Houston built its riches on the back of the fossil fuel industry, with the Gulf Coast being home to the largest refining center in the U.S.
But with climate change accelerating and the nation’s move away from oil and gas, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city is primed to lead the world in the clean energy transition.
“We've got to change the way we have been doing things in the past, and that's where we are partnering with the energy sector,” Turner said. “We're trying to work to move the energy sector forward.”
A Climate Action Plan launched last year stands at the center of Houston’s transition. The city has reduced municipal greenhouse gas emissions by 37% since 2005, and aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.
Since July 2020, 100% renewable energy powers Houston's facilities, including airports, according to Turner. “We utilize more renewables than any other city in the country, and the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has noted the fact,” he said.
Six '500-year floods' in five years
Sylvester has been forced to adapt, in part, because of the natural disasters his city has faced during his time in office.
Just four months into his tenure in 2016, record rain flooded homes across the Bayou City in an event locally known as the Tax Day floods. Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane, broke those records just 16 months later, dumping 36 inches of rain across the city, and killing nearly 100 people. In February this year, Winter Storm Uri led to a massive power failure across the state of Texas, leaving millions of homes without heat and killing more than 200 people.
Combined, Turner said his city has faced six "500-year floods" in the last five years, alone.
“There is no question that these storms are coming with greater frequency and greater intensity, causing a lot more damage,” Sylvester said. “That's not just in Houston or in Texas, that's happening all over the globe."
Getting the energy industry on board
As the chair of Climate Mayors, a nationwide coalition focused on combating the impacts of climate change, Turner is now tasked with helping other U.S. cities make the transition to a low-carbon future. But, he faces key hurdles in his own city as the "energy capital of the world" — getting the oil and gas industry on board, and transitioning Houston’s economy away from its traditional lifeline.
Home to more than 500 oil and gas firms, Houston’s modern future has thrived on the back of the fossil fuel industry. In a recent report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said the development of all new oil, gas, and coal fields would need to be halted immediately, to slow the dangerous rise in global temperatures. Oil majors, including Houston-based ConocoPhillips, are on track to see its production output slashed by more than half, according to financial think tank The Carbon Tracker Initiative.
Turner said the city is working closely with the energy sector to deploy carbon capture technology, while encouraging the move to cleaner energy sources like hydrogen. Houston is also doubling down on solar energy, turning a 240-acre landfill into the largest urban solar farm in the country. Once completed, Turner said the facility will generate enough energy to power 5,000 homes and offset an estimated 120 million pounds of carbon emissions every year.
"We need the energy industry to be at the table," he said. "We have to focus on infrastructure resilience climate tech, all of those things that will help us to not repeat the same mistakes because these storms are not waiting for us to move."
Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita