Pecan Street Project

Feds chip in $10.4 million for Mueller 'smart grid'

Council Member and PSP board member Randi Shade, flanked by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (r) and former Council Member Brewster McCracken (l).
Council Member and PSP board member Randi Shade, flanked by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (r) and former Council Member Brewster McCracken (l).

If the Pecan Street Project eventually fulfills its promise, we'll all be living large like the Jetsons.

At least that's the future portrayed in the project description for the PSP's latest funding achievement, a $10.4 million grant announced last week by the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy, which will underwrite an "advanced smart grid project" in the Mueller neighborhood steadily taking shape on the 711-acre site of the former airport. The Pecan Street summary depicts fictional resident "Mattie Camacho" – imagine Jane Jetson as a brunette – monitoring her electricity and water usage from her mobile phone, while her rooftop solar panels feed juice to the "Energy Internet" and her "home energy gateway system" adjusts appliances, monitors and adjusts sprinkler performance, and even shuts off a leaking toilet. The DOE grant will help buy a "demonstration project" to "create, operate, and evaluate" an Internet-style smart grid, according to the summary, that will involve 200 in-home smart-grid water systems, 200 smart sprinkler systems, and 1,000 residential and 75 commercial meters, distributed to neighborhood volunteers. (The development currently accommodates about 2,000 residents of a projected 10,000.)

From her mobile phone, Future Mattie rules.
From her mobile phone, Future Mattie rules.

"We intend to make the Mueller neighborhood an example of what modern neighborhoods can accomplish, with smarter energy management, clean energy generation, and advanced system integration," said Brewster McCracken at last week's Mueller Center press conference announcing the award for the grant application submitted in August. Former City Council Member McCrack­en is now the federal grants manager for PSP, and a reasonably good bet to be named executive director by the board – winning the DOE award, at least, shouldn't hurt his prospects. He described the project's goal as establishing "the most self-sufficient and energy efficient neighborhood development in the country." PSP board member (and council member) Randi Shade said the board is considering four candidates and may name a director as early as this week.

While $10.4 million is not small change, it's only one of 32 awards announced Nov. 24 by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, totaling $620 million in new federal economic stimulus funding to help develop projects that can serve as models for more widespread deployment. The projects include "large-scale energy storage, smart meters, distribution and transmission system monitoring devices, and a range of other smart technologies. ... This funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be leveraged with $1 billion in funds from the private sector to support more than $1.6 billion in total Smart Grid projects nationally," according to the DOE announcement. The Smart Grid Regional Demonstrations (16 projects awarded $435 million total) range from $720,000 for a wind-power transmission capacity project in New York State to an $89 million, five-state grid management project in the Pacific North­west. The other $185 million is funding another 16 development projects in energy storage.

The DOE said the 32 projects were chosen from among 135 nationwide applications, and the Pecan Street effort is one of three projects in Texas awarded a total of $27.4 million; the Austin-based Center for the Commercialization of Electric Techno­lo­gies (a consortium of companies that includes Austin Energy) will get $13.5 million for work applying smart-grid technologies to the transmission grid in Houston. All of the grant awards are matched by local "cost-sharing" for the full project amounts, and the DOE cites the total cost of the Mueller project as $24.7 million. According to Pecan Street spokesman Colin Rowan, the various partners have pledged to contribute both staffing and some direct funding to the effort, and "now that the dog has caught the car," the details of those resources will be confirmed over the next few weeks. McCracken provided a breakdown of the remaining $14.3 million; much of it is already dedicated to Austin Energy infrastructure and staffing, with additional contributions from the University of Texas, the Austin Technology Incubator, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett kicked off last Wednesday's press conference at the Mueller Center, the development's information and marketing office, with a coy reference to the old airport: "Now we have landed these federal funds to help our community take off on its energy future." Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan also addressed the gathering, which included representatives of the Pecan Street Project's various partners – UT (which will provide research teams), the Environmental Defense Fund, Mueller neighborhood residents and representatives, and several project board members, among them Shade and Jose Beceiro of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. As reported at the time by Katherine Gregor ("Cool City: Getting Down With the Grid," Sept. 4), the grant was submitted Aug. 26, and the turnaround was quick enough to take even those directly involved by surprise. McCracken said they had picked up hints of the decision on DOE-related websites only that morning, and then Doggett's office contacted Pecan Street directly, and the announcement event was hastily organized.

The grant term is five years, and it will help fund four UT research teams for designing, testing, and analyzing the system; four commercial rooftop solar arrays; four energy storage sites; installation of "smart appliances"; and 10 Austin Energy electric vehicles for use in the neighborhood. Asked when residents might begin seeing physical signs of the project, Austin Energy Vice Presi­dent Karl Rábago said the grant has essentially speeded up implementation of work the utility already had in progress, and the neighborhood should "look for action in the first year."

Web Extra

On Nov. 24, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded grants to 32 regional energy demonstration projects across the country: 16 for "smart grid" technology projects, 16 for energy storage projects. This document is the DOE's summary of all the grants, including that awarded to the Pecan Street Project for its smart grid project at the Mueller neighborhood.

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