The Austin Chronicle

Sustainable Living

By Daniel Mottola, September 29, 2006, News

At the seventh annual Renewable Energy Roundup and Green Living Fair – billed as the biggest sustainability event in the South and held last weekend in Fredericksburg – co-founder and organizer Russel Smith heard much of the same old thing as he talked with attendees. The top two reasons people gave for showing up, he explained, were being fed up with dependence on foreign and fossil energy sources and wanting to do something about climate change. Smith, who heads up the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association when he's not coordinating the yearly green pilgrimage into the Hill Country (and probably sports a cowboy hat and boots more than any known environmentalist), said this year's Roundup saw its highest turnouts yet.

While the event is the place to learn about cutting-edge clean-energy technologies and has long been a one-stop shop for people wanting greener homes and natural backyard gardens, it's also a forum of ideas and information relating to a host of prominent political issues. From discussing ways to stop the USDA's looming National Animal Identification System (seen as a threat to small farmers and a boon to corporate agribusiness) to understanding viable efficiency and renewable-energy alternatives to the 17 proposed highly polluting coal plants state leaders seem delighted to open, the Roundup is a regional summit for environmental organizing at a time when domestic energy and food production is as politicized as ever.

Maria Richards of the Southern Methodist University Geothermal Laboratory talked on Friday about how her team is harnessing clean, renewable energy in the form of hot water from existing and decommissioned oil and gas wells across Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. Geothermal energy can also be economically used to heat and cool buildings on-site. According to Richards' calculations, "Geothermal power has 50,000 times the energy potential of all oil and gas known today in the world." She expects to have a calculation for Texas' energy generation potential soon, as many enviros see geothermal as a reliable and green way to offset the need for new coal plants.

Another alternative, solar power, was addressed by William Ball, founder of the Arkansas Renewable Energy Association. He's building a Little Rock subdivision of homes that derives 50% of its energy from the sun and noted in his speech that solar homes are making energy in the hot afternoon while other homes are pushing utilities toward peak demand. An early installer of so-called "next-generation" or "thin-film" solar (expected to vastly broaden the industry since it can be integrated into roof tiles and siding at a lower cost), Ball said, "We haven't yet started the Manhattan Project of our renewable infrastructure." Meanwhile, Ball has also been working on homes for low-income people that employ some of the high-efficiency tactics used to maximize solar projects, cutting utility bills and boosting affordability. One such tactic is solar water heating, a fairly simple technology for which Austin Energy has launched a rebate and assistance program open to all customers. For more on the Roundup and fair, see

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