Getting Ready for Climathon Houston 2021: A Look at Climathon 2020 Winner InnoGrid

In 2020, 11 teams gathered at Climathon Houston to develop solutions to the challenges presented in the City of Houston’s Climate Action Plan (CAP). Three teams’ ideas rose to the top; and InnoGrid’s approach to addressing the lack of energy resiliency in our city was particularly relevant in the wake of Winter Storm Uri. 

As we prepare for Climathon Houston 2021, we caught up with InnoGrid to learn about their progress since being selected as one of 2020’s winners. Team members Bryan Gottfried, Paresh Patel, and Edward “Ed” D. Pettitt, II, gave us an update:

Q: How has your role evolved since Climathon Houston 2020? 

Ed Pettitt: During the Climathon, I contributed relative to my roles as a Third Ward resident and community organizer, as well as a public health practitioner, business owner, and urban planning student. I provided input as a member of the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD), which engages in advocacy for the development rights of working class African-American residents in and around the Innovation Corridor, which we selected as the proposed site for InnoGrid. Since the Climathon, I have further delved into energy justice issues and am now an active member of the Equity in the Clean Energy Economy (ECEE) Collaborative and a Graduate Research Assistant with the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice (CECJ).

Bryan Gottfried: My background as a geoscientist has led me to advocate for the expanded use of geothermal energy resources. I am also interested in promoting the modernization of our electric grid and improving resiliency. During the Climathon, I originally suggested the development of a microgrid, although I had something like Austin’s Whisper Valley development in mind — a master-planned mixed-use residential-commercial community that uses geothermal heat pumps for heating and cooling. We shifted the focus on the Innovation District to take advantage of the redevelopment and the clean-tech advancements occurring there. Since then, I’ve hosted our regular team meetings and reached out to others who could help the project. I’m looking forward to pushing things along now that we’ve gained support from crucial partners.

Paresh Patel: As a start-up founder focusing on energy poverty and a champion of sustainable energy for all (UN SDG7), I have been advancing deployment of solar microgrids and minigrids in off-grid frontier markets. In Asia and Africa, distributed renewable energy models (DREs) were enabling millions to essentially leapfrog centralized, legacy energy infrastructure. I was looking for a way to develop a microgrid closer to home. As an inaugural member of Greentown Labs Houston, I had been conceptualizing something similar, stemming from my recommendation for them to install rooftop solar panels. While it wasn’t financially practical there, I presented the idea of a microgrid for the wider Innovation District to its developer, Rice Management Company (RMC). It made sense to join up and work with the InnoGrid team. Since then, I’ve driven our partnerships with Baker Botts and Schneider Electric, and discussions with stakeholders like CenterPoint.

Q: What do you think of your impact innovation journey and progress since Climathon Houston 2020? Have you discovered anything new and/or surprising?

Ed Pettitt: Since the Climathon, we have learned a lot about the process of seeking funding and technical support for a microgrid startup. From submitting a Connected Communities grant application to the U.S. Department of Energy to partnering with Baker Botts for pro bono representation, I am very pleased with the progress we have made.

Bryan Gottfried: I echo Ed’s comments. This is an entirely new realm for me — from learning about various sources of funding to the numerous regulatory and technical challenges. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made considering we’ve been dealing with COVID throughout the life of the project, as well as the transition between federal administrations which has had a significant impact on policies and sources of funding.

Paresh Patel: It has been a discovery process on several levels. We’ve had to gather learnings and lessons on all aspects of building out a microgrid from the ground up. Our mission-driven model has resonated. There’s consensus that we should have a microgrid in the heart of Midtown as a source of resilient, sustainable energy — it’s become even more imperative in the wake of polar vortex Uri. We’ve been able to access industry leaders and stakeholders, forge partnerships, and consult a wide range of experts. Baker Botts and Schneider have helped us complete a project qualification study scoping the potential for a microgrid in the Innovation District. That’ll give us a clearer understanding of the technical and financial dimensions of the project, and will put us in a position to seek federal funding, grants, and other capital.

Q:  How has your outreach to other organizations helped InnoGrid’s progress? Are there partnerships with similar organizations that you’d like to seek? Why?

Ed Pettitt: Our outreach to the Equity in a Clean Energy Economy (ECEE) Collaborative has opened up a number of opportunities to learn from and engage in best practices related to utility program design, customer research, public participation, and regulation and policy.

