Design in a Time of Uncertainty
By Rives Taylor, Principal, Global Resilience Research Lead
Another hurricane season began June 1 with emergency mobile solar generators – giant power strips on wheels, as one city official called them – staged at 17 locations around Houston, ready to help residents do things like refrigerate crucial medicines and charge medical devices and cell phones.
In May, the city dedicated its municipal bike-sharing program’s first three kiosks downtown, with 18 bicycles. Plans call for adding about 200 more bikes at new kiosks in and around downtown and surrounding areas before the end of the year.
A month earlier, the city announced a $900,000 federal grant to add sustainability features to a former warehouse, which is now the one-stop Houston Permitting Center and Green Building Resource Center. Solar and wind technologies will be added to the facility, built in 1924 on Washington Avenue near downtown.
Besides introducing more green approaches to municipal operations and urban living, the three projects have another common feature: They are among a diverse array of recent initiatives in which Houston partnered with the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC).
Working under different agreements, HARC has acted as a de facto sustainability adviser to the city – conceptualizing, proposing, seeking funds for, and executing energy-saving, pollution-cutting projects.
“The partnership and associated projects demonstrate how HARC's sustainability mission is more than just an intellectual exercise,” said Jennifer Ronk, a research scientist at HARC. “We develop and implement projects that build a more sustainable future for our region.”
“HARC's work with the City of Houston has evolved over many years from specific green building projects into a broader engagement toward sustainability that has included solar, building energy retrofits, and transportation,” added David Hitchcock, Senior Research Scientist with HARC’s Sustainable Transportation Program.
Projects in those areas include:
One project, overlapping with HARC’s solar work, involves its management of the city’s Five-Star Housing Program, which enables new homes to be built with very high-efficiency features and solar technology that makes them more affordable for moderate-income buyers.
In addition, HARC has helped manage a federally-funded project, winding up now, which retrofitted more than 100 city-owned buildings, including City Hall, for greater energy efficiency. HARC also manages a program of incentive payments for efficiency retrofits to owners of commercial office buildings.
Houston Bike Share is an outgrowth of HARC’s design and management of the Houston Climate Showcase project, one of 50 such federally-funded efforts and the only one in Texas chosen to create local models for reducing greenhouse gases.
The second major outcome of the Showcase is the city’s growing adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). In April, the city acquired an additional 23 EVs for its fleet.
With HARC’s involvement, this initiative has grown to become one of the nation’s largest EV programs, including investment by NRG Energy in the eVgo network of vehicle charging stations for citizens and implementation of one of the nation’s largest charging sites for city-owned vehicles by Austin’s GRIDbot company.
HARC managed the Solar Houston Initiative after successfully seeking federal funds for the city. With input from a stakeholder group, HARC developed the Solar Houston Plan, issued late last year, which identified barriers and opportunities for solar power.
The plan called for “high-visibility projects” to demonstrate solar power’s viability. Managed by HARC, they have included solar technologies added to the George R. Brown Convention Center, the mobile generator project and improvements at the former warehouse.
HARC now works with Houston officials collaborating with Austin and San Antonio to identify and reduce solar’s “soft costs,” including permitting and interconnection issues.