths of the region in the dark and without air conditioning in the searing summer heat.

Although repairs have restored power to nearly 1.4 million customers, the scale of the damage and slow pace of recovery has put CenterPoint Energy, which provides electricity to the nation's fourth-largest city, under mounting scrutiny over whether it was sufficiently prepared for the storm and is doing enough now to make things right.

Some frustrated residents have also questioned why a part of the country that is all too familiar with major storms has been hobbled by a Category 1 hurricane, which is the weakest kind. But a storm's wind speed, alone, doesn't determine how dangerous it can be. Click here to continue reading this article from the AP.

Big deal: Devon Energy to acquire Houston exploration, production biz in $5B deal

Devon Energy is buying Grayson Mill Energy's Williston Basin business in a cash-and-stock deal valued at $5 billion as consolidation in the oil and gas sector ramps up.

The transaction includes $3.25 billion in cash and $1.75 billion in stock.

Grayson Mill Energy, based in Houston, is an oil and gas exploration company that received an initial investment from private equity firm EnCap Investments in 2016.

The firm appears to be stepping back from energy sector as it sells off assets. Last month EnCap-backed XCL Resources sold its Uinta Basin oil and gas assets to SM Energy Co. and Northern Oil and Gas in a transaction totaling $2.55 billion. EnCap had another deal in June as well, selling some assets to Matador Resources for nearly $2 billion. Click here to continue reading.

Events not to miss

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

  • 2024 Young Leaders Institute: Renewable Energy and Climate Solutions is taking place July 15 to July 19 at Asia Society of Texas. Register now.
  • CCS/Decarbonization Project Development, Finance and Investment, taking place July 23 to 25, is the deepest dive into the economic and regulatory factors driving the success of the CCS/CCUS project development landscape. Register now.
  • The 5th Texas Energy Forum 2024, organized by U.S. Energy Stream, will take place on August 21 and 22 at the Petroleum Club of Houston. Register now.

Growing Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

onboarding

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.