In his conversation with S&P Global's Daniel Yergin, Bill Gates discussed AI, Texas as an energy transition hub, and more. Photo via CERAWeek

Bill Gates, renowned co-founder of Microsoft and founder of Breakthrough Energy, took the CERAWeek stage to a standing-room-only crowd to discuss his thoughts on the future of energy.

He was joined in conversation with Daniel Yergin, author and vice chairman of S&P Global, at the luncheon on Thursday, March 21. His remarks touched on three themes within the energy transition.

Texas as a hub for energy transition

Yergin started off the conversation inquiring about Gates and his recent tour around Texas, which included visiting energy companies' plants and facilities and their local communities. Though it might surprise people, given the history of oil and gas in the state, Texas has a strong presence in the energy transition, Gates says.

“There is some irony in the fact that so many of the capabilities to embrace (the energy transition) are here in Texas, whether it's the workforce or the permitting,” he says at the event.

Gates adds that while most of the portfolio companies at Breakthrough Energy were founded on the coasts, many turn to Texas when it comes time for their first commercial pilot.

He addressed a progress report on the energy transition as a whole.

“It’s really starting to move. There’s a lot of exciting technologies, and a lot of the big companies are coming in,” he says, specifically noting energy companies' presence at COP28.

“A heroic effort is beginning — I’m very excited about it. But we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it will be,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that have to happen for these projects to go ahead. It’s far more difficult than anything I worked on at Microsoft.”

Steel and nuclear have big potential for disruption

Gates continued this thought but highlighting that some industries are less advanced than others.

“We’re just at the beginning of many things," he adds, noting that "the steel industry today is 99 percent the traditional process."

With that, steel has a lot of potential to be disrupted, and Breakthrough Energy has two companies working to make the industry greener, but it's an industry that's going to take time to evolve.

Nuclear is another sector Gates is excited about but is developing at a slower pace. Breakthrough Energy has five portfolio companies focused on Nuclear, including TerraPower, which Gates co-founded in 2006.

Despite nearly two decades of development, Gates says TerraPower is a "fast-moving" nuclear company in comparison to other companies out there.

AI's impact is still to be determined

The topic of artificial intelligence inevitably came up, and Gates explains that the technology has come a long way. Microsoft owns a portion of OpenAI, which created ChatGPT. Gates says he expected AI to evolve and to be able to be programmed to understand information to take longer to develop.

“We have achieved a threshold — an unusual threshold because we know how we’ve caused the knowledge represented, but we don’t understand how at a semantic level how that knowledge is being represented,” Gates says.

AI's current applications are within white collar activities, Gates explains, citing writing a regulatory permit or looking at evidence in a lawsuit. He explains that current AI capabilities could continually grow or remain stagnant for a while, he isn't sure.

"The thing that’s daunting is we don’t know how quickly it will improve," he adds.

Gates didn't comment on energy specific AI applications but noted that AI has advanced far past robotics, which would target blue collar roles.

The collaboration will help Amperon's energy sector clients to "successfully navigate the evolving grid to improve reliability, optimize asset economics, and accelerate decarbonization." Photo via amperon.co

Houston energy tech company taps Microsoft tools to accelerate AI adoption for decarbonization

teaming up

Amperon has announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure.

The collaboration will help Amperon's energy sector clients to "successfully navigate the evolving grid to improve reliability, optimize asset economics, and accelerate decarbonization," according to the company.

"This collaboration with Microsoft marks a significant step forward in our mission to modernize energy data and AI infrastructure. By replatforming our technology onto Microsoft Azure and enabling our customers to use Microsoft's analytics stack with our data, we aim to empower users to make informed decisions as they navigate the energy transition," Abe Stanway, CTO of Amperon, says in the news release.

Amperon, which announced last fall that it closed its series B round at $20 million, created a platform that provides AI modeling and forecasting methodologies critical to decision making as energy companies decarbonize amid the evolving energy transition. The combined technology and tools will only enhance the user experience with modern data capabilities, per the release

"We are pleased to collaborate with Amperon to enable our customers with a scalable data analytics platform for forecasting – one of the most essential ingredients to managing an increasingly complex energy grid. Together, we will drive energy solution advancements and contribute to a more sustainable future," adds Hanna Grene of Microsoft.

