Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Will Houston also be the center of alternative energy?

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have dueling perspectives on the geography of alternative energy. NYT is touting Silicon Valley. But the Wall Street Journal recently focused on what's happening in Houston (7-day open link, subscriber permalink).
While it's too soon to say which of these efforts will thrive and which will wither, energy-industry veterans are increasingly confident they know where at least some of tomorrow's leaders in alternative energy will be: Houston, the home of big oil.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing ahead with efforts to keep his state among the leaders in the development of green energy. The Midwest continues to explore new ways to exploit its competitive edge in ethanol. And Northeastern universities are pumping big money into energy research. But while Houston's economy still sits on a foundation of conventional petroleum, alternative energy is suddenly on the rise here, too.

Major oil companies have stationed key alternative-energy divisions here, newer ventures in wind energy and biofuels are emerging, and Texas universities are pushing hard to develop carbon-free energy.

Houston's emergence as an alternative-energy center is partly an outgrowth of the city's role as home to major players in the conventional-energy industry. "There's always been this sort of joke within biofuels, that when these technologies become real, the traditional oil companies will snap them up," says Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

As alternative energy moves "from the margins into the mainstream," the big, established energy companies will make more of a commitment to the market, and Houston "is going to play a role just because of its importance in the oil industry," Mr. Greene says.

But Houston also is playing host to newcomers in the energy business, thanks in part to a welcoming regulatory environment and efforts by the state government to encourage the production of alternative energies.

One advantage Houston offers alternative-energy companies is that the approval process for new facilities is far less onerous in Texas than in many other states.

"Texas creates a very positive environment to work in," says Jeff Trucksess, executive vice president of Green Earth Fuels LLC, a biodiesel company started a year ago that is based in Houston and is building a production facility along the Houston Ship Channel. "There are strict rules on what you have to do, but it's a very efficient process." The company's Houston site won permits last year and is expected to begin producing biodiesel in July.

"In Texas, things happen -- stuff gets built," says Michael Skelly, chief development officer for Houston-based Horizon Wind Energy, which will produce power from seven wind farms in six states, including Texas, by the end of this year.


"This was the natural place for this business," says Robert Lukefahr, president of BP Alternative Energy North America Inc., who emphasizes the city's wealth of knowledge of the energy business. "These are folks that know how to bend metal and put it in the ground and do it safely," he says.

The wind-energy business boomed in Texas after the 1999 passage of a state law that requires a certain amount of the electricity sold by utilities in the state to be generated from renewable sources.

More recently, the state has again taken the initiative by easing the construction of transmission lines for wind farms, a crucial step if entrepreneurs are to continue to build turbines in the windiest corners of the state. Mr. Skelly enthuses about the new rules, which have set Horizon and other wind companies on a land grab to claim the best spots for turbines.

Houston also is emerging as a home for both start-ups and established energy companies entering the biodiesel business. These producers like the city in part because of its access to the huge Texas consumer market and its location at the center of a nationwide fuel-distribution network, with extensive storage facilities, pipelines and rail and water connections. "Economically, it's always been our opinion that if you're in the heart of the distribution center...that's a great place to be," says Mr. Trucksess of Green Earth Fuels.


The city also offers easy access to people experienced in every aspect of the energy business. For instance, Green Earth's plants initially will produce fuel mostly from soybean oils, but as different feedstocks come into use the company expects to tap into Houston's expertise in commodity trading, Mr. Trucksess says.

"It's already in the DNA of Houston to be energy-oriented," says Rick Zalesky Jr., a vice president of biofuels and hydrogen at Chevron Technology Ventures, a Houston-based unit of Chevron Corp. Chevron is conducting biodiesel research at a couple of laboratories in Houston that have been used for decades in the conventional energy business. And it is a partner in Galveston Bay Biodiesel LP, a start-up that is building a facility in nearby Galveston, Texas.

Houston also is home to research on hydrogen, nanotechnology and other areas that could have a dramatic impact on the energy picture in the years ahead. Research on alternative fuels is being done not only by big energy companies like BP, Shell, Chevron and General Electric Co., but also by nonprofit institutions like the Houston Advanced Research Center and Rice University, which has convened a number of recent conferences on alternative energy.

It's good to see the city embracing alternative energy instead of resisting it. The best strategy is to have bets across the board, and run with the winners (a la the Silicon Valley model). I'm also hoping the oil companies will use their giant cash hoards to buy up promising, smaller alternative energy outfits and move their headquarters here (like from CA, or ethanol outfits in the Midwest).

