While much criticism is heaped upon the governmental leaders in Texas who are heavily influenced by the Oil/ Gas Industry lobbyists in their stance against proven data points on global warming and dangers due to extreme fossil fuel retrieval processes, an oasis of innovation has been spawned in Austin which looks very promising. Texas lays claim to being number one in the country for business development and I think that is more due to the innovative environment that leverages a very successful university system of public and private colleges and the business communities in major metropolitan areas in Dallas/ Ft. Worth, Houston and Austin to highlight a few. Promoting innovation has always been the keys to the promised land and we need to provide an environment for innovation to flourish.
In Austin, a planned neighborhood project called the Pecan Street Project (www.pecanstreet.org) is getting a lot of attention around the deployment of solar panels, smart grid technology and electric cars. The neighborhood is on the site of an old municipal airport and is the result of a private/ public investment between the Department of Energy, University of Texas – Austin and companies like Best Buy, Check-It, Chevrolet, Freescale, Intel, Sony, SunEdison, Texas Gas and Whirlpool to name a few. The project is over 700 acres and covers 400 homes and select businesses. Homes have solar panels that provide much of the power but not all of it. The other key is the use of smart grids that are so state of the art, they can detect the impact on power use when a light switch is turned off. Measuring the power use by the consumer and electric company will help maximize utility with future projects, the next one which is scheduled for Dallas. The electric utilities are learning about the power use, so that they can ascertain the best ways to use surplus power and supply power when needed. This is a key to the future, as if you do not measure outcomes, it is harder to make informed decisions.
Another key part of the project is the use of 59 Chevy Volts for transportation. This is the largest concentrations of electric vehicles anywhere in the country. Since the electric vehicles have to be powered-up, the smart grids play a role in making sure enough power is there to charge the cars. Using the solar panels are helpful to this process and lessons are already being learned. Solar panels on the west-facing side of the homes turn out to be more efficient than ones on the east facing side of the house. This is a practical example of how to build planned solar communities in the future.
Ironically, this initiative has met with some critics. When you first read or hear about this (I saw it on PBS Newshour on Friday night), you wonder how in the world could there be critics of this approach which makes so much sense? The website I note above includes some YouTube video of some of the demonstrations. I would put these demonstrations into three categories – people concerned with health issues due to the web transmission, people concerned with the security and confidentiality and people wanting to preserve the status quo on energy development. The first set of complaints has been raised in California by environmentalists. This one is puzzling as the smart meters will aid the eco-energy efforts. I would like to see more data on their complaints, yet the prize seems well worth the chase by using smart meters than not. The second complaint has got the backing of the some Tea Party advocates saying that people will know too much about you with the smart meters – how many people are home, when they arise, etc. I would argue people already know a lot about you from what you do on-line, so to me this is not a solid position. The utility companies note they can manage power outages better if they see where the needs are and can dial down energy deployment when it is not needed.
The other set of complaints is equally perturbing. While Texas Gas is also one of the sponsors of the Consortium, I would have liked to seen more sponsors from the Oil/ Gas Industry. This industry would seem to have the most to lose unless they move toward less fossil fuel development. I have noted often that the Oil/ Gas Industry is by far the largest and most powerful lobbying group in the US. The Koch brothers who made their billions in this industry fund almost every Tea Party and conservative Republican candidate. The industry supports many Democrats as well, but it should not be a surprise that the Tea Party is one of the groups against what appears to be a common sense, scalable innovation. I debated on whether I should include any politics in this post, as the idea speaks for itself, but when I saw some of the YouTube videos, I felt compelled to understand and explain why people would fight this innovative premise – I think the http://www.pecanstreet.org website feels the same way with posting the views of its critics.
An additional positive takeaway from this project is it is yet another good example of eco-energy initiatives which are occurring all of over America. It seems the smaller initiatives have easier paths forward and do not get caught up as much in political gridlock. We need these efforts to follow the paths forward created in Asia and Germany. In fact, Germany is ten years ahead of the US on alternative energy and will be getting 80% of the energy from alternative sources by 2030. All Americans should re-read the previous sentence for effect.
So, as someone very concerned about our eco-energy future, I applaud efforts like these around the country. It also shows a live, current example of our history of US public/ private partnerships that help innovation flourish. When people say government should get out of business, they do not know our innovative history very well. If we celebrate and highlight our ideas, they can become scalable and replicated elsewhere. I see this as both a scalable and replicable idea. Well done Pecan Street and Austin!