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Mind in North Austin

TCEQ: Pleasant Surprises in Clean Air Grants

2127880You may be interested to learn that our state environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), offers grants that help (primarily businesses) fund projects to improve air quality. Perhaps you may be surprised to learn that renewable energy projects and electric vehicle purchases are eligible for some of these grant opportunities. These grants are found under the umbrella of the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP). TERP programs are typically focused on natural gas and diesel vehicles along with general air emissions control technologies. For example, the Clean Transportation Triangle and Texas Natural Gas Vehicle Program offer funds for development and deployment of natural gas fueling stations and vehicles in the state. Other programs include Emissions Reduction Incentives Grants for upgrade/replacement of diesel engines/vehicles in certain areas of the state.

Among all the fossil-fuel related projects, renewables can get a piece of the action through the New Technology Implementation Grant (NTIG) program. General air emissions control technologies and “cleantech” for fossil fuels are also eligible for these funds. However, electricity storage technology projects tied to renewable energy generation are eligible for these grants, too. In the past few years, thermal and compressed air energy storage projects for wind farms have received funding through NTIG.

Electric, as well as natural gas-fueled, vehicles can be subsidized up to $2,500 through the Light-duty Purchase, or Lease Incentives (LDPLI) program. According to the LDPLI program guidance, electric vehicles must be a plug-in with four wheels, a top speed of at least 55 mph, and an unloaded weight of no more than 8,500 pounds and a minimum battery capacity of four kilowatt-hours. Also, the vehicle must be on the TCEQ’s list. There is currently no list posted on the web. A new list is due out later this spring.

Additionally, there is a Clean Fleets program to support conversion of commercial fleets to alternative fuels/hybrid vehicles. However, that program had its last grant application period end in august of 2012 and there have been no further announcements of further funding availability.

Seems there are some progressive elements lurking in our state government!

Nexus of Energy, Water, & Food

7913323This month’s Clean TX Foundation Power Lunch featured Dr. Michael Webber of UT-Austin speaking on the interdependence of our energy, water and food supplies. The over-arching message is that currently our energy production depends heavily on water supply, while treating and distributing water consumes much of our energy. At the same time, food production and distribution currently consumes a big fraction of our energy and water. Here are a few further points I took away to ponder:

Energy: Cooling water for our coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants account for about 45% of all water withdrawn from surface and groundwater sources in the U.S. Cooling water is discharged back into the environment. Power plants consume about 3% of total U.S. water usage. Given this water dependency, when water supplies are too hot, too cold, too abundant (flooding), or too little (drought) electrical blackouts become an issue Additionally, the extraction processes for coal, natural gas and crude oil require water (e.g. hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking and washing coal as it is mined).

Water: Collecting, treating and distributing water for public/industrial use consumes large amounts of energy for the operation of pumps and chemical/physical processing equipment. This is particularly so, if you get your drinking water from desalination like they do in countries along the Persian Gulf. In fact the salinity of the Persian Gulf has risen measurably due to vast amount of water desalination there.

Food: In the U.S., about 10% of our energy consumption goes into growing, processing and distributing food. On average, we waste about 25% of our edible food. The amount of energy associated with this food waste is enough to power the country of Switzerland for a year!

Good news: To quote Dr. Webber, “The U.S. is decarbonizing quickly for the wrong reasons.” The reasons are purely economic. To me economics isn’t “wrong.” The economy is simply something created by people for people to deliver value and services for life. At any rate let’s keep the “decarbonizing” going!

Energy Thought Summit Review

Energy BrainMonday and Tuesday I had the privilege to attend the first Energy Thought Summit (ETS) here in Austin. Such luminaries in energy and technology, like Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, and Jon Wellinghoff, former FERC chairman, were headliners.

On Monday morning, I took away some encouraging and fundamental insights. The first featured speaker, Badar Khan, CEO of Direct Energy, particularly highlighted customer-engaging strategies. Most people only spend about six minutes per month on their electricity bill. With so little attention given to electricity use, no wonder it doesn’t occur as something important to people. To change the utility bill game, Direct Energy now has a “pay-as-you-go” service. Customers pay at the beginning of the month for their electricity and then receive their remaining balance each day via text message. The result is people take more control of their usage daily.

Making a grand entrance on a Segway accompanied by a marching band playing the Super Mario theme, Steve Wozniak brought a great perspective on invention and innovation. In his experience with invention, a simple, inexpensive, working model sells itself to investors. Innovation he found comes and growth he found come out of an open, collaborative business environment with thoughtful rather than forceful leadership. He also believes, and shares his wealth accordingly, that when you have success you should pay it forward, so others can further innovate.

