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Eight key insights from Houston Sustainability Connect

Tyler Williams
Feb 15, 2024

On Feb. 7, 2024, Capgemini hosted “Houston Sustainability Connect” the heart of the Bayou City’s Ion District, a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. The evening consisted of ClimateTech start-up pitches and thought-provoking discussions from leaders across sectors on the future of sustainable business.

Panel discussions on sustainability explored whether technology or public policy were accelerating faster and how data, artificial intelligence, and computation can drive outcomes. They resulted in a series of insights on our current moment in the wider transition toward renewable energy.

The panelists – energy and sustainability experts from various organizations – touched upon important questions: What’s the best strategy for scaling lower carbon businesses? What source of clean energy might take off in the near future? How can business partnerships create lasting impact?

Here are eight major takeaways from the panelist:

Takeaway 1: Embrace a systems approach to these challenges

Nour Ghadanfar, Senior Director of Partnership Programs at Greentown Labs, the largest climate-tech incubator in North America, said their startups have a 90% survival rate.

She attributed this success to catalyzing so many climate solutions in part to the nonprofit’s systems approach to management, which requires looking at the organization holistically to organize its interconnected parts as efficiently as possible to achieve its objectives.

Greentown Labs’ systems approach, she explained, has four pillars: location (they opened an office in Houston where it’s cheaper to scale), physical assets (they provide basic infrastructure), programmatic partnerships (they cultivate relationships that enable success), and a push for policy (they promote governmental support not provided by the market).

This approach has resulted in a rigorous membership application process, which requires at least $200,000 in capital, more than one person on the team, a comprehensive business plan for growth, and true climate-conscious bona fides.

“We need to make sure that their technology actually reduces emissions rather than adds to it,” Ghadanfar said. “We’ve had a couple of startups apply with a climate-focused angle, but their technology actually ends up emitting more than it reduces.”

Takeaway 2: Factor policy uncertainty into long-term plans, while moving forward

Christina Calabrese is Director of Permitting and Environmental Affairs at EDP Renewables North America, which develops, constructs, owns, and operates wind farms, solar parks, and energy storage systems across the continent.

She said public policy hasn’t caught up with sustainable technology’s advancements. This hurts the sustainability movement because companies want stability before investing in and deploying renewable energies at scale.

“The lack of clear guidance has really hindered the ramp up of this investment,” Calabrese said. “And if you really think about it, the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] was passed 1½ years ago and we’re still waiting for some clear guidance in many of these areas.”

Calabrese said that a company with lower risk tolerance could hold off on committing to certain sustainability projects based on vague language in public policy, which might require reasonable assumptions that could have strong real-world repercussions if ultimately incorrect.

Takeaway 3: Allocate proper resources to ESG regulation compliance

Sindhuja Kanteti, Emissions Technical Advisor at Baker Hughes, which operates in more than 100 countries, said a huge team of leaders works on the humungous task of making sure the company’s ESG reporting complies with different regulations across the globe.

According to Kanteti, beginning a sustainability journey is a lot of work and requires a combination of software, tools, and manual effort as it evolves.

“One of the biggest challenges with data and sustainability is that this information sits in multiple environments within an organization,” Kanteti said.

The challenge of gathering data from multiple environments is particularly difficult for larger enterprises. But it is necessary for ensuring regulatory compliance and informing decision makers.

Takeaway 4: Avoid corrupting data with excessive manual intervention

Sarah Karthigan, General Manager of Strategy & Innovation, Enterprise Data, and Insights at Chevron, said achieving a zero-carbon future will require a mix of solutions. She pointed out that 80% of energy demands in the US are still fulfilled by fossil fuels today.

“It’s going to be really important to continue to grow investments in the myriad of solutions that drive sustainability,” Karthigan said. “Data is a key enabler to making that happen.”

She said organizations run into problems related to quality and accuracy when decentralized manual intervention is involved in data across the integrated value chain. She identified this as a big problem for driving results with data, which isn’t limited to sustainability.

Later, she added that often companies have the data they need but lack the immediate access for taking the right actions.

Takeaway 5: Keep transforming through ecosystem partnerships (even if you’re a sustainability leader)

Samuel Harrell, Director of the Energy Center of Excellence at Intel, the technology company that’s among the world’s largest semiconductor chip manufacturers by revenue, joked that their approach to sustainability resembles the Hair Club for Men’s famous 1980s commercial, in which the founder told viewers, “I’m not only the Hair Club president, but I’m also a client.”

“We partner with all our ecosystem partners – from OEMs to system integrators to all-across-the-gamut resellers – to develop solutions that are suitable for the vertical,” Harrell said.

