The Houston energy transition ecosystem is primed for collaborative partnerships – but here's what to keep in mind. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

When it comes to advancing the energy transition in Houston and beyond, experts seem to agree that collaborations between all major stakeholders is extremely important.

In fact, it was so important that it was the first panel of the second day of FUZE, an energy-focused conference put on by Digital Wildcatters. EnergyCapital HTX and InnovationMap were the event's media partners, and I, as editor of these news outlets, moderated the panel about collaborations.

I wanted to take a second to reflect on the conversation I had with the panelists earlier this week, as I believe their input and expertise — from corporate and nonprofit to startup and investing — was extremely valuable to the greater energy transition community.

Here were my three takeaways from the panel, titled "Collaborative Partnerships: Leveraging synergy in the energy sector."

Early-stage tech startups need bridges to cross their valleys.

The energy transition is a long game — and an expensive one, as Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, explains on the panel. And, just like most startups, the path to commercialization and profitability is long — and definitely not promised.

"When you look at innovation and startups, the multiple valleys of death a startup will go through on their journey, we have to find more ways to bridge those valleys and get more technology to get up that mountain and to a place where it can be scaled," she says.

She explains that corporations aren't always good at innovating, but they are impactful about rolling out de-risked technology at a global scale. But the technology has to get to that point first, so it takes a much earlier intervention for corporates — or another entity, like incubators and accelerators — to help in that developmental process.

"In Houston we have the potential to build out that ecosystem — we already have a lot of pieces in place, so it's about connecting the dots," Stricker says. "It's only by all of the different parts of the ecosystem understanding what each other does and what unique role they play in the process that we can really leverage the strengths of each of them to help create those partnerships and opportunities."

As Amy Henry, CEO of EUNIKE Ventures explains, corporates have their own challenges.

"Energy companies themselves have their own valley of death, and from where they are sitting, that's why they need to collaborate," she says on the panel. "And now we're talking about an unprecedented rate of getting technology commercialized."

EUNIKE works as a go between for corporates — almost as an expansion for them, Henry explains, and they are facing a challenging time too.

"Energy companies are just not early adopters of technology," she says. "But they are also going through their own transformation. At the same time, you've had this huge knowledge leakage in terms of all the workforce reduction."

Startups and corporates speak a different language.

Moji Karimi has had several partnerships with corporations with his biotech startup Cemvita Factory, including a recent offtake agreement with United. For Karimi, it's about learning about your corporate partner.

"In partnerships, especially for startups, you need to understand what is the language of love for the company at time," he says on the panel. "Is it growth, is it perception and PR, is it deployment of capital, or is there a specific bottleneck that we can help remove."

For HETI, Striker says they hope to act as a translator between the two parties.

"How do we enable more connectivity between the companies that have a technology that may be of interest to the larger companies looking for a solution?" Striker explains of HETI's mission. "And how do we make sure industry is communicating opening and broadly?"

Now is the time for action.

For Karimi, the solution is simple: More action is needed.

"Generally, we just need to talk less and do more," he says of what he wants to see from corporates, adding that more checks need to be written.

Based on his own experience, Karimi says some corporates are better to work with than others. He says he prefers working with the companies that don't try to mix in their startup pilots with the "bread and butter" of the business.

"Everyone has so much on their plate," he says, giving the example of Oxy Low Carbon Ventures being an offshoot of Oxy's main business.

Karimi says corporates should think of their startup pilots as an opportunity to try something new and different — something they'd never be able to test internally.

David Maher, business development director of Americas at Linde, says now that there's been regulatory framework, Linde knows what to invest in. The company has a particular interest in hydrogen.

"Another big piece of it is scale," Maher says of what Linde thinks about when considering innovative partnerships. "What's great about Houston is we have density and scale already."

Occidental says its all-cash acquisition of Canada-based Carbon Engineering is set to close by the end of 2023. Photo via carbonengineering.com

Oxy acquires carbon capture co. in $1.1B deal

betting on dac

In yet another bet on direct carbon capture (DAC), Houston-based Occidental has agreed to purchase a DAC technology company for $1.1 billion.

Occidental says its all-cash acquisition of Canada-based Carbon Engineering is set to close by the end of 2023. Carbon Engineering was founded in 2009.

Under the deal, Carbon Engineering would become a wholly owned subsidiary of Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, the investment arm of Occidental. Carbon Engineering employees will work with teams at Occidental and its low-carbon subsidiary, 1PointFive, on DAC technology. The company’s R&D and innovation units will remain in Squamish, British Columbia.

Occidental has been a key DAC partner of Carbon Engineering since 2019.

“We look forward to continuing our collaboration with the Carbon Engineering team, which has been a leader in pioneering and advancing DAC technology,” Vicki Hollub, president and CEO of Occidental, says in an August 15 news release. “Together, Occidental and Carbon Engineering can accelerate plans to globally deploy DAC technology at a climate-relevant scale and make DAC the preferred solution for businesses seeking to remove their hard-to-abate emissions.”

Billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate owns about one-fourth of the shares of publicly traded Occidental.

In conjunction with Carbon Engineering, Occidental’s 1PointFive is building Stratos, the world’s largest DAC plant. The Ector County facility, scheduled to begin operating in mid-2025, is projected to extract up to 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air each year. It’s anticipated that Stratos will employ more than 1,000 people during construction and up to 75 people once the plant is up and running.