Everything else on Monday afternoon and Tuesday seemed to point toward this: 1.) The technology to tackle our energy issues already exists, and 2.) Social and organizational inertia is the barrier. Personally, I believe we can overcome the inertia. After all look at how this country mobilized and transformed our industry into a war machine practically overnight when we entered World War II. When will we all get that we’re at war for our future?

Transitions in Energy and the World

6560239Yesterday’s Solar Austin Happy Hour featured renaissance-man and energy guru, Michael Osborne, known for his work with Austin Energy and TREIA (Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association) among other things. He spoke on several areas of transitions currently underway in our world, particularly in energy. Here’s what I took away from his presentation:

Renewable Energy: Solar is the new wind.
New solar installation this year has outpaced new wind capacity. This is largely because solid state PV panels and the price of silicon have recently plummeted and just now show signs of leveling off. Mr. Osborne sees the potential for a true solar revolution (i.e. exponential growth) at a retail price of 5¢/kWh.

He sees the concerns about electric grid operability problems with large amounts of wind and solar as unfounded. Sunshine and wind are variable, and their variability is predictable many hours in advance, especially in Texas. From modeling that’s been done, he believes it is quite feasible for at least 80% of our power to be provided by solar and wind. Interesting fact: Some estimates show that an area approximately the size of Texas covered in solar panels could power the entire world.

Carbon Economy: We’re moving from carbon storage concerns to low carbon.
Three points stuck out here. 1.) We’re at a place where we can harvest carbon out of the air for various purposes via oxidation, etc. 2.) Natural gas production in this country is showing signs of slowing. 3.) Coal -fired power plants can be retrofitted to burn organic matter like paper mill byproducts.

Transportation: We’re heading toward integrated electrical and transportation power.
Electric and electric hybrid vehicles now are making it possible to connect our transportation systems and electrical power systems. The batteries in these vehicles can be utilized for both moving the vehicle down the road and storing energy for the grid. When parked,the power capacity of a vehicle is not being utilized. Mr. Osborne stated that the horsepower under the hoods of all the vehicles sitting in the parking lot during a typical UT football game could power the entire city of Austin. The ability to harness this excess capacity is now here with plug-in vehicles.

Sustainability on Vacation

Vacation on the BeachHappy Spring Break! Even while on vacation, I find that I can’t turn it off. Here are some things I’ve noticed:

Day 1
From our hotel balcony, I noticed some ”cool roofs” (white in color) on some buildings around us. All the lamps in our room are fluorescent.

At the nice complimentary evening buffet, the hotel uses disposable table service items (cups, plates, utensils and napkins). They even serve the adult beverages in plastic!

I could use the plastic bin I brought along that contains the family clementine supply to collect compostables and take them back to Austin. Also, the pool-side shade structures might make a good place for solar panels.

Day 2
In the morning when I went to exercise, I noticed that the weight room had a motion sensor for the lights. My husband, son and I shared disposable utensils and bowls/plates at breakfast and returned our unused packages of utensils and condiments at lunch.

The hotel cleaning staff replaced our towels that we left hanging up, despite the flyer on the bedside table stating that a towel on a rack meant “I will reuse this.” I communicated that this was not acceptable at the front desk, because we DO intend to reuse our towels!

I saved our adult beverage plastic cups to reuse at the buffet and bar tomorrow.

Day 3
We saved our waistlines and prevented food waste at lunch by ordering three dishes for five people. Beyond food and postcards, the only item I purchased was a used fleece jacket at Goodwill. And the towels weren’t changed out in our room!

We blew our gas-powered vehicle free day, with a diesel-powered boat ride.

My husband and I could play the game called “No More Plastic Cups from Hotel Buffet.” We win, if we use no more than the five “disposable” cups we have currently rinsed and ready to go when we check out.

The Power to Live, or Freeze

7178920After completing my Landmark Advanced Course this past weekend, I’ve truly discovered that I have the power to create life, or freeze it to death. If my words and actions don’t align, or if I’m dishonest about how much I passionately care about people and making a difference in the world, it’s killer. It’s like being frozen and icing over everything around me. Also, if I lack a constructive focus for my creative energy, I isolate myself and get lost in a snowstorm of my own creation.

