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Austin Energy, EDF to work on distributed power project

Thursday, September 4, 2008 by Mark Richardson

It is not quite the Manhattan Project or an Apollo moon shot, but a new program called the Pecan Street Project may develop the future of Austin’s energy delivery systems. The project, up to now an ad hoc group of government and industry people, is developing a plan to bring Austin’s conventional energy system into the age of distributed generation.

 

That was the topic of Wednesday’s meeting of the Emerging Technology and Telecommunications Committee. Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan and Austin Technology Incubator Director Isaac Barchas addressed the subcommittee on discussions among the group about making the city a national leader in developing clean energy systems designed for the “real world.”

 

The mission of the Pecan Street Project, according to Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken, is “to make the City of Austin into America‘s clean energy laboratory – a place for researchers and entrepreneurs to develop, test and implement the urban power system of the future.”

 

McCracken, Duncan and Barchas are members of the Pecan Street Project, along with a number of other community leaders.

 

Duncan outlined a brief history of conventional electric power grids, which go back about a century, and talked about the role new technology holds in developing a “distributed generation” system.

 

“Traditional power grids have a central power plant that delivers the power to buildings hooked up by transmission wires on a grid,” he said. “The system of the future will be more of a two-way system, with energy coming from solar, wind, hydrocarbons, oceans, geothermal, and yes, possibly even biomass. Power will flow both directions on the grid, instead of just one way.”

 

He said the transportation system would also undergo major changes, with cars and buses, which now run on petroleum, shifting to other forms of energy.

 

Barchas said Austin is uniquely positioned to become a leader in developing future power products and systems.

 

“The fact that Austin has a publicly owned power utility is a great advantage,” Barchas said. “Power companies that are in other states or are investor-owner don’t have the flexibility to allow companies to test products on a real-life power grid. However, Austin Energy can, and that gives us an advantage.”

 

According to a fact sheet developed by the Pecan Street Project, the group will pursue four initiatives:

 

  • Develop a clean energy public/private research and development consortium funded and led by the city. Its mission will be to research and develop clean energy technologies and distributed generation systems on Austin‘s grid.
  • Open Austin Energy’s grid to entrepreneurs and researchers to test prototype technologies in the real world.
  • Create an economically sustainable distributed generation system. A central mission of the consortium will be to develop a new distributed generation system that integrates clean energy in an economically sustainable business model.
  • Implement this system locally. Once the consortium creates the new distributed generation system, Austin will show the world how it works.

 

McCracken said Austin is the optimal city for such a project because is has committed to a goal of 100 MW of solar and 30 percent renewables by 2020, and it already offers access to its grid for innovators to beta test technologies.

 

Funding for some technologies would be easier here because Austin Energy and the city could call a clean energy bond election and/or dedicate other municipal funding sources to the project.

 

He noted that AE already has the nation’s largest green power program of any utility, and that it needs no federal or state approvals to test new technologies on its local grid. AE also does not need any federal or state approvals for system expansions less than 10 MW.

 

Barchas said that one of the project’s intermediate goals was eventually to replace one of Austin’s future power plants with new technology that is produced locally.

 

“We believe that could catalyze a lot of other energy businesses to move into Austin in a big way, bringing jobs and capital,” he said. “Austin Energy has the momentum, the reputation and the leadership to make this happen.”

 

The city has already partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to develop plans for the project. Once plans have been further developed, they will go before the full Council for consideration.

 

Council Member Laura Morrison joined McCracken in voting 2-0 vote to approve the initial plans that will allow Austin Energy to begin assigning some manpower to the project. Council Member Randi Shade was absent.

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