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Clean Technology

Austin Mayor Announces Green Technology Jobs Plan

by: Adam Schwitters

Tue Mar 27, 2012 at 10:00 AM CDT

Yesterday, Mayor Lee Leffingwell of Austin announced Austin’s designation as a EB-5 Regional Center for immigration with a focus on green technology jobs such as solar energy and water conservation.  This designation encourages jobs creation and investment by easing the immigration requirements for foreign entrepreneurs willing to invest a minimum of $1 million in new businesses that create a least 10 local jobs.

Leffingwell said, “The creation of a regional center could pay huge dividends in Austin and in the surrounding areas.  Our intention is to become one of the few centers in the U.S. to specifically have a clean energy and green jobs focus. We are always looking for creative ways to grow our economy and this has the potential to pump millions of dollars into the Austin region while creating jobs for our residents.”

The EB-5 program was created in 1990 and has been successfully implemented in Dallas and other cities around the country.  According to State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, “Dallas' Regional Center has created roughly 2,000 jobs with more coming on-line and has raised over $100 million dollars in investments.  A Central Texas Regional Center will give Austin another tool to create a diverse local economy that will include green-tech jobs.”

Leffingwell has made investments in clean technology industries a center piece of his term in office.  He is facing the prospect of a difficult re-election campaign against former councilwomen and noted environmental activist, Brigid Shea, and moves like this, that are good for the environment and for the local economy, are exactly the kind of messages he wants to project right now.

Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who was also in attendance said, “From cleaner cars to clean tech, Austin is a green beacon shining a light on the value of environmentally friendly development.  Approval of this regional center means more good, green jobs are coming our way, showing once more that what is good for the planet can also be good for the economy.”

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Defense Dept. Invests Huge Money in Renewable Energy - Energy Dept. Drafts Long Term Energy Goals

by: Adam Schwitters

Tue Feb 28, 2012 at 07:03 PM CST

Amongst the background of two cabinet level agencies announcing huge new investments in a clean and secure energy future, Dr. Michael Holland of the Office of the Under Secretary for Science in the Department of Energy spoke in Austin today about the process of finding funding for research and development (particularly for clean energy) within the constantly changing world of Washington DC.  He also spoke specifically about the release of the new Quadrennial Technology Review which will, hopefully, provide the kind of long term planning that has been a cornerstone of the Defense Department’s approach to fighting the “next war” for decades, but which has been sorely lacking from the government’s approach to energy policy.

Holland discussed the historical problems with energy research funding within the DOE, saying, “every [fiscal] year, funding for a given technology [be it coal, nuclear, increased efficiency, or clean tech] has a 33% chance to change more than 25%.”  To put it another way, “political struggles on Capitol Hill always beat a long term focus on R&D.” The department’s new quadrennial review hopes to address this dysfunction by laying out concrete, long term goals for improving our energy security and reducing our reliance on old, dirty technologies.  

Holland described the numerous challenges faced by policy makers trying to craft a long term energy policy.  First, energy policy, ironically, represents the smallest, and least funded mission of the DOE.  The building and maintenance of nuclear weapons, securing fissile materials around the world, and providing research funding to universities and laboratories are the three primary roles of DOE.  Along these lines, DOE’s budgets for energy research have not always reflected the best use of funds.  Its 2011 budget had “the least amount of money going to the most accessible areas.”  Only 4% of the 2011 budget went to electric vehicle research (which is available, easily implemented technology), only 6% was spent on a smart grid (which is integral in making the switch to electric vehicles), and a whopping 51% was spent on renewable energy generation (which is important, but further from becoming a truly beneficial reality).  Hopefully, the new review will help the department target the “best” use of its limited funds, and, more importantly, keep that focus consistent from year to year in spite of the fickle political winds swirling about Washington.

In discussing the switch to truly clean energy sources, Holland stressed the difficulty in transforming an energy system as large and “mature” as the one we have.  “The scale of the system is enormous and change happens very slowly.”  He did, however, outline the department’s 6 point strategy: increase the efficiency of vehicles, electrify public vehicle fleets, find alternative hydrocarbons for heavy duty vehicles (think bio-diesel for 18 wheelers), increase the efficiency of buildings and industry (52% of energy generated in the US is lost to inefficiencies), modernize the grid, and finally to deploy clean energy generation.  Some of these things can happen quickly (particularly the electric vehicles), and some could take a very long time (transitioning our electric generation from coal to solar or wind).

At a conference in Washington, today, Bill Gates similarly discussed the problems with energy funding in the US today.  “It’s crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff.”  He added that it is “likely that underfunding is delaying the rate of progress” on new technologies.  

The Department of Defense, however, does not feel the same budgetary constraints as its smaller cousins in the executive branch, and today, it announced a massive ($7 billion) proposal to build “large scale” clean energy power generation facilities on federal lands across the country.  Of course the DOD, had more than just clean energy in mind when it announced its intention to generate 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025; a 2010 study showed that fuel made up 50% by volume of all transportation in Iraq and Afghanistan, that there was 1 casualty for every 24 fuel related convoys, and that a 10% reduction in fuel consumption would have saved at least 35 service members’ lives over the preceding 5 years.  

For DOD, the switch to clean tech is about saving lives.  We need to realize that the switch to clean tech will save lives for the rest of us too.  As Bill Gates explained, newer, better sources of energy are key to improving the lives of the poorest 2 billion people on earth.  “Without advances in energy, they stay stuck where they are.  If you look at who will be the victims of climate change, it will be small holder farmers [in equatorial nations] ... and that brings you back to energy.”

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Austin Leads The Nation In Clean Technology

by: Adam Schwitters

Fri Feb 10, 2012 at 08:30 AM CST

Every now and then some good environmental news about our backyard comes along.  It turns out that Austin, Texas is the number one city in America for clean technology industries according to SustainLane (“the premier online sustainability best practices knowledge base”), a recent Time Magazine article, and others.

There are a number of exciting advances in green technology happening in Austin.  

  • Chief among them is the Pecan Street Project, the country’s largest urban ‘smart grid’ network.  A smart grid allows utility companies to gain real time feedback from individual consumers across their entire network and should provide great increases in efficiency, reliability of service, and even enhanced security.

  • Austin recently opened the largest solar farm in Texas, a 30 megawatt facility in Webberville.  The Webberville Solar Project is but one step in reaching the city’s goal of getting at least 35% of its energy from renewables by 2020.  Other steps in this direction include the sale of the Fayette Coal Plant, a notorious polluter.

  • Clean tech companies like Joule Unlimited (a biofuels producer), HelioVolt (a thin film solar panel manufacturer), SolarBridge (which makes AC modules for solar panels), and many others make Austin a creative hot spot for the industry.

This great environment for the clean technology industry did not just appear out of thin air.  A strong partnership between our local (city owned) utility (Austin Energy), the University of Texas’s Clean Energy Incubator (a program which provides venture capital funding and laboratory space to new businesses), Austin’s forward thinking city council, and state and federal funding sources provides the unique conditions for the clean tech sector to flourish.  The Pecan Street Project, for instance, was partially funded through a large grant from the 2009 Federal Stimulus.

This year’s elections will have very real consequences for the burgeoning clean technology industry in Austin.  While I’m sure Brigid Shea (a former councilwoman and Save Our Springs director) would be a stalwart environmental defender, Lee Leffingwell has some very real accomplishments he can point to.  The partnership between public utility, university, private enterprise, and city council works in Austin in a way it doesn’t work anywhere else.  I would be very cautious about making major changes here.

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