Austin has been at the forefront of the tech industry for a long time, but it’s only within the last decade that the region’s environmental roots have caught up with its strength in computing to support a robust clean energy and clean tech sector. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Director for Clean Energy, Jose Beceiro, catches the Green Line Series up on how Austin’s tradition of concern for land and climate is driving the city to a more diverse (and increasingly booming) green economy.
GoGreen Conference: Can you give us a working definition of how clean energy is different than what we consider normal energy?
Jose Beceiro: It’s all about finding new, innovative ways of producing energy. Energy can be in the form of electricity; it can be in the form of hydropower or liquid fuels. Energy comes in many different forms. But if you think about it in terms of electricity for example, clean energy technologies are things like solar, wind energy, geothermal—even biomass production. The two leading electricity producing technologies right now in clean energy are wind and solar.
Two more big differences between traditional and clean energy are when the technologies are applied and how they’re applied. If you think about traditional energy, you’re looking at fossil fuel based resources for the most part—natural gas, coal, petroleum—and most of those traditional energy producers are used to satisfy base level load power demand.
A lot of the new clean energy technologies are being used in conjunction with traditional energy technologies to satisfy peak energy demand. Peak energy that’s demanded at peak times during the year—here in Texas peak energy demand is usually in the summer months when everyone is running their air conditioners. That’s when you really need to find innovative ways to reduce how much power is in demand through energy efficiency programs or satisfy it with new energy technologies like wind and solar.
GG: Is it safe to assume that a future goal would be to flip that dynamic? And have renewables providing the base line and traditional technologies on standby for peak demand?
JB: Yes. In an ideal world or utopian concept we would be relying solely on clean, carbon-free or carbon-neutral resources and technologies. But the challenges to getting there are pretty steep at this point in time. The biggest challenge right now for renewable energy—which you’ve probably heard a hundred times—is the ability to store wind and solar energy and have it be dispatchable at any time. That brings into the conversation the state of energy storage technologies—advanced batteries and other forms of energy storage. And those technologies are advancing, but until we’re able to identify a cost-effective efficient solution to energy storage and scale it to utility scale, plus merge it with utility solar or wind production, it’s going to be very challenging to get to the point where we’re relying 100 percent on renewable energy for base load generation.
The other important thing to keep in mind is that it will depend on where you are located geographically and what you’re local energy resources are. It depends on the climate and the cost of energy and resources and population density. There are a lot of factors. In the Pacific Northwest hydropower is always going to be the cheapest and most cost-effective way to produce energy. Whereas here in Texas, the current most cost-effective way to produce energy is using natural gas. And that’s probably going to be the case for a long time—until we have a significant decrease in the availability of those resources and/or if the cost of those resources continues to escalate as fast as it is right now.
Once the cost basis for those traditional energy sources gets to a point where renewable energy is cost competitive, then you’ll start to see the flip. You’ll start to see renewable energy take on a bigger portion of that energy demand. So on some levels there are a lot of factors that could prevent that from happening in the short-term, but in the long-term it’s very foreseeable as a reality. And we need to be ready to facilitate that.
GG: When did the City of Austin and the neighboring areas begin to prioritize clean technology and energy as a part of your focus?
JB: We’ve been working on building the tech industry sector since the 1960s. The City of Austin has a very important asset in place that most other cities do not have, in that we own our utility, Austin Energy.
Austin Energy has actually been implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy programs since the early 1980s. Since 1982, the utility, through its conservation efforts has saved more electricity than the annual output of a 500 megawatt power plant. That’s huge.
Austin really understands the importance of this industry and has understood the importance of these technologies on the environment for a very long time. If you go back in Austin’s history, you’ll quickly realize that the Austinites have always been very concerned about the environment and have a similar mindset to what you find on the West Coast.
Because of that mindset the city council members and mayors we’ve had over time have supported the type of energy efficient utility we’ve tried to design and the policies have all emulated what Austinites care about—the environment, affordable energy and quality of life. That’s all reflected through it’s policies and how they implement energy efficiency programs for load shifting and peak shaving, and offer rebates for energy efficiency—whether it’s in commercial buildings or residential structures. They also offer rebates for solar panel installation on rooftops of homes and businesses.
So there are a number of very aggressive policies Austin Energy has had in place for a number of years–decades really. Take that foundation and add to it the fact that Austin is a high-tech city as well, and you get this interesting high-tech economy built around advanced technologies that help the environment. That mindset is what propelled Austin to launch itself into the clean tech industry.
Austin, along with several other cities around the country—Portland, Boulder, the Silicon Valley area, Raleigh and Boston—is leading the charge here in the United States on being the top clean technology centers in the world. In Austin, we’re doing everything from recruiting clean tech companies to building new clean tech startups from the ground up to clean technology research at the University of Texas. We’re really just now hitting our stride in terms of building a clean technology economy, but Austin has been focused on this for a long time and it’s something we are aggressively pursuing for the future.
GG: There are many cities around the country without that tradition of environmental concern. Do you see Austin influencing these cities and helping their leadership recognize the benefits?
JB: Definitely. Along with the cities I just mentioned, Austin is at the forefront of the clean tech revolution. We’re working hard to set an example for how other cities, states and even other countries can build a thriving clean tech economy.
The best example of a replicable project we have going right is a smart grid research consortium called the Pecan Street Project. It’s a project funded through a $10.4 million Federal Department of Energy (DOE) stimulus grant. The goal of the Pecan Street Project is to create a set of standards around smart grid technology. We’re looking at everything from solar panels on rooftops to charging stations within the home and also public charging stations for electric vehicles. We want to discover not only how to incorporate electric infrastructure, but also water and natural gas infrastructure for both residential and commercial applications. We’re essentially discovering how to design neighborhoods and cities to be sustainable—and incorporating everything from smart grid to smart water and smart gas.
The neighborhood site, which used to be the site of our old airport, is called the Meuller Development. All the homes are green built and all the commercial businesses are minimum LEED certified building construction. It’s already a very energy efficient neighborhood, but now that we’re doing the demonstration project, we’re starting to incorporate home energy monitoring systems, commercial solar installations, even adding in combined heat and power cogeneration, etc.
The results of this smart grid demonstration project are going to be results that we enthusiastically share publically. We’ve already had a number of cities travel to Austin to do a fact-finding mission, understand how we’ve been able to do this and see the ways we’re pushing envelop in these areas. We’re very open to sharing our challenges too. I think other cities around the country are very interested in seeing the process we’re going through with the Pecan Street Project. And we understand that whatever kind of smart grid system we design with Austin Energy and the particular solutions we find that work for us, may not be the perfect solution for Seattle or Portland or Chicago. What we’re hoping to share is the process.
GG: As an employee of the Chamber of Commerce, you obviously have major interest in growing Austin’s economy and keeping its business industry going strong. Why are clean energy and clean tech so important to Austin’s economy? Do you see them as important pieces of the national economy as well?
JB: The importance of clean tech to Austin is huge. It hasn’t always been a constant rosy picture here. We’ve gone through ups and downs just like other cities. Our tech economy started back in the 1960s and it was founded primarily on software technology, IT infrastructure and computers. We’ve had several different technology consortium efforts over the years that have served to grow each of those industries.
In the 1980s we had a consortium called SemTech, which spurred the growth of the semi-conductor industry. We were able to establish the high-tech footprint here, but as the global economy went through its ups and downs, we saw over the years that even with a strong tech industry, our economy wasn’t diverse enough to prevent us from getting swept up in economic downturns.
The difference adding in the diversity of industries like clean tech has made is evident in looking at the last decade or so. Around the time when the 2000 recession hit, we had already chosen to target the clean tech industry. We had a lot of the pieces in place, with our semi-conductor and software computing background, but we hadn’t started to rollout or translate these technology areas into solar and wind, and so on. And our economy got hit pretty hard. Within a span of eight or nine months we lost around 30,000 jobs just in the tech industries.
