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."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.”

———

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.