Austin Plugs In Big-Time

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Credit: Thomas McConnell

There's this bumper sticker I sometimes see: "Keep Austin Weird." It's from a place that doesn't quite fit in with the rest of Texas, culturally, politically, gastronomically, and doesn't seem to want to either. Texas is the country's leading energy-producing state, and ranks near the top in pollution emissions. But a new renewable energy plan based in Austin fits right in with the "weirdness" on that bumper sticker.

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The idea of the Pecan Street Project is to connect an entire neighborhood with solar panels, electric vehicles, utility smart meters and household batteries in a giant green power blender. Corporate partners include General Motors, Sony, Intel, SunEdison, Whirlpool, Best Buy and Toshiba. They’ll be using participating households to try out how their products do on an integrated smart grid, according to Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc."To be relevant, smart grid innovations must solve consumers' problems and provide services that excite them," said Brewster McCracken told the Austin American-Statesman.

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This fall, 200 homes were outfitted with about a half square-mile of solar panels — that's about a third of the neighborhood. By spring 2012, they will also get systems that automatically regulate heating, cooling and lighting. In June 2012, GM will offer Chevy Volt EVs to 100 people in the Mueller neighborhood with a $15,000 rebate instead of the normal $7,500, against the $40,000 pricetag. While some cities have looked at integrating EVs and solar panels, nobody’s done something this ambitious.

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Supporters hope a $10.4 million stimulus grant, plus matching money from corporate partners, will keep it going for its five years. Companies say they will get feedback on how well their appliances work, and probably a little green marketing cred. Local utility, Austin Energy, will be developing a green building code. Will the whole thing work? Will all these devices and power supplies integrate? Will Gov. Rick Perry pull the giant plug? Researchers from UT Austin, the National Renewable Energy Lab and the Environmental Defense Fund at using Pecan Street Project as a test bed to answer (some) of these questions.