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Pecan Street Project seeks to develop a ‘smart’ power grid

Thursday, December 4, 2008 by Austin Monitor

The City of Austin and Austin Energy, along with the Environmental Defense Fund, the University of Texas, and a growing number of corporate partners, have officially launched a long-term effort to distribute power generation throughout the utility’s electric grid. The Pecan Street Project will bring together staff from Austin Energy and several major corporations to work on new technology that will more easily allow customers to generate their own electricity.


“The goal of the Pecan Street Project is to achieve one power plant’s worth of clean energy and to produce it locally within the city limits of Austin,” Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken said during the formal announcement on the UT campus on Wednesday.


To reach that goal of approximately 300 megawatts, the utility and its partners will need to answer several questions. “How much do you pay for energy coming from the solar panels on people’s roofs? How do you design and install software to manage this system? What technologies do you need if you are going to reinvent electricity delivery into a ‘smart grid’ that is structured like the internet? The purpose of the Pecan Street Project is to answer these questions in the real world,” McCracken said.


To help with the task, Austin Energy will turn to high-tech companies with expertise in several different areas. Dell, Freescale Semiconductor, IBM, Intel, Cisco Systems, Oracle, Microsoft and others, will contribute labor to the effort. “The challenges are really great when you get into the details, and what we recognized early on at Austin Energy is that we couldn’t to it by ourselves,” said Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan. “We’ve assembled a team of national partners who do have the brainpower to work with us to solve not only the technological problems but also the business model problems.”


One of the benefits of having hundreds or even thousands of smaller solar or wind installations is that customers with those installations would be able to sell electricity back to the utility if they have a surplus. However, that also creates a challenge in managing the flow of that power. Companies like Cisco Systems, which deals with networking, and Freescale Semiconductor, which makes computer chips, will be instrumental in solving those problems. The corporate partners will each have between two and four employees devoting at least 25 percent of their time to the project between now and Aug. 1, 2009.


In addition to the corporate partnerships, the Pecan Street Project will get assistance from SEMATECH, the world’s leading advanced technology consortium, to help structure the clean energy R&D group.


Jeffrey Richard, president and CEO of the Austin Area Urban League, the Pecan Street Project is similar to another community project a generation ago.


“Twenty years ago, a fundamental part of Austin’s strategy for SEMATECH was training our workforce,” he said. “We came together as a community not just to improve technology, but also to improve people’s skills and opportunities. Now, Austin is coming together again to lead in the creation of a clean energy economy.  As a trustee for Austin Community College and the president of the Urban League, I am excited to be part of this mission to solve clean energy’s greatest technical challenges and prepare Austinites for opportunities in green collar jobs.”


As part of the project, Austin Energy will allow the city’s power system to be used for research on new technologies. Since the City of Austin owns its own electric utility, and the State of Texas operates its own electric grid through ERCOT, modifications to the grid will not have to go through the cumbersome process of obtaining clearance from federal regulators.


“Not only do we vote on policies for the utility, we also vote on things like building codes, zoning, and economic development strategies, so we can seamlessly integrate these into one unified vision,” McCracken said. “For instance, as Heliovolt and other solar companies develop new building-integrated solar technologies, we may be able to change the building code standards and also develop rate structure changes. That’s not possible for an investor-owned utility or a public utility that’s disconnected from the land use authority.”


Jim Marston, Texas regional offices’ director and senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, said Austin Energy is doing something unique.


“It is trying to reinvent the electric system and to share the lessons it learns with the world,” he said. “Austin Energy is opening its grid to new clean, cutting-edge resources that will lead to a cleaner Austin and create a model to tackle global climate change. And Austin Energy is so confident in its vision that it is soliciting input from some of the smartest minds from the nation’s leading corporations on issues ranging from technology to business planning.”


During the first phase of the project, the partners will work on developing technical recommendations as well as a business plan for integrating the new technology into the Austin Energy system. Those recommendations are due back to the City Council next August. After that, the Council could consider funding mechanisms for the project, such as Austin Energy revenues or bonds.

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