Among Dimensional Energy's funders are Microsoft and United. Photo via dimensionalenergy.com

Decarbonization tech startup with Houston office scores $20M from United, Microsoft, and others

Money moves

Climatech company Dimensional Energy, which operates a Houston office, has scooped up $20 million in series A funding.

Founded in 2014, Ithaca, New York-based Dimensional Energy specializes in producing decarbonization technology, sustainable aviation fuel, and carbon emissions-derived fuels and materials. South Korea’s Envisioning Partners led the round, with participation from investors such as:

  • United Airlines’ Sustainable Flight Fund
  • Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund
  • RockCreek Group’s Smart Aviation Futures fund
  • DSC Investment
  • Delek US
  • Empire State Development
  • Climate Tech Circle

The company also says it’s working toward becoming a certified B Corporation. Businesses that achieve this certification seek to balance purpose and profit.

Dimensional Energy says the $20 million funding round positions it for “significant growth,” enabling it to:

  • Build the world’s first advanced power-to-liquid fuel plant and continue developing commercial power-to-liquid fuel plants.
  • Roll out the company’s initial B2B and B2C products, such as a fossil-free surf wax and a cruelty-free fat alternative for vegan food manufacturers.
  • Evolve the company’s proprietary reactor and catalyst technologies, which are being tested at its pilot plant in Tucson, Arizona.

“The world needs immediate and rapid decarbonization across all sectors, and Dimensional Energy shows great promise as a cleaner and lower-carbon aviation solution alongside reductions in industrial emissions,” Brandon Middaugh, senior director of Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, says in a news release.

Dimensional Energy’s technology transforms carbon dioxide emissions into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), renewable diesel, and synthetic paraffin that can be refined into more than 6,000 everyday products.

“Dimensional Energy particularly stood out to us for their differentiated technology, exceptional team, and significant progress to date towards producing SAF and other industrial products from CO2,” says Justin Heyman, managing director at RockCreek. “This technology can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of the airline industry.”

A carbon neutral data center back-up grid is coming soon to Microsoft — thanks to tech from a Houston company. Photo by Christina Morillo/Pexels

Houston energy resiliency company collaborates on carbon-neutral grid project for Microsoft data center

sustainable support

Microsoft is one step closer to its goals of being carbon negative by 2030 thanks to a new initiative involving a Houston energy company.

Houston-based Enchanted Rock has teamed up to provide its electrical resiliency-as-a-service and ultra-low-emission generators to Microsoft’s new data center in San Jose, California.

Along with Wisconsin-based U.S. Energy, a vertically integrated energy solutions provider, the partnership will procure renewable natural gas for the data center during grid outages and when California’s Base Interruptible Power is activated. Previously, Microsoft announced its plans for carbon neutrality by 2030.

“Enchanted Rock has always been committed to using the cleanest fuel available without compromising on reliability for our customers,” Thomas McAndrew, founder and CEO of Enchanted Rock, says in a news release. “After announcing our renewable natural gas solution in 2021 and this particular Microsoft data center project in 2022, we’re proud to be taking this important next step toward seeing this key technology in operation."

Enchanted Rock, founded in 2006, provides microgrid technology that use natural gas and renewable natural gas, providing for lower emissions and pollution than diesel generators. The company also provides a software platform, GraniteEcosystem, for users for constant management, analytics, and more.

The RNG for the will be delivered by U.S. Energy and sourced from diverted food waste. Per the release, the agreement allows for flexibility in the amount of RNG supplied, which is scheduled to begin being procured by early 2026, so that the initiative will meet its evolving standards for emissions reduction.

“Energy resilience is crucial with data centers like this one,” president of U.S. Energy, Mike Koel, says in the release. “Through our portfolio of 40 renewable natural gas projects, we’re able to ensure our customers have the supply needed to meet any additionality requirements. As we continue to grow our portfolio, our partnership with Enchanted Rock will help more organizations take that next step in their carbon reduction goals.”

Microsoft is one step closer to its carbon-free goals. Photo via Getty Images

Microsoft's Texas data centers to be powered by carbon-free energy

seeing green

Microsoft has made a deal with a French energy company that will help the tech giant to reach 100 percent carbon-free energy in its Texas data centers by 2030.