Like me, the young snow queen in “Frozen,” Elsa, is a powerful woman who experiences the stifling pain of isolation and creative power run amuck. Also, like me and most of you reading this, as a child Elsa comes to believe sharing her amazing abilities will cause people to shun her. When pushed to her limit, she freezes her entire kingdom in the summer. Then she creates an ice castle to hide in. Elsa is so determined to shove life and the risk of hurt away; she nearly kills her younger sister. It is only her sister’s willingness to sacrifice herself to save Elsa that melts the ice and opens Elsa’s eyes to reality. After her sister’s brush with death, Elsa is moved to focus her power to create joy and fun for all with a year-round ice rink and a melt-proof talking snowman.

I, too, can be such a snow queen. When dismissed from a job two years ago, I retreated into my ice castle focusing on my pain, trying to fix myself and figure out what went wrong. Then I lost myself in a flurry of networking and training. First, I worked environmental consulting circles, then I tried EMS (environmental management systems) and recently I’ve drifted into green business/renewable energy circles with a short trip down pollution prevention lane. Based on my feelings of isolation and rejection from teasing way back in grade school, I’ve kept my true passion and ideas for a more sustainable world concealed. In the last two weeks I’ve chosen a focus for my energy. I’ve opened up and shared a vision for transforming a North Austin business park into a model of a sustainable business community for the world. Amazingly, several people think it’s a great idea! They actually want to help make it possible!

How freeing it is to let it go and share an inspiring possibility with the world! I’ve taken Elsa’s empowering anthem, “Let It Go,” as my personal anthem. It often runs in my head reminding me to take courage and funnel my creative energy on this project that will make a difference. I’m ready to do whatever it takes to make the North Austin Green Dream for Braker Center a reality, including funding it by applying for grants, and taking my chances on winning cash from a car dealer’s grand opening. I’ve even offered myself as an unstoppable force in collaboration with a solar installer to put solar panels on the property as a gateway project, though how we’ll do it is yet unclear.

The dream begins to take form now and life begins to thaw.

North Austin Green Dream

Braker CenterI have a dream for my neighborhood. It began to form in a time of defeat. About two years ago, I was dismissed from a small consulting firm. As a high school and college honors student who’d never had a bad work performance review before, I saw this as a horribly crushing failure. I didn’t take it lying down though. I got up and walked. I walked all over Braker Center, the light industrial/office park only blocks from my house. I began to wonder. What if I could find, or create opportunity with those businesses right here in my own backyard?

Since my walk through Braker Center in spring 2012, a vision and some possible avenues to take have begun to materialize. Over the past year, I’ve done a lot of green business and renewable energy networking. My growing knowledge of and friendships with people in these arenas has finally brought a vision into focus. Here’s what I see now.

The Vision
I see Braker Center as a green business park with a clean energy focus. Both the buildings and grounds are super “green” plus the tenants are “green,” or actively “greening” their organizations. The business park would involve both facilities and community aspects.

The buildings and grounds would be upgraded to address energy and water supply and efficiency. Solar panels, rainwater harvesting and xeriscaping would be a must. Revamping HVAC, lighting, insulation, electrical systems, water pipes and water fixtures/appliances would also be high priority. Yet, keeping in mind the 3 R’s, reduce-reuse-recycle, it would be wise to reuse, or leave intact as much of what’s already on-site as possible.

Forming a collaborating, interactive business community would be part and parcel of the transformation into a green business park. Building partnerships amongst tenants and property-management/owners from the start could be very helpful to address the logistics of changes to buildings, etc. Also, the park’s tenants and management would reach out and interact with the schools and neighborhood associations on the park’s borders. For starters, Harmony School of Science, N.Y.O.S., ACC North Ridge and the Gracy Woods Neighborhood Association are very close neighbors. To facilitate this outreach, an event/training space on-site would be a great asset for the neighborhood and those who visit to learn about the place.

The Possibilities
I’ve discovered some real possibilities for funding and collaboration through my networking. Funding could be in the forms of grants and/or private investment. CleanTX Foundation, a clean energy cluster development group based in Austin, knows about grant opportunities. Also, a new financing tool called PACE, (property-assessed clean energy) for commercial/industrial facility upgrades, is set to roll out soon here in Texas. There is also the possibility of finding new ownership for the property, if the current owners aren’t interested. I’ve encountered green-minded folks with Fortune 500 connections that may have an interest.

Further, collaboration between green-minded, energy industry tenants has already begun. Two current occupants of Braker Center, Circular Energy and Concurrent Design, are set to officially unveil a solar carport project next week (SEEN #17 event). Additionally, SunPower and CleanTX Foundation have an office presence in the area. These seeds of collaboration just need a little nurturing.

