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Texas town aims to ‘reinvent the electric system’

City officials in Austin, Texas, have embarked upon a project to develop what they are calling the “energy system of the future.”

Undertaken in cooperation with the Environmental Defense Fund, the University of Texas’ Technology Incubator, Austin Energy and the local chamber of commerce, the Pecan Street Project aims to reinvent the city’s electric infrastructure as a clean-energy smart grid.

“Several other cities are testing clean-generation or efficiency products,” said Austin Mayor Pro Tem Brewster McCracken. “We’ll do that. But we’ll also test the software, storage and business models we need to make it all fit together.”

Among the project’s goals: tap renewable energy sources and generate a power plant’s worth of energy within city limits, eliminate the need to build new polluting power plants, provide reliable and affordable energy to the city’s growing population and protect natural resources such as air and water. Once the project is under way, officials also plan to share their information to help other cities develop similar clean and advanced energy grids.

“Today the energy grid is all about distribution; it’s a one-way ride,” said Carolyn Purcell, director of the Internet Business Solutions Group for Cisco Systems. “A smart grid will act more like the Internet — exchanging information and energy among nodes for collaboration across the network resulting in a more efficient, sustainable grid.”

This is also an instance in which Texas’ aversion to federal controls works in the environment’s favor: because the state maintains its own grid, it doesn’t have to seek federal approval before tinkering with it.

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