So what we started to do in 2002 and 2003, was specifically target emerging tech sectors like clean tech and bio tech, convergent technology areas, and wireless technology. Over that almost 10-year span, we’ve been able to develop a much more diverse technology spectrum in Austin. It’s made a huge difference. During the 2008 recession we came out pretty good. For the most part Austin was immune to what was going on compared with most other cities. I think a big reason for that is that we’ve put so much focus into diversifying our economy as much as possible and building aggressively in new, high-growth industry sectors like clean energy and clean tech.
At the national level, the importance of clean tech is really found in discussions on national policy going forward. I believe there is huge job creation potential in these industries that the US can benefit from. We’ve already seen that realized in the automotive industry when the Federal Government got involved and essentially took the reigns. They heavily influenced that industry to transition over to new, more efficient automotive technologies. It’s a big reason why we’re starting to see electric vehicles and electric hybrid vehicles come off the assembly line in Detroit.
I also think there is a huge new opportunity to capture new jobs in industries like solar tech. That industry is booming nationwide and benefitting many states—Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado. All of these economies are reaping the benefits. Similarly for other clean energy technologies, the Midwest is benefitting from wind power generation development.
The economic impact and job creation potential of the various clean technologies are something that can benefit most places across the country. They also spur the energy debate, helping us be more energy efficient, conscious and independent. Growing these industries helps us get to a place where we don’t have to be so dependent on foreign oil to power our transportation sector or sustain our economy. And we’re only seeing the beginning of these benefits.
GG: What’s happening at the Chamber of Commerce that has you really excited? Is there a special project or a goal that you’re chasing?
JB: Currently one of the most exciting things we’re working on is related to smart grid technology. Through the Federal Stimulus Program, Austin was chosen as one of nine metropolitan areas in the country to participate in an electric vehicle charging station test program called ChargePoint America. The total amount of funds available was $37 million and Austin will be around 200 charging stations in the next 12 to 18 months.
The exciting thing for me is that the electric vehicle sector is one of the areas within clean technology that we’re targeting for growth. We want to see more electric vehicles on the roads here in Austin, but we also want to track other pieces of the industry like assembly, manufacturing, R+D and design. So we’re working a number of projects right now in order to attract electrical vehicle manufacturers to Austin.
Looking back at how Texas got into wind energy, you can see the potential for this niche of the industry. The wind industry was essentially non-existent 15 years ago in Texas. Then the State proactively began developing it. Everyone knew Texas had a vast resource in wind available, particularly in West Texas. So the State started to proactively construct transmission lines out to where the wind resource had the greatest potential.
Those high wind resource areas were not necessarily the most populated in the state, so there was a lot of debate over whether to spend all that money to build out the infrastructure, but the State went ahead and did it. In less than a decade, the state of Texas went from having essentially zero megawatts of wind capacity to now having over 10 Gigawatts of wind capacity. Think about what that could mean for electric vehicles if we can match that success.
GG: What do you hope people take away from your session on Funding Green: Financing Options for Sustainable Business Initiative at GoGreen Austin?
JB: I’m hoping that attendees will better understand is just how important and big projects like the Pecan Street Project and the potential of smart grid are.
There are few other demonstrations going on around the country, but none have the scale and focus that Pecan Street Project does. It’s bringing together utility stakeholders, university stakeholders, private sector companies as well as environmental groups to create something huge for people.
I hope people see that we have some really powerful, unique things going on here in Austin. Things that are very much worth sharing with the outside world as potential repeatable projects in other communities.
Jose Beceiro is the Director for Clean Energy at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and featured speaker at GoGreen Austin 2011. Join Jose and the GoGreen team April 6th as he leads a stellar session on Funding Green: Financing Options for Sustainable Business Initiatives. For details or to regisiter, visit: http://austin.gogreenconference.net. Get all the latest updates via our Facebook Page.
To learn more about the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and their work in sustainable sectors, visit: http://www.austin-chamber.org/