Pecan Street Project in Austin defines green utility model


Brewster McCracken,
Executive Director,
Pecan Street Project
April 8, 2010 – The Pecan Street Project, a nonprofit consortium that includes Austin Energy, the University of Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Austin Chamber of Commerce is backed by a $10.4 million Smart Grid grant from the Department of Energy, the project will test whether Austin Energy can manage a fundamental shift in how it operates.

The project will seek 1,000 residential and 75 commercial volunteers to try out a wide range of clean energy pilot projects. Some will experiment with versions of new smart meter billing systems for electricity customers aimed at encouraging electricity conservation through time-based rates. Some customers will get smart appliances tied to the grid. There will be household connections for plug-in hybrid vehicles that allow them to take power from and return it to the grid, and measure the strain on nearby transformers. Other experiments will test how native landscaping can conserve water — another municipal priority — and study which kinds of solar power installations are most effective.

The goal is to create a new template for the utility. Instead of trying to boost revenues through electricity sales, Austin Energy may be able to shift customers to a flat monthly electricity fee that remains constant however much electricity the customer uses over some period of time. The utility could profit if its energy conservation and efficiency programs reduce the electricity it has to generate or buy for its customers, said Brewster McCracken, executive director of the Pecan Street Project and a former member of Austin’s City Council.

"Austin Energy was radically ahead of the curve," McCracken said. Its Green Choice program in 1999 was the nation’s first that permitted customers to purchase wind power or other clean energy sources, he said. Its energy conservation building codes were a forerunner of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, green building certification program, officials add. In 2000, it began offering subsidies to customers who purchased rooftop solar units.

And it extended a welcome to plug-in hybrid vehicle manufacturers, saying it would work with them to create recharging stations. Efficiency and conservation programs employed between 1982 and 2006 shaved Austin’s demand for peak electric power by a total of 700 megawatts — eliminating the need for a new power plant, the utility says.