I see a dream that is a worthwhile challenge. I even have a working name for it, North Austin Green, which can be turned into an amusing acronym. Funding, property owners and numerous existing tenants of various stripes all present what could be call obstacles. However, I see the possibility of growth and transformation. I see a thriving, green business microcosm that creates dollars, health and happiness . . . and a model for the future.

Austin: An Awesome Energy Cluster

GalaxiesAustin has gained a reputation for leadership in energy and cleantech. Here’s my experience this month of Austin’s fantastic and growing energy industry through events I’ve had the privilege to attend, or will attend soon.

February 1 - Solar 1st Saturday with Imagine SolarI watched this presentation live-streaming on YouTube. CleanTX Foundation’s Executive Director, Andrea Ricaurte, and board member, Tom Ortman, covered the Austin cleantech cluster and the wide range of solar energy applications, respectively. They both illustrated how innovation and partnerships can make things happen. I particularly found the solar PV installation floating on a vineyard’s retention pond a unique solution to make renewable energy reality.Watch the recap on YouTube.

February 6 – DOE Secretary Spoke @ UT-Austin: 
Department of Energy secretary, Dr. Ernie Moniz, made Austin the first stop on his tour of the nation’s cleantech clusters. He seemed to be saying all energy options were on the table, including coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear. He did draw attention to government funding through ARPA-E and FOCUS for renewable energy projects like alternative fuels and solar. Interestingly, the final question came from a petroleum engineering student on commerce issues.

February 17 – CleanTX Forum on Commercial Building Retrofit & PACE:
My kindergartener son and I attended this event with an excellent triple line-up of speakers. David Pogue, Global Director of Corporate Responsibility for CBRE, hailed significant progress in green buildings, but this progress has been mostly with Fortune 500 companies and big cities, so there’s a lot more to be done. Joshua Kagan, Energy Efficiency Operations Lead with Carbon War Room, employed fun visual aids to show how we need to go from beach ball to whiffle ball (about 90% reduction) on worldwide carbon output in the next few decades and energy efficiency is an important player in that game. The “freight train” that brought property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing to Texas, Charlene Heydinger, Executive Director of Keeping PACE in Texas, closed out the evening describing the upcoming roll-out and unusual bedfellows collaborating on PACE, like Dow and EDF (Environmental Defense Fund).

February 20 – UT Energy Forum:
This Thursday I plan to attend the second day of this conference. Thursday’s schedule is half on solar and half oil/gas. Local solar and energy management company, Circular Energy, will be featured as a keynote.

February 21 – Microgrid RODEO (Research on Distributed Electricity Operations) Summit:
This event focuses on developing interests and research on small electric grids for application such as ships, island communities, university campuses, military posts and industrial facilities. I’ll attend the second day of the summit to catch the keynote presentation by Ann Davlin, Director of Development for Carbon War Room and see the UT Center for Electro-Mechanics demonstration microgrid.

March will also offer great opportunities to connect with Austin’s energy scene and beyond with SEEN #17featuring solar and electric vehicles and the Energy Thought Summit with internationally known names like Steve Wozniak and local notables from Austin Energy. I’ll be there!

A Story of Energy & Water: University of Texas at Austin

Cute-Weather-elements-vector-02Running a university campus is akin to operating a small city with its own utility. I already had some sense of this fact, but it was really driven home for me when I had a long conversation over coffee with someone who spent 30 years in Utilities and Energy Management on UT-Austin’s main campus. For a college campus, it’s all about energy and water use, and the drive toward maximum efficiency. Here’s a summary of what I learned in that coffee conversation.

The Basics
UT-Austin’s physical plant is an electric utility. The campus operates a combined-cycle, natural gas plant with several turbines. The process begins with steam. Natural gas-fired boilers turn liquid water to steam that is used for two purposes: 1.) turning turbines that make electricity, and 2.) for heating applications. The steam in the turbines is extremely hot and high pressure, but after it leaves the electricity-generating turbines, it’s still useful for heating purposes. The steam and electricity from the physical plant reach the other campus facilities through a labyrinth of tunnels. Like other college campuses, UT has miles of utility tunnels where water, electricity and steam flow. Even beyond the physical plant water and energy remain closely linked. For one thing, electricity is required to power pumps and fans that move air and water within the buildings.