ENGIE Energy Marketing announced this week that its reached an agreement with Microsoft "to provide renewable energy to cover the consumption of select Microsoft data centers in Texas." The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Microsoft continues to be a leader in the market for corporate renewable energy procurement and a key alliance for ENGIE in the Net Zero energy transition,” Ken Robinson, ENGIE's president and CEO, says in the news release. ” We are proud to help them achieve their ambitions, where many other companies continue to struggle. Our goal is to grow our 24×7 hourly carbon-free matching program in key markets with electricity generated from zero carbon energy sources including wind and solar.”

The tech giant has announced its plans to reach its goal of 100 percent of electricity consumption, 100 percent of the time by 2030.

ENGIE, which is headquartered in Paris but has employees based in Houston, provides energy supply solutions for companies ona decarbonization journey. It's suite of services includes asset management, risk management, and more.

“We are excited that this project has kicked off and will provide us meaningful insight into future hourly carbon free program design,” Microsoft General Manager, Renewables and Carbon Free Energy Adrian Anderson says in the statement. “We look forward to working with ENGIE to meet our 100/100/0 goals.”

Six participating startups in DivInc’s clean energy accelerator program discussed their progress in the program and made connections with attendees at the demo day at the Ion. Photo via LinkedIn

6 startups complete inaugural diversity-focused clean energy accelerator in Houston

elevating energy tech

DivInc, a Texas-based accelerator focused on uplifting people of color and women founders, recently concluded their inaugural clean energy cohort, catapulting several early-stage companies to major milestones.

The 12-week intensive Clean Energy Tech accelerator program sponsored by Chevron and Microsoft instructed seven clean energy startup founders at the Ion, through a variety of workshops, mentor sessions, and deep dives with VC professionals. DivInc also gave each startup a non-dilutive $10,000 grant to use during the course of the program.

Cherise Luter, marketing director at DivInc, said the Austin-based development program decided to expand from its previous accelerators — Women in Tech and Sports Tech — into clean energy because it is a newer industry with ample potential.

“Clean energy is an emerging space where founders like ours, women and POC founders, can really get in on the ground floor in a great way so that they are building as well as benefiting from this new space,” Luter tells EnergyCapital.

Luter said corporate partners Chevron and Microsoft were similarly on board with prioritizing diversity in the clean energy sector and together they agreed Houston would be the best place to headquarter the accelerator for its expansive resources, particularly VCs.

“Houston, as the energy capital, the resources, connections, and network are here, and we have found that those are the things that are most important for our founders to be able to really take their companies to the next level,” Luter explains.

The participating startups’ focuses ranged from innovations in solar power to electric vehicle charging stations, but these corporations were all united in aiding the clean energy transition.

“It’s so interesting with this particular cohort, how they are really merging the human part of clean energy – how it’s contributing to a better life for people–with a better situation for our environment and our climate,” Luter says.

The inaugural cohort included one to two entrepreneurs from the following companies:

  • BlackCurrant Inc., based in Chicago, is transforming the hydrogen industry by simplifying OTC transactions and offering a comprehensive platform for businesses to seamlessly obtain equipment, fuel, and services essential for hydrogen adoption.
  • Owanga Solar, founded by two Emory University law students in Georgia, delivers sustainable and affordable solar energy solutions to households and businesses in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Maryland-based Pirl Technology Inc. is building next generation electric vehicle charging stations.
  • Houston-based Quantum New Energy has a software platform, called EnerWisely, that helps those who own assets that reduce carbon emissions, like solar panels, generate high quality, verifiable carbon credits that don’t green wash.
  • SOL roofs, founded by Austinite Daniel Duerto, is creating the next generation of solar roofs through innovating existing technologies.
  • WIP International Services LLC, a Houston-based company, is addressing drinking water scarcity with its atmospheric water generators, which produce fresh drinking water from the humidity in the air.

Tracy Jackson, CEO of WIP International Services LLC, announced on the accelerator’s demo day her Houston-based company that produces atmospheric water generators, which transform humid air into clean drinking water, contracted with several schools in El Salvador for a pilot program to send 40 of their smaller models.

“We’re going to continue on our path and we’re looking forward to signing more international contracts and look forward to having any local opportunities that we can develop as well,” Jackson says.

Since the program ended, Luter shared WIP has also secured a “major international contract in Mexico.”

Luter also shared that accelerator participant Quantum New Energy, a climatech Houston-based company, has pre-launched expansion of EnerWisely, their software that tracks carbon credits, for commercial facilities.

Luter says DivInc plans to eventually host another cohort of their clean energy accelerator and they are continuing to accept applications from founders on a rolling basis.

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

seeing green

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.