Sustainability in Austin

Beautiful View on Lake Austin!

Two weeks ago my wife and I travelled to Austin, TX to hang out with her parents for a weekend.  It was only a 2-day trip, but we were able to get a great feel for the city.  Austin is consistently ranked near the top in the most sustainable U.S. cities, so I knew it would be a good place to seek out sustainability.  In any case, it had to be better than my sustainability experience in Las Vegas.

Aside from eating the 3 foods you must eat while in Austin (BBQ, Tex-Mex, and Chicken Fried Steak), checking out the bar scene and live music on 6th street, watching the sun sink over Lake Travis at The Oasis, driving through the campus at University of Texas, and checking out the beers on tap at Draught House, here are my sustainable observations:

Whole Foods Electric Car Charging

Whole Foods EV Car Charger

Any place that installs an electric car charger outside their entrance is thinking sustainably. The signs in front of the EV charging spots state "Electric Vehicle Park & Charge: All others will be towed".  A news article about the Whole Foods charging station says:

The station currently offers a 110-volt charge, and a 220-volt option will be added in the coming weeks, at which point the station will be able to service two cars at a time, officials said.

The service is free now, but it will cost you later this year. In general, charging up a car costs about half as much as filling it with gas, said a spokeswoman for Coulomb Technologies, which developed the charging station.

Aside from the charging station, I loved the Austin Whole Foods (Austin is the company's headquarters).  I like the focus on sustainability that Whole Foods has and their attempts to buy local products when available. I look forward to the chances I get to shop in a Whole Foods.  This isn't the case at other stores.

Car Sharing with Car2Go

It seemed that everywhere we went we saw a Car2Go, which is Austin's car sharing program operated by Daimler.  I first covered the Whole Foods electric car charging and Car2Go on our post Austin: Best city for clean car future?.  The car's aren't electric vehicles (EV's) so they can't utilize the Whole Foods charging stations, but they are Smartcars, which are tiny so they will use less gas (and be easier to maneuver) in city driving.  Car sharing is great because it means that less material has to be made to produce unnecessary cars and that less parking spots need to be produced.

Solar Panels on City Hall

Austin City Hall Solar Panel Canopy

I was excited to see that the City Hall installed a solar panel canopy that provides shade AND electricity.  The only problem is that on the Austin City Hall page on Energy regarding their solar panels they make the mistake I see all too often when describing energy generating systems.  See if you can see the mistake in text taken from the page:

A canopy of photovoltaic cells over the amphitheater seating provides shade and generates direct current electricity which is supplied to the City's electric grid. The panels produce enough solar power to produce 9 kilowatts of energy daily, enough to power two Austin homes on hot summer days.

So where's the mistake?  If you are talking about cumulative energy (daily energy in the quote above), the value is in kWh, not kW!!!  Read our post on What is a kWh if you are confused on this topic.  Watts are a measure of instantaneous power production!  When you hear a solar array is "X Watts", that means that at the maximum rated power production of each panel, the solar array will produce "X Watts".

Power is measured in Watts or kilowatts.  Energy is measured in kilowatt-hours.  The difference sounds minute, but it is big.  For instance, how are we to know if Austin City Hall has a 9 kW (measure of maximum power output of the array) array - which would produce much more than 9 kWh over the course of a day - or if they have a much, much smaller array that only produces 9 kWh (measure of total energy) over the course of the day?  I've sent an email to the Austin City Hall so I hope to see a response!

Aside from the confusion over units, I commend them for doing a great job on the solar canopy and applaud their other sustainable efforts!  To see other solar installations in Austin you can see the Department of Energy's Solar Cities feature on Austin.

Las Casas Verdes "The Green Homes"

One of the days we were there the local paper, The Statesman, ran an article about a new sustainable community in South Austin called Las Casas Verdes.  The great thing about Las Casas Verdes is that the homes are made to be affordable for those looking for a single-family energy efficient home (under $400k).

Some of the features of the homes include (from the Statesman article):

  • passive solar design
  • Each home is being designed to take advantage of its specific site - to capture the prevailing breezes and to maximize the sun's energy
  • Roof overhangs and porches help minimize the solar heat gain.
  • A highly efficient heating and air-conditioning system that includes pressure-tested and sealed air ducts within the home's thermal envelope.
  • An in-duct energy recovery ventilator with dehumidifier that preheats or precools incoming outside air - depending on the needs - and exhausts stale air from the house.
  • Multispeed fans and duct controllers to cool or heat specified portions of the home.
  • Nontoxic paints, reflective metal roofs and recycled building materials.
  • A recirculating hot water system for immediate hot water.
  • Preassembled wall systems, which reduce construction waste and improve insulation.
  • Between 51/2 inches and 6 inches of spray foam insulation as well as a vented thermal break in the roof assembly.
  • Reflective light wells and automatic light switches, where suitable.
  • Bamboo floors upstairs and stained concrete floors downstairs.
  • Eco-friendly cabinetry built by a local shop.

The model home features include (adapted from the Statesman article):

  • A thermal chimney that works, in part, by helping to draw cool air in through open windows and pull the hot air up and out.
  • A solar thermal system that provides hot water
  • A three-kilowatt rooftop array of photovoltaic panels that produces electricity
  • A 2,000-gallon rainwater system that collects water used for irrigation and flushing toilets.

Finally, the homes are built to score an excellent home energy rating, or HERS Index:

The home's airtight design and energy-efficient systems earned it a home energy rating of 31, which means it is 69 percent more energy-efficient than a conventional comparable-sized home, Dochen says.

A home energy rating is an analysis of a home's projected energy efficiency in comparison to a "reference home" based on the International Energy Conservation Code. A typical home built to code scores a home energy rating, or HERS Index, of 100, and a net-zero energy home scores a 0.

"We are moving toward zero energy," Martin says. "This was a good opportunity to show Austin what could be done in a middle-income neighborhood. It's a working model. It looks like any other home, … it's just that this house works for you … to help pay your utility bills. It has passive and active solar. The collected rainwater is saving you water and sewer bills. If (you) are in a house that has basically zero energy bills, you could apply that (savings) to the mortgage - and you're saving the environment by not using natural resources."

Considering Austin it is in a state that has generated a large portion of its wealth from gulf oil profits, it was great to see the city and citizens of Austin embrace sustainability.  I'm sure I've only scratched the tip of the iceberg with this blog post. What else have I missed?

enjoyed our post? let others know: 


Too bad you weren't able to visit 'The Crossings' resort in Austin. It's a project that my firm consulted on for renovation and sustainability. It was named "Best Of Green: Best Resort" by last year.
One other mistake... they say is supplies direct current to the grid. It produces DC but is inverted to AC before being fed back into the grid. I know it's picky but you were asking us to find the flaws! :)
<i>When you hear a solar array is “X Watts”, that means that at the maximum rated power production of each panel, the solar array will produce “X Watts”.</i> Bear in mind that it will never actually achieve that power production: 1) This would require that the sun be exactly at 90 degrees to the panels. Which for fixed panels will typically only happen for an instant twice per year. The rest of the time Lambert's law will drop the power by the cosine of the incident angle. 2) And the air needs to be perfectly clear, no haze, water vapour, pollen, dust. 3) And the panels need to be perfectly clean. 4) And the panels need to be new (efficiency degrades at about 1% per year of operation) 5) And the panels must not be too warm (efficiency reduces with increasing panel temperature). 6) And this is DC power from the panel. Inverters will lose up to 10% when converting to AC.
ckmapawatt's picture
You're right and great point. I wanted to keep the explanation as simple as possible though :)

Post new comment

Subscribe to Comments for "Sustainability in Austin"