One thing I found surprising was that heating is needed for the buildings even on triple-digit summer days! The building cooling systems chill air to around 55 ºF to sufficiently remove moisture, so steam is used to raise that temperature to a more comfortable 70-ish degrees. This 55-degree air means that to conserve energy they sometimes let indoor temperatures drop! It’s always advisable to carry a sweater when you visit UT.

UT-Austin’s main campus has made great stride in efficiency over the last 30 years. Though the campus has nearly doubled its indoor square-footage, natural gas and water use has dropped below 1980 levels. They achieved these impressive gains in efficiency largely through utility upgrades. Over years, the physical plant has been over-hauled and configured for combined heating and power operations with high-efficiency turbines. They now can find and prevent resource waste through individual metering/monitoring of steam electricity and chilled water for all buildings, or building sections. An elaborate system of water recovery collects lab equipment cooling water, rainwater and condensates for reuse on campus. All these efforts plus high standards for new building projects have pushed water consumption down from one billion gallons/year (1980) to around than 700 million and natural gas down to about 1970′s usage.

Various initiatives through the campus’s Energy & Water Conservation Program have also spurred efficiency efforts. For example, the Longhorn Lights Out campaign encourages everyone on campus to turn off lights and office equipment. These efforts have reduced the campus electrical load by hundreds of kilowatts.

Solar Potential
Located in one of the sunniest places on the planet with millions of square feet of rooftop, the UT main campus has huge potential for solar energy. It’s a matter of working out the technical details. So far the campus has incorporated solar on a relatively small scale. They have solar photovoltaic (PV) installations with a total capacity of around 500 kW. However, average electrical demand is around 70 MW. Also, one building (NHB at 24th and Speedway) utilizes solar thermal for water heating.

The big question is how to incorporate solar photovoltaics (PV) into UT’s campus utility operations. PV presents a number of challenges, including coordinating the solar energy availability with natural gas turbine operations and electrical demand fluctuations. Currently, the turbines are fairly well-optimized to meet variations in demand by running certain combinations of their multiple turbines at/near maximum output for maximum efficiency. The variability of sunshine would simply have to be built into optimizing utility operations. That may be easier said than done, yet quite possible.

On the energy and water conservation front, UT-Austin’s main campus has made great progress. But, of course, the university is committed to doing even more. The next big goal is 20% reduction in water and energy by 2020 (FY 2009 baseline). Given the campus’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised if they surpass that goal.

Tips to Land a Cool Sustainability Job

8362310Last week Austin EcoNetwork pointed me to two environmental sustainability job openings: 1.) UT-Austin Building Energy and Resource Steward and 2.) Green Mountain Energy Sustainability Analyst. As I thoroughly reviewed these job posts, I noticed many common threads. Below I break down the basic requirements for these two jobs. Hopefully, this analysis will help those looking to shift their career into the evolving sustainability field and land a cool job that they love.

Purpose & Function of Job
The purpose is to meet the organization’s sustainability/resource conservation goals by combining technical/analytical abilities and organizational development skills to empower people. This means supporting a team effort to foster a culture of sustainability, build relationships (internal and external) and maintain the organization’s reputation. Three basic functions help achieve that purpose. You get to be:

  1. Green Police (a.k.a. Auditor) – identify issues/concerns and coordinate efforts to implement solutions,
  2. Green Leader – collaborate with diverse groups to engage and educate people like holding events and launching “green” initiatives, and
  3. Green Reporter – track, analyze and report progress within organization and beyond.


Education & Experience
Basically what they’re looking for is a technical person with proven people skills. These jobs strongly prefer, or require an engineering, or environmental science-related degree plus at least a few years of experience in resource conservation-related programs. Some additional experience in “behavior-based” planning and/or training like environmental management systems is also considered a bonus. Likewise, certifications in energy management, or green building (LEED) will prove helpful.

Personal Qualities
Beyond the education and experience above, they’re looking for certain traits and tendencies in job candidates:

  • Analytical – ability to crunch numbers and keep track of many details,
  • Effective Communicator – excellent written and verbal communication skills with creativity and flexibility to adapt to diverse audiences,
  • Personal & Team Integrity – individually honest and dependable plus responsible, cooperative, and enthusiastic as a team player, and
  • Adventurous Spirit – willingness to explore unfamiliar territory to get the job done right.

Most of all the foundation for success in positions like these rests on a fierce commitment to the cause. If you have a passion for environmental sustainability and excitement about joining a team deeply committed to create a more sustainable future, you have it in the bag. Don’t worry too much, if you’re a little weak in some of the preferred experience areas. Jump in with both feet and make it happen!

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