Texas test case for candidates' energy plans
The candidates share many concerns, but have clear differences in approach, too.
(Page 3 of 3)
Both candidates envision a nation turning increasingly to renewable sources of energy. That's already happening in Austin through the use of wind generators located in west Texas. By the end of this year, the city utility will expand its green power from 8 percent to 11 percent of the total – mostly from wind.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The problem with using Texas wind is that it mainly blows between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Austin Energy has purchased a Toyota Prius with a special plug-in kit. Right now it's trying to time charging the car with when the wind is blowing.
Eventually, the hybrids may plug back into the system when they are parked, adding electricity back into the system.
How the experiment goes in Austin will be important because both candidates want to see an increase in plug-in vehicles. McCain, in fact, is proposing a $300 million prize for a new battery that will "leapfrog" commercially available plug-ins. McCain will give a tax break that depends on the amount of carbon emissions removed from each vehicle.
The city is also installing "smart meters," endorsed by both candidates. Starting at seven in the morning, installer Brian Evans rings doorbells to tell homeowners he's there to replace their old electric meters with digital versions that will radio the electric charges to a computer.
"You won't need a meter reader anymore," he tells homeowners before he disconnects their power for a few seconds.
Digital meters may also be the foundation for a "smart" electric grid so homes with solar cells can sell power back. But a smart grid has even greater potential. For example, Austin has installed 70,000 radio-controlled digital thermostats in homes. When it needs to reduce its electrical load, it signals units to shut off the air conditioning for 10 minutes.
"It drops demand by 25 to 40 megawatts, enough to eliminate the need for a gas turbine," says Mr. Duncan.
But Austin's most successful effort so far is in energy conservation, a major goal for Obama but mentioned in McCain's proposals only as "common sense conservation." Duncan estimates such efforts have reduced electrical demand by about 700 megawatts, which is equal to a medium-sized coal-fired power plant.
The conservation ethic extends to Austin's new housing codes, which mandate that by 2015 all new residential buildings must be zero energy capable – that is, consume no more energy in a year than they produce. Obama would give builders until 2030.
In Austin's case, this means homes built in 2015 will be up to 70 percent more energy efficient than homes built in 2007 and earlier. The remaining 30 percent would be achieved by on-site generation such as solar panels.
How this is working in Austin can be seen in how home builder Matt Risinger is erecting a 2,830-square-foot home that will get him close to the city's new code. As carpenters work around the site, he shows his metal roof (a radiant heat barrier), spray foam insulation that will keep the attic at 80 degrees F. on the hottest day versus 130 degrees, and superefficient heating and cooling systems.
"My big thing is doing everything possible to make this house as energy efficient as possible," he says.
To reduce electricity demand, Austin Energy has given out coupons for compact fluorescent light bulbs and will pay a significant amount of a homeowner's conservation efforts. Sometimes the city does the work free of charge.
That's happening on a hot day in July at an apartment complex, where project manager Gerald Elrod of Advanced Energy Services arrives with a crew. While one of them replaces incandescent bulbs with lower-energy compact fluorescent models, he begins to patch up the leaky central air-conditioning system.
"We've had grandmothers come up and kiss us for cutting their electric bills in half," he says.