Austin aims to become U.S. 'Clean
Microsoft is part of consortium
to help make city's power grid both green and 'smart'
Dec 4, 2008 - Tom Fowler - Houston
Austin, Texas, is hoping to recreate its 1980s success
at becoming a high-tech business hub, but this time
it's shooting for the title of America's Clean Energy
A consortium of businesses, the city-owned
utility and environmentalists said Wednesday they
plan to make the city's power grid a model of "green"
energy and a test bed for new and emerging technologies.
They hope startup and established
companies will come to Austin to develop technologies
that will eventually be used in other cities to
modernize the electric grid.
Dubbed "the Pecan Street Project,"
after the original name of Austin's famed live music
district now known as Sixth Street, the effort has
backing from Microsoft, Dell Computer, Cisco Systems,
GE Energy, Oracle, Honeywell, IBM, Intel and Freescale
The companies will dedicate several
workers to develop the broad outlines of the project
over the next nine months.
The initiative is similar to one in
the early 1980s when Austin lured Microelectronics
& Computer Technology Corp. -- a research consortium
financed by 12 U.S. tech companies -- to set up
In the years since, the consortium
spent millions of dollars on supercomputer research,
spun off more than a dozen companies and helped
lay the foundation of the city's technology business,
which ranges from computer-chip design and manufacturing
to software and Web development.
The University of Texas' Austin Technology
Incubator -- which launched a Clean Energy Incubator
in 2002 -- and the Environmental Defense Fund are
also taking part in the project announced Wednesday.
The current power grid isn't designed
to handle the intermittent nature of renewable energy
sources like wind power, or input from a variety
of sources such as building-mounted solar panels.
"Today the energy grid is all about
distribution; it's a one-way ride," said Carolyn
Purcell, director of Internet Business Solutions
for Cisco. "A smart grid will act more like the
Internet, exchanging information and energy among
nodes for collaboration across the network resulting
in a more efficient, sustainable grid."
The local utility, Austin Energy,
already promotes residential and business solar
power investments with $4,500 rebates for system
installation and plans to get 30 percent of its
energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Pecan Street supporters say their
local grid is well suited for development. Texas'
power grid doesn't cross state lines, so it won't
require federal approval to test the technologies.
And since the Austin City Council is the board of
directors for Austin Energy, and it doesn't face
the same profit pressures as an investor-owned company,
the project can move relatively quickly.
Other cities have similar initiatives.
Boulder, Colo. is part of a $100 million program
run by utility Xcel Energy that will install smart
meters and provide in-home information devices.
CenterPoint Energy, the power transmission
company for most of Houston, has started to deploy
smart meters to a limited number of homes and is
testing a system that automatically reroutes power
during outages to keep the grid more robust. Houston-based
electric retailer Reliant Energy is taking advantage
of the smart meters to test a system that gives
customers a real-time handle on their power usage
and how much it will cost.
Last month, Houston Mayor Bill White
called for Houston to embrace distributed power
generation -- a network of smaller generators to
supplement major power plants -- and for the state
to make it easier for homes and businesses to sell
excess power they generate with solar panels or
other means back onto the grid.
Solar panels will be installed early
next year on the city-run George R. Brown Convention