On December 2, Microsoft participated in a press conference announcing its involvement with the Austin Energy Pecan Street Project, which is billed as a “smart grid” and “utility redesign” effort by city and utility officials.

In making the announcement at the annual Clean Energy Ventures Summit, Austin city council member Brewster McCracken, said “Austin has the opportunity to play the same role in the evolution of America’s energy economy that it did with the semiconductor boom in the ‘80s. The Pecan Street Project will bring together the best talent from Texas and across the country to address the infrastructure, technology and policy challenges that stand between us and a cleaner, reliable, affordable and modernized electricity system.”

McCracken said that the primary goal of the Pecan Street Project was to create a power plant’s worth of energy, generated within the city limits via renewable resources through various grid enhancements, including building solar panels on rooftops throughout the city and tying their production into the grid. You can see a video of McCracken make his comments here. And you can see press coverage of the event by the Austin American Statesman, here.

There are three interesting aspects about this announcement.

First, Austin Energy is in an enviable position to attempt to execute this project. It is not part of the deregulated portion of the Texas grid, and Texas is not part of the federal grid, so Austin Energy and the City of Austin control their own destiny and assets like few other cities in the United States. The project could well serve as a testing ground for technologies and approaches that could be adopted in other places.

Second, while the announcement provided a very rousing announcement of its mission, there is considerable work to be done by Austin Energy and the partners who signed up to help, including Microsoft. McCracken said that the group has set an August 1 deadline for its next announcement of progress and planning. We look forward to our role in those discussions leading up to Aug. 1.

Third, only one week after the announcement, McCracken announced his candidacy for Mayor of Austin, demonstrating that politicians view their involvement with sustainable energy projects to be a key qualification worthy of voter interest. Hey, it worked for Barack Obama, right?

I can say that Microsoft is extremely excited to be a part of the Pecan Street Project because of the leadership it will provide to the entire utility industry, not only in United States but around the world. You can see a video of our participation in the conference here.

While the project will not be implemented for some time, these are good first steps toward a large scale smart grid/sustainability oriented project. Public-private partnerships like this one are important to increase awareness about society’s need to balance energy and environment, while also demonstrating workable ways toward sustainability.

Indeed, partnerships like this are a key part of our corporate environmental strategy because of the role such partnerships can play in addressing critical issues like energy and environment. 

We at Microsoft know that utilities are being pushed by regulatory commissions and consumer advocates for greater efficiency and this is a good thing, as utilities themselves will bring about the advent of the smart grid and its smart metering subcomponent, bringing new options to consumers and enabling consumers to make their own decisions regarding the consumption and production of power.

While attempts at creating greater energy efficiency will have positive impact in taking some of the waste out of demand, the trend curve for demand remains upward.

Indeed, whether to satisfy the industrializing power demands of developing countries or the steady growth of networked economies in developed countries, the increased production and distribution of electricity, as well as water and gas, will be keys to growth.

The Pecan Street Project will be one more step toward a smart energy ecosystem of the future, a new operating environment requiring untold amounts on new technology innovation and collaboration from Microsoft and its partners. 

Technology and innovation play increasingly important roles in driving solutions to address world’s environmental challenges and we are excited about our role in that effort.

We know that the end result of this effort will lead toward the next advances and efficiencies for meeting energy demands of the future.

Again, Microsoft is proud to play a part in the Pecan Street Project and we thank leaders like Brewster McCracken and the City of Austin for taking these bold steps forward, toward a reliable, efficient grid of the future. - Jon Arnold

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