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Austin considered nation’s top city for clean energy

City gets high marks for enviro-friendly initiatives


WEST COAST BUREAU
Monday, March 12, 2007

LAS VEGAS — In the 1970s and 1980s, cities across America bet their economic futures on recruiting banks, insurance companies and other white-collar employers to replace factory and farm jobs.

In the 1990s, it was the computer industry. Then came biotech firms. The latest rage in economic development is “clean energy” companies that do everything from building windmills and solar panels to turning cow manure into fuel.

“This is bigger” than previous growth industries, said Lara Valentine, who was hired by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to lure clean energy companies to the Texas capital. “Everything we do in this world revolves around energy.”

Austin, which became a hub for high tech during the computing revolution, is fast gaining recognition as a nationwide leader in clean energy and other clean technology ventures.

“Austin right now is the leading city in America” when it comes to energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts, said Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, which promotes the industry.

Austin’s Clean Energy Incubator, a joint effort involving the city, Austin Energy and the University of Texas, is the first of its kind and has garnered national accolades. Started in 2001, the center helps clean energy ventures find funding and get their ideas to market.

About 18 companies have gotten a start in the program, including businesses that make biodiesel fuel, turn waste tires into electricity, make more efficient turbines and use the Internet to reduce irrigation needs.

The city’s Climate Protection Plan, a pet project of Mayor Will Wynn, is considered among the most forward-thinking municipal programs in the country.

The plan, which officials passed last month, calls for all city buildings to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2012 and for the entire fleet of city vehicles to run on either electricity or nonpetroleum fuels by 2020. It also could make Austin building codes the most energy-efficient in the nation.

City-owned Austin Energy is becoming known nationally for its clean energy efforts.

The utility plans to get 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020, and Wynn’s office has said he would not support a traditional pulverized coal plant if a new generating facility is needed.

Austin Energy’s Green Choice program, which lets customers choose whether they want to get their energy solely from renewable sources such as wind and solar power, claims to be the nation’s biggest and has been so successful that there’s a backlog of customers who want to join.

More recently, Austin Energy announced that it would open up its power grid to clean energy companies from across the country looking for a place to test new technologies. Besides providing new sources of clean energy for Austin Energy, the program could help recruit more clean energy companies to the city.

Last month, SustainLane Government, a group that tracks sustainable living programs in U.S. cities, named Austin the nation’s No. 1 city for clean technology.

Balcones Recycling Inc. last week disclosed plans for another clean energy first for the city.

The Austin-based company said it plans to build a 125-acre Environomics Park northeast of downtown to recruit similar clean tech companies from around the globe. Balcones eventually wants to build a plant at the site to make alternative fuel pellets from recycled paper, similar to another plant it operates in Arkansas.

The city’s leadership role in clean energy is starting to pay off by attracting new companies to the area.

Among them: DT Solar, which last month picked Austin for its Southwest headquarters, which will probably create about 25 jobs. DT Solar, which is backed by media mogul Ted Turner, develops solar energy plants.

But Austin isn’t alone.

One year ago at the annual Power-Gen renewable energy conference in Las Vegas, Austin was the only city trying to recruit clean tech and clean energy companies, Valentine said.

Last week, economic development officials from New York, Washington, Oregon, the United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere also had booths.

“Clean tech . . . is the next big thing,” Oregon economic development liaison Glenn Montgomery said.

This month, German solar cell company Solarworld AG said it had picked Hillsboro, Ore., for a plant that will employ at least 1,000 workers.

Other states are getting into the clean energy act, too.

Florida officials last month awarded the first of $15 million in renewable technology grants for clean tech ventures. Among the winners were projects to promote solar energy use, to make ethanol from citrus and sugar cane waste and to replace natural gas in factories with gas from switch grass and other plant materials. Gov. Charlie Crist recently recommended a $68 million spending package on other ways to encourage alternative energy businesses.

California, the leader in solar energy and other alternative energy use, is investing heavily too. Late last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a $95 million package to support research, and this year, he launched an unprecedented solar power initiative.

In a major coup, the state and the University of California at Berkeley in February landed a $500 million clean energy research program funded by petroleum industry giant BP.

Whenever a new solar power company comes to town, whenever an ethanol refinery opens up, whenever a new wind turbine operation starts spinning, it creates jobs, Eckhart said.

Running a wind energy farm or installing solar panels doesn’t take as many workers as a factory churning out personal computers or semiconductors. And for now, clean energy initiatives are absorbing subsidies from states and cities, not creating tax revenue.

But governments are making the investment because they see the new businesses as requiring less infrastructure, polluting less and providing energy rather than consuming it.

“For every kilowatt of energy produced by renewable energy, about five jobs are created,” Valentine said.

What’s different about clean energy today is that it’s not just environmentalists talking about the benefits, Eckhart said. It “has now become a positive growth industry.”

Top cities for clean technology

1. Austin: Although cited specifically for its Clean Energy Incubator and Austin Energy’s plans to open up its grid to clean energy companies that want to test innovations, the city’s ambitious green energy plans also count.

2. San Jose, Calif.: Got good marks for its abundant venture capital sources and its major push into solar technologies.

3. Berkeley, Calif.: Could become a hotbed for biofuel research after the University of California at Berkeley landed a $500 million grant from petroleum giant BP and additional state funding to create an Energy Biosciences Institute.

4. Pasadena, Calif.: Got accolades for its Entretech high-tech development group and energy research being done at the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech.

5. Boston: Besides California, it leads the nation in clean technology venture capital investments. Programs such as the Ignite Clean Energy Competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also are fostering clean energy industry growth.

Runners-up: San Francisco, New York, Seattle, San Diego and Houston.

Source: March rankings by SustainLane, which tracks sustainable living and clean technology initiatives

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