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Austin aims to become U.S. 'Clean Energy Capital'

Microsoft is part of consortium to help make city's power grid both green and 'smart'

Dec 4, 2008 - Tom Fowler - Houston Chronicle

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 Capital.

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 Semiconductor.

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 shop there.

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 Center.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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