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February | 2014 | Mind in North Austin

Month: February 2014

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!