I'm struggling to come up with historical examples of other cities heavily based on one industry and one technology that either succeeded or failed to adapt to technological change. Plenty of cities have seen their industries collapse, but they seem to be more from competitive shifts than from fundamental technology changes (Detroit's Big 3 automakers, Pittsburgh steel, defense companies in LA, etc.) Of course Silicon Valley has morphed with information technology's evolution, but that seems different somehow (or is it?). If you have thoughts or examples, I'd love to hear 'em in the comments. It would be nice to have some data points for "lessons learned"...


At 11:34 PM, April 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Shame! I know you know that the Toyota Production System is too "technology"!

Nitpick aside, I don't see any energy analogies to Moore's Law or fiber optics. Terawatts and their liquid equivalents are always going to involve some serious infrastructure.


At 3:53 AM, April 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I am in Britain again at the moment. If you want examples of cities whose industries crumbled over time, I can give a few:

1) London had a massive port system with something like 20+ quays when it was the heart of the world's largest empire. When the empire was liquidated after WWII, the port largely went with it. Increasing wages and competitive pressures also played a role.

2) Cities in central Britain like Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire have seen their massive coal industries largely go under thanks to increasing costs and a shift to using other fuels.

I would venture that competitive pressures have more to do with industry collapse rather than technological shifts. Technological shifts can spread, and spread very quickly under the right circumstances, allowing everyone to take advantage of them and making everyone better off. Competitive pressures seem to have more of a role in creating winners and losers.


At 6:33 AM, April 11, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

JT: actually, Ray Kurzweil believes solar panels/films are getting on something like a Moore's Law. If so, eventually they could not only power your home, but also pull hydrogen off your water line to fuel your car. Still big infrastructure to install all those systems, but I don't think the current oil and gas industry would be able to adapt.

Neal: thanks for the examples. I'm hoping to find examples of cities that saw the tech change coming, had a choice on adaptation, and either took it or didn't. It doesn't look like either of them really had a choice to adapt either their port or coal industries - it was more of "it's going away - do something else". The energy industry isn't going away, but its technological underpinnings may change pretty radically.

At 12:46 PM, April 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much of the reason the steel industry is hurting here in the US is because our technology is behind other countries. Add to that lower labor costs and we are dead.

Of course, there are steel plants in Europe that use modern rolling technologies that allow them to compete with places like China who have the lower labor costs.

Many of our steel plants haven't been upgraded in decades. Part of the reason was for so long they were the world's powerhouse and were protected by tariffs. Now the bottom has fell out.

At 5:28 PM, April 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the future of the "energy" industry shifts further towards electricity and away from liquid fuels, would we expect it to have any more of a center than the existing electric power industry? Perhaps you've alreay answered your Houston question, though. Houston isn't really the center of the "energy" industry, but the "oil and gas" industry. So maybe the oil and gas companies will transition to dominate oil sands or coal gasification or even alternative liquid fuels, but probably not distributed electric generation, which would be more a case of the relevant industry just going away. (I think we've got a while, though...)

Also, Tory, can you elaborate on the Kurzweil stuff? How low can the cost of generation capacity go? There would only be a few iterations of a solar Moore's Law before the cost of a solar cell ceased to depend on the "solar" part. It still has to be a real, physical object that can sit on (or be) my roof for 20 years.


At 7:32 PM, April 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The competitive advantage that any traditional oil and gas company will have is the distribution network. If the alternative fuel is liquid or gas, they can ship if through the pipelines. The network of service stations can then distribute it to the customers.

What they need to watch out for is if there is some type of alternative fuel that would put the consumer outside of this network...

At 10:03 PM, April 11, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

JT: he was vague at the lecture I saw. He simply said it had it's own version of Moore's law (power generated for cost), and even though it's a trivial part of the energy grid today (far less than 1%), it will explode in the not too distant future. As an example, he likes to show log-axis graphs of internet nodes vs. time, very nice and linear and predictable growth. But when the axis is changed to linear, the graph looks like the internet was essentially nonexistant until around 1994-95, then exploded out of nowhere. That's the nature of exponential growth. He believes solar is in that "invisible" phase like the internet was in the 1980s.

More at

At 2:31 AM, April 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


It is rather tough to come up with historical examples of entire cities whose situation fit the description which you are looking for. Perhaps a better idea would be to look for examples of company towns which are risen and fallen over time:


Cities are, almost by definition, large complicated means of organizing human activity and can revive themselves by finding other means of attracting people to them.

It is much easier to cite examples of individual companies which faced serious crossroads at some point in their history and were forced to make a decision as to whether to adapt to new circumstances. IBM and its competitors in the business machine industry (hint, what do the letters IBM stand for?) had to do this in the 1940's - 1950's when a new fangled invention called the computer forced the the players in industry to make choices as to whether to sink resources into fighting for a possible place in what was a completely unknown market.

At 2:12 PM, February 29, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

National Algae Association

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April 10, 2008



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