Panelists say energy capital should consider alternatives

Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world is not as durable as it seems, despite unparalleled oil and gas expertise and decades worth of shale drilling yet to be completed, panelists said at a Houston conference.

Although innovations in oil and gas production have kept Houston center stage, major companies have not devoted significant resources toward alternative energy technology relative to their fossil fuel spending.

That reflects an alignment of priorities that could leave Houston falling behind as future energy innovations potentially develop elsewhere, said James Calaway, chairman of Orocobre Ltd., a producer of lithium for batteries and other uses.

“If we had not had this advent of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the domestic oil and gas industry would be in the utter toilet and, by the way, our economy would have been in a hell of a problem … because we would not have made any credible transition to maintain this energy presence in the global economy,” Calaway said.

He was among panelists Friday at the Beaming Bioneers Houston conference on sustainability at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, hosted by the Blackwood Educational Land Institute.

“So we actually got our runway extended to being the energy center of the world with this hydraulic fracturing technology,” Calaway said, later adding: “But, it also put us into perpetual delay in having to come up with an alternative.”

Even if Houston energy companies put more emphasis in becoming leaders in alternative energy technology, they will be hampered by the perception of Houston as an undesirable place among many of the nation’s brightest young professionals, said Michael Skelly, founder and president of Clean Line Energy Partners, which is developing transmission lines to move power over long distances.

Automobile culture

“I have bought a lot of plane tickets over the years for people, who, they just won’t move,” Skelly said.

Much of the problem has to do with Houston’s sprawl, its automobile-oriented culture, and its lack of dense communities with green space near working places that young professionals desire, said Laura Spanjian, director of the city of Houston’s Office of Sustainability.

“We are headed in the right direction, but it is definitely not easy,” Spanjian said.

Houston’s image

Calaway said Houston’s image among youth nationwide has been a major problem in recruiting workers for 100 jobs with high salaries at a software company, Datacert, which he serves as chairman.

“We kept thinking, ‘How do we get these people to come to Houston?’?” Calaway said.

“And our recruitment rate for high-quality superstars coming out of Stanford, or Princeton, or wherever, it was miserably low.”

But instead of going after other candidates, Datacert opted to change its online systems so that its employees more easily could work remotely, from anywhere in the country, Calaway said.

Living in Portland

“So guess what? Increasingly, we have a headquartered company here, but we’ve got people eating potato chips, sitting in their basements in Portland, Ore., who work for us.”