Bryan Gottfried: There are numerous individuals and organizations that have encouraged us and given us ideas on ways to push the project forward. I believe FEMA’s BRIC program (Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities) fits nicely with the goals of our project and I’m looking forward to exploring that avenue further as we move along in the process.

Paresh Patel: I too joined the ECEE with Ed. I’ve also had discussions on forming an alliance with Climable, which has developed community microgrids in the Boston area. We’re mission-aligned and their proven business model can be adapted for the Houston context. RMC is a key stakeholder, and we’d like to find a way to enlist them as a partner, with the potential to add The Ion and adjacent commercial buildings as a co-anchor site. 

Q:  Stakeholders such as the City of Houston and CenterPoint Energy are excited about InnoGrid’s plan. What do you think the next steps should be? How do you help stakeholders like these move forward?

Ed Pettitt: One of the next steps should involve the City of Houston facilitating a signed Community Benefits Agreement between Rice Management Company (RMC) and the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement (HCEDD) that includes a provision for affordable housing and equitable access to affordable energy (like that proposed by InnoGrid) in and around the Innovation Corridor.

Bryan Gottfried: One of our most significant hurdles is the Chicken-and-Egg situation: It’s hard to get property owners to participate in InnoGrid unless they receive incentives from the City, but it’s difficult for the City to offer those incentives without a better understanding of the scope and level of interest they’d see through property owners’ participation. Similarly, without knowing the interest from property owners and the scope and level of support from the City, it’s hard to have substantive conversations with CenterPoint about Innogrid. I believe we need to get both CenterPoint and the City to agree that InnoGrid is something they want to see happen and will incentivize property owners to participate in.

Paresh Patel: CenterPoint has been supportive, providing helpful guidance on technical aspects of interfacing InnoGrid with their infrastructure. To Bryan’s point, we want to explore specific ways to partner with CenterPoint once we have the project qualification study completed by Schneider Electric. The InnoGrid aligns with the goals of the City’s Climate Action Plan and the Resilient Houston plan. Naturally, the City’s ongoing support would be indispensable.

Q:  What kinds of financing opportunities are you exploring or would help develop the InnoGrid? 

Bryan Gottfried: I mentioned FEMA’s BRIC program above, and I think the Texas PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) will be a resource that we can guide property owners to so they can install generation capability that can then be tied into the InnoGrid.

Paresh Patel: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes new funding streams for grid infrastructure, much of which could directly or indirectly boost microgrid demonstration and resiliency projects that we are tracking. We might also consider a crowdfunding campaign as a way to invite community buy-in and raise public awareness of the project.

Q:  In your wildest dreams, what would InnoGrid’s future look like and how would it impact the Houston area?

Ed Pettitt: I envision an Innovation Corridor that supports entrepreneurism and small business development while providing stable, decentralized, and affordable energy through an innovative microgrid that contributes to job creation and equitable access to clean energy that prevents the displacement of long-term and working class residents. 

Bryan Gottfried: I can’t say it any better than Ed did! I would also like the InnoGrid to become something that Houston is known for within the world of clean-tech, and have it cited as a model for other urban microgrids.

Paresh Patel: Ed captured it quite nicely. Once the initial InnoGrid site is proven, the value will become obvious to others. I’d like to see the InnoGrid evolve into a microgrid model that can be deployed to serve LMI households across Houston and beyond that are most vulnerable to energy poverty and insecurity as extreme weather events become more frequent. In sum, Equity through Resiliency.

Q:  Any additional thoughts or information you’d like to share?

Bryan Gottfried: I could have never imagined that signing up for the Climathon last year would have led to this amazing experience. I’ve learned so much and met so many great people. I encourage anyone who is considering participating in it this year to do so–you never know where it may lead!

Paresh Patel: I second Bryan’s invitation. The Climathon catalyzed the random collisions and connections of ideas and innovators leading to this collaborative—and potentially transformative—project. A huge thanks to Impact Hub Houston and partners for hosting the Climathon!

The InnoGrid team has had quite a year and we’re excited to see their continued progress. We hope that their journey is an inspiration to others who want to catalyze action and make an impact. We invite everyone to join us for the Climathon 2021 Kick-off on October 25th. As Bryan Gottfried said: I encourage anyone who is considering participating in it this year to do so–you never know where it may lead! 

The impacts of climate change are all around us, hitting our region more seriously and rapidly than models have predicted. We invite you to leverage Climathon Houston as a way to start ideating and innovating solutions or to continue working on and engaging people in solutions you may already be developing.

Come learn about this year’s challenges, connect with the teams, and get ready for the week! We’ll see you at Climathon!