Texas, Austin lead green effort
No, it’s not an effort to promote pecans. It has nothing to do with streets. It’s about energy.
The project is named for the original name of Austin’s famed Sixth Street, which is renowned as the city’s entertainment district.
The Pecan Street Project is an ambitious undertaking by several entities with shared interests in re-thinking ways of producing, conserving and pricing electricity. It could become the role model for wise energy production and use not just for the state, but for the nation.
And, it could help reduce the nation’s dependence upon foreign oil from volatile countries abroad.
A team of participants from various vantage points includes representatives from the city-owned utility, Austin Energy; the University of Texas; the Austin Chamber of Commerce; and the Environmental Defense Fund. They are working to find the most promising methods to:
• Produce and deliver renewable energy;
• Have a back-up power supply when the wind is still or skies are cloudy;
• Have “smart” power grids and meters to adjust energy use during peak usage periods and when no one is home;
• Promote residential and business customers’ use of solar panels to provide much of their own energy, while putting excess production back into the power grid;
• Join in the effort to develop and improve batteries essential for storage of power during times of lighter demand, to be used for peak periods;
• Encourage use of rechargeable electric cars and gas/battery hybrid vehicles.
• Lessen air pollution from traditional power plants that burn coal and lignite.
The city and state are capitalizing on a unique combination of circumstances that make the search for those solutions, if not the solutions themselves, simpler to pursue.
The City of Austin owns its own electric company, as it does its water company, so it is free to experiment with new ideas. It is a progressive city, and had already started a green power program more than a decade ago.
“Austin Energy was radically ahead of the curve,” said Brewster McCracken, a former member of the Austin City Council who now is executive director of the project. The Green Choice program begun in 1999 was the first in the country that gave customers an opportunity to buy electricity produced by wind or other renewable sources.
If the utility was investor-owned, it might be at cross purposes with Austin’s efforts to both reduce per-capita power consumption and promote use of renewable energy.
While other states are divided into Eastern and Western power grids, Texas has its own separate power grid. That means it can participate in new approaches without having to get approval from the federal government.
Texas is by far the biggest producer of wind energy. At the end of 2009, wind turbines over the year provided five percent of the electricity used. Texas’ 9,410 megawatts of wind power was more than the combined total for the next three states – Iowa, California and Washington. The yearly average production accounts for five percent of the Texas power demand, and the state’s goal is to have at least twice that much coming from wind.
Texas also has the most area suitable for using sunlight to produce energy. And it has about onefourth of the nation’s production of natural gas, with new supplies being recovered in shale deposits in several parts of the state.
One situation that has to be addressed is that while producers of natural gas were not worried about wind and solar a decade ago, they are now. They are campaigning within ERCOT – the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, that operates the state’s power grid – to get wind producers to share the costs with the gas producers of being on standby to provide natural gas power generation when the wind and solar supplies lag.
Another question the project folks are studying is how to balance efforts to conserve energy with making a profit – when the traditional means of pricing has been the more you use, the more you pay. One possibility is to charge more for electricity at peak periods.
Austin Energy, just like the investor-owned utilities, needs to make money from its energy production, said Jim Marston, who heads the Environmental Defense Fund’s energy policy program and is a director of the Pecan Street Project. The city gets about 15 percent of its budget from the utility.
“Austin Energy has to make a profit, or we lay off police and firefighters,” Marston said.
In the energy production ranks, the Pecan Street Project is being closely watched – and in some cases copied.
“Many of the things Austin pioneered are being adopted by other locations and utilities,” Marston said.
Contact McNeely at davemcneely111@gmail. com or (512) 458-2963.