Through continuous innovation, Intel provides technologies that help other companies become more sustainable, but also uses those same technologies to become more sustainable itself. To achieve these sustainability goals – both for itself and customer – Intel prioritizes gaining visibility over carbon consumption, decreasing carbon consumption in existing assets, and building next-generation sustainable infrastructures.

“By ourselves we are really nothing. But together with that ecosystem, building together, innovating together… it takes that ecosystem to really deliver,” Harrell said.

Microsoft has pledged to be “carbon negative, water positive, and zero waste” and for its energy to come 100% from renewable resources by 2030.

Muge Wood, Energy Industry Solutions Leaders at Microsoft, said the company is taking the lessons it learned on its journey so far to help its customers make sustainability a daily part of their businesses: e.g., simplify data collection from suppliers, evolve our internal carbon emissions accounting approach and chart a path for water replenishment.

“We have a plethora of platform services but one I will call out is Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which was specifically designed to centralize and standardize data from across business units and supply chains in a comprehensive ESG data estate for advanced analytics and reporting” Wood said.

Wood said Microsoft has launched learning pathways on LinkedIn specifically designed to help sustainability professionals use data easier and more effectively.

She is excited about the possibilities for responsible use of AI to query vast amounts of data and create content within the boundaries of an organization’s security policies to yield unprecedented insights.

Takeaway 6: Identify opportunities for decarbonization with data and analytics

Sujatha Kumar, Founder and CEO of Dsider, which provides an end-to-end net-zero planning solution, said the biggest challenge for sustainability-conscious organizations is figuring out how to decarbonize. She said this requires filling a huge gap in the data.

“You have to reduce emissions in three categories: scope one, scope two, scope three. Most are already reporting on scope one and tracking against targets. Now to do scope two and three you have to model through different forms of energy to actually decarbonize,” Kumar said.

She explained that this kind of analysis requires a lot of data and decision criteria to be in a single place, but that they are typically scattered.
“That’s our focus to close that gap,” she said.

Dsider curates the data needed to create opportunities to decarbonize and empowers organizations to achieve optimized energy outcomes. With tools like Dsider’s, which use advanced modeling and simulation to identify decarbonization opportunities, companies can accelerate our shift to a low-carbon future.

Takeaway 7: Don’t overlook geothermal energy

Jay Patel, CEO of Geothermal Holdings, a geothermal exploration and production power company, discussed the advantages of generating electrical power from this renewable source of energy, particularly in Texas.

He pointed out that many legacy energy players have announced geothermal consortiums and joint ventures, suggesting this pollution-free and reliable source of energy could experience a boom.

Panel moderator Mark Viehman, Principal of Hydrogen and Clean Fuels at Capgemini, asked Patel, “Why isn’t this already being done? It seems to make so much sense, particularly if it’s around-the-clock renewables.”

“Until now there hasn’t been much demand for renewable energy. We have been accustomed to natural gas being at a [certain] price, which was not possible for geothermal in the past,” Patel said.

He said another reason is that companies didn’t previously have geology and seismic data on the abundant, proven geothermal resources domestically.

Takeaway 8: Use a mix of technologies

John W. Martin, National Practice Lead for Sustainability at SAP, said it all comes down to automating data and unlocking a variety of sustainability attributes (around carbon, energy, water usage and so forth) from the source of a process.

“At the process level, embedding sustainability or unlocking sustainability attributes out of those processes is core to our strategy,” Martin said.

Businesses that strategically partner with other businesses will be better prepared for the energy transition than those that go it alone. Furthermore, businesses that don’t fully understand the advantages of operating within an ecosystem encounter difficulty.

According to Martin, no one company has all the best solutions for unlocking sustainability. He argued that embracing interdependency and using a mix of the leading technologies is the best path forward.

“The interoperability and extensibility of enterprise software to meet customers where they’re at so you can get data from all those disparate sources… is the reason we’re doing this,” Martin said. “Not to mention meeting the existential threats that we’re all trying to solve.”

Of course, these are just a few of the many insights gleaned throughout the evening at “Houston Sustainability Connect.” It was clear that many businesses based in Texas and beyond are dedicated to being part of the sustainability revolution – eager to seize whatever opportunities and evade whatever setbacks lie ahead.

Meet the author

Tyler Williams

Deputy Head – Americas Sustainability
Tyler Williams is Deputy Head for Capgemini’s Sustainability practice in the Americas and Principal of Sustainability & Energy Transition. His focus areas include net zero strategy, GHG and ESG monitoring and reporting, and supply chain decarbonization. His expertise includes 15 years of experience in asset-heavy industry managing large teams and programs across 20+ countries; and extensive sustainability experience including robust economic and policy analysis in energy and carbon markets, having led advocacy efforts up to the C-suite level with customers, partners, and trade associations.