Occidental and Carbon Engineering are adapting Stratos’ engineering and design features for a DAC plant to be built on a site at South Texas’ King Ranch. The South Texas DAC Hub, which is on track to create about 2,500 jobs, recently received a roughly $600 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

1PointFive plans to open as many as 135 DAC facilities around the world by 2035, with the capacity to capture 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year.

DAC technology pulls carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere at any location and permanently stores the CO2 or uses it for other purposes. By contrast, carbon capture sucks carbon dioxide from the air near where emissions are generated and then permanently stores the CO2 or uses it for other purposes.

A DAC system vacuums about 50 percent to 60 percent of the carbon dioxide from the air that passes through the system’s fans.

DAC “is shaping up to be a key component of meeting net-zero emissions goals in the United States,” according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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Texas-based Tesla gets China's initial approval of self-driving software

global greenlight

Shares of Tesla stock rallied Monday after the electric vehicle maker's CEO, Elon Musk, paid a surprise visit to Beijing over the weekend and reportedly won tentative approval for its driving software.

Musk met with a senior government official in the Chinese capital Sunday, just as the nation’s carmakers are showing off their latest electric vehicle models at the Beijing auto show.

According to The Wall Street Journal, which cited anonymous sources familiar with the matter, Chinese officials told Tesla that Beijing has tentatively approved the automaker's plan to launch its “Full Self-Driving,” or FSD, software feature in the country.

Although it's called FSD, the software still requires human supervision. On Friday the U.S. government’s auto safety agency said it is investigating whether last year’s recall of Tesla’s Autopilot driving system did enough to make sure drivers pay attention to the road. Tesla has reported 20 more crashes involving Autopilot since the recall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In afternoon trading, shares in Tesla Inc., which is based in Austin, Texas, surged to end Monday up more than 15% — its biggest one-day jump since February 2020. For the year to date, shares are still down 22%.

Tesla has been contending with its stock slide and slowing production. Last week, the company said its first-quarter net income plunged by more than half, but it touted a newer, cheaper car and a fully autonomous robotaxi as catalysts for future growth.

Wedbush analyst Dan Ives called the news about the Chinese approval a “home run” for Tesla and maintained his “Outperform” rating on the stock.

“We note Tesla has stored all data collected by its Chinese fleet in Shanghai since 2021 as required by regulators in Beijing,” Ives wrote in a note to investors. “If Musk is able to obtain approval from Beijing to transfer data collected in China abroad this would be pivotal around the acceleration of training its algorithms for its autonomous technology globally.”

Houston organization celebrates zero waste goal

earth day win

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

Texas hydrogen research hub opens to support statewide, DOE-backed initiative

hi to hydrogen

A Texas school has cut the ribbon on a new hydrogen-focused research facility that will play a role in a statewide, Department of Energy-funded energy transition initiative.

The Center for Electromechanics at The University of Texas, Frontier Energy, Inc., and GTI Energy celebrated the grand opening of a hydrogen research and demonstration facility in Austin as part of the “Demonstration and Framework for H2@Scale in Texas and Beyond” project, which is supported by the DOE's Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Office.

The hydrogen proto-hub is first-of-its-kind and part of Texas-wide initiative for a cleaner hydrogen economy and will feature contributions from organizations throughout the state. The facility will generate zero-carbon hydrogen by using water electrolysis powered by solar and wind energy, and steam methane reformation of renewable natural gas from a Texas landfill.

The hydrogen will be used to power a stationary fuel cell for power for the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and it will also supply zero-emission fuel to cell drones and a fleet of Toyota Mirai fuel cell electric vehicles. This method will mark the first time that multiple renewable hydrogen supplies and uses have been networked at one location to show an economical hydrogen ecosystem that is scalable.

“The H2@Scale in Texas project builds on nearly two decades of UT leadership in hydrogen research and development” Michael Lewis, Research Scientist, UT Austin Center for Electromechanics, say in a news release. “With this facility, we aim to provide the educated workforce and the engineering data needed for success. Beyond the current project, the hydrogen research facility is well-positioned for growth and impact in the emerging clean hydrogen industry.”

Over 20 sponsors and industry stakeholders are involved and include Houston-based partners in Center for Houston’s Future and Rice University Baker Institute for Public Policy. Industry heavyweights like Chevron, Toyota, ConocoPhillips, and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality are also part of the effort.

Texas hydrogen infrastructure and wind and solar resources position the state for clean hydrogen production, as evident in the recently released study, “A Framework for Hydrogen in Texas.” The study was part of a larger effort that started in 2020 with the H2@Scale project, which aims to develop clearer paths to renewable hydrogen as a “clean and cost-effective fuel” according to a news release. The facility will serve as an academic research center, and a model for future large-scale hydrogen deployments.

Participants in the DOE-funded HyVelocity Gulf Coast Hydrogen Hub will aim to gain insights from the H2@Scale project at UT Austin. The project will build towards a development of a comprehensive hydrogen network across the region. HyVelocity is a hub that includes AES Corporation, Air Liquide, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Mitsubishi Power Americas, Orsted, and Sempra Infrastructure. The GTI Energy administered HyVelocity involves The University of Texas at Austin, the Center for Houston’s Future, and Houston Advanced Research Center.

“H2@Scale isn't just about producing low-carbon energy, it's about creating clean energy growth opportunities for communities throughout Texas and the nation,” Adam Walburger, president of Frontier Energy, says in a news release. “By harnessing renewable energy resources to create zero-carbon hydrogen, we can power homes, businesses, transportation, and agriculture – all while creating jobs and reducing emissions.”