World Energy Week's Hometown Highlights

Events in Austin and Fredericksburg show off region's clean-energy champions

Austin Energy's fuel cell at the RBJ Health Center
Austin Energy's fuel cell at the RBJ Health Center (Photo By John Anderson)

The 27th annual World Energy Engineering Congress and the fifth installment of the Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Festival anchored Austin's observance of World Energy Week, Sept. 20-26, as declared by Gov. Rick Perry and Mayor Will Wynn. At both functions, local organizations helped cement for a national and international audience Austin's growing reputation as a clean energy champion.

The Association of Energy Engineers held the WEEC, its annual forum, at the Austin Convention Center Sept. 22-24, bringing more than 2,500 energy managers (including 100-plus foreign delegates), representing every industry from the hotel business to the federal government, together with purveyors of the latest technology in renewable energy and efficiency in heating, cooling, and lighting. Programs addressed crucial domestic energy issues like the blackouts in New York and California, air quality, and our addiction to foreign fuel sources.

Efficiency techniques and initiatives discussed at the WEEC aimed to help meet these concerns and bridge the gap between current large-scale energy consumers and future domestic clean-energy sources. Albert Thumann, executive director of the AEE, said, "Delegates learned how to make energy efficiency improve their companies' profitability and in addition, through pollution prevention, reduce emissions and greenhouse gases."

Conference co-sponsor Austin Energy reinforced its status as a leader in clean and renewable energy, as delegates toured three of the utility's forward-looking facilities. By recycling exhaust from a conventional natural gas generator (at the Domain industrial park in Northwest Austin), AE and the U.S. Department of Energy's Combined Heat and Power development project has effectively increased the 4.5-megawatt plant's fuel efficiency by 50%, by channeling its waste heat to power an "absorption chiller" that (without any additional fuel) can deliver enough chilled water to air-condition a million-square-foot building or 8,000 homes.

Mark Kapner, Austin Energy's senior strategy manager, also introduced delegates to the utility's photovoltaic solar-panel system on top of the Palmer Events Center's garage. "In the 12 months it's been online, it has generated enough energy to drive an electric car around the world six times," Kapner said. He emphasized the ease of installing PV in smaller residential applications, touting the solar rebate program Austin Energy is currently offering, which pledges to cover between 50 and 80% of installation costs. And the hydrogen fuel cell at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Health Center – which supplies 100% of the five-story building's heating needs and 66% of its total energy – also got featured. "Fuel cells hold the promise of clean energy ... combining hydrogen and oxygen in the air to generate heat, electricity, and water," said Larry Alford, Austin Energy's manager of distributed generation.

After WEEC, the World Energy Week spotlight moseyed west to Fredericksburg for the Renewable Energy Roundup; the well-attended three-day festival showcased green building techniques, alternative fuel vehicles, and organic gardening to a diverse attendance. Kathryn Houser, the event's co-organizer and executive director of the Texas Solar Energy Society, said, "The most important thing is to increase the understanding of the value that implementing sustainable and green efforts can bring to society and that these efforts are critical for the future of the state and the people."

Houser said there are a number of ways to get involved, from voting for candidates who support sustainable and green initiatives, to donating to nonprofit groups like TSES (www.txses.org) and the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association (www.treia.org) who support these efforts and provide education.

Popular topics at the Roundup were residential solar power, biofuels, and rainwater collection, along with attractions like demystifying the compost pile, sustainable interior decorating, recipes Betty Crocker never gave you, and bashing bugs with bat boxes. Willboun Wiecker, a retired farmer and rancher from Rosebud, said he came to the event because he was interested in renewable energy and sees alternative fuel as a prime market for domestic crops like corn and soy. "We have a lot of technology we need to start using," he said.

Among the speakers and exhibitors was Kurt Lyell from local outfit Austin Biofuels (www.austinbiofuels.com). "Biodiesel is clean-burning, domestic, and renewable," he said. "It is one of the easiest ways to get into renewable energy." Austin Biofuels' biodiesel is chemically converted so that no modifications to existing diesel engines are necessary. Moving from the road to the home, Mary McLeod, the residential program coordinator of the city of Austin's Green Building Program (www.ci.austin.tx.us/greenbuilder), said, "Our purpose is to bring more environmentally friendly building to the mainstream. ... We look at energy, water, and material use, comfort, health, and durability."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Clean Energy, World Energy Week, Association of Energy Engineers, World Energy Engineering Congress, WEEC, Renewable Energy Roundup, Austin Energy, AE, Combined Heat and Power, solar panel, solar rebate, fuel cell, Green Builder Program, biodiesel, Austin Biofuels

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