Thinking Tech

Houston's choice

Houston's choice

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Unless Houston changes fundamentally over the next decade it is going to become Detroit.Houston's choice is to grow into new markets or die. Right now solar energy is about as popular a topic at the Petroleum Club as a gay mayor.

I have a special place in my heart for Houston, Texas.

I went to college there. I met my wife there. I got my first job there.

Houston is a great city and not at all stuck-up. It is getting a new mayor next month, and all the media wants to say about her is that she's gay. (I wanted to talk about having gone to college with her, but no one cared.)

She comes to office at a key time. There are more important choices facing her than whether to play Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls on the office iPod.

Unless Houston changes fundamentally over the next decade it is going to become Detroit.

Houston's wealth is based entirely on hydrocarbons. Money comes from the ground. The petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel are just like Detroit's auto plants. Their pollution is the perfume of money being made.

Just like in Detroit, its economy is a dinosaur. It's a zombie. It needs to eat brains.

Houston's oil executives must become convinced to put at least as much capital to work in solar, wind, tidal, and hydrogen technologies as they do on oil and gas and coal, or Houston's future as a city is dire.

All sorts of breakthroughs are being made in this area, just not in Houston. QuantumSphere, for instance, has discovered a way to store hydrogen reliably for use in portable power applications. The work was done in Tampa and in Alabama. It was not done in Houston.

Right now only one of the biggest wind turbine companies is American. Only one of the top 10 solar cell producers is American, and they are based in Phoenix. Brazil dominates in biofuels. Some 2.3 million people are now in some form of renewable energy, investment is nearing $80 billion per year, and Houston is nowhere.

This is just what Detroit did in response to the energy crisis. Nothing. GM, Ford and Chrysler made a few tweaks here and there, but on the whole they watched passively as their industry was taken over, and Detroit has suffered grievously from that.

The opportunity Houston's business leaders have now to transform themselves and dominate these new industries won't last long. For the next few years they will retain the capital necessary to buy out the market's current leaders and bring those jobs to Houston.

But the window on that opportunity is closing fast. Houston's choice is to grow into new markets or die. Right now solar energy is about as popular a topic at the Petroleum Club as a gay mayor. But both are realities that can no longer be denied.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure