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Dec 05 2011

Pecan Street’s McCracken keeps up drumbeat for clean energy, smart grids

These are interesting times for Brewster McCracken.

As executive director of the clean energy research consortium Pecan Street Inc., McCracken is helping drive research into how consumer smart grids and smart grid-enabled systems should interact.

It’s quite a change for McCracken, 45, who was a member of the Austin City Council for six years before becoming executive director of the Pecan Street Project in 2009. While on the City Council, McCracken organized a clean energy coalition of big businesses, academics and government officials. That group eventually grew into what is now Pecan Street Inc. (The consortium’s leaders decided to change the name from the Pecan Street Project to Pecan Street Inc. because the word “project” was causing confusion, McCracken said.)

McCracken — who has a history degree from Princeton University and master’s and law degrees from the University of Texas — says he is focused on Pecan Street and is “out of politics for good.”

McCracken recently spent some time with the American-Statesman, discussing the state of Pecan Street and what the future holds for the consortium.

American-Statesman: When writing about Pecan Street Inc., we usually describe it as “a clean energy research consortium.” In simple terms, what is it that Pecan Street does — what is its overall mission, why is it important to Austin and where does its funding come from?

McCracken: Pecan Street is headquartered at the University of Texas, and we are structured on UT’s model of creating a university-industry consortium to drive innovation, technology commercialization and economic development. We carry out applied research, research trials management and research data evaluation, with a primary focus on smart grid. Our mission is twofold: support research and commercialization at UT, and support university-industry collaboration on research that advances economic opportunity and environmental improvements.

UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering provided the seed funding for Pecan Street to begin operations. The funding for our 10 full-time employees and day-to-day operations comes primarily through support from our member companies. As with most university-based research organizations, our research projects are funded through a mix of foundation, government and private research sources.

Historically, the cities where university-industry consortia are located — such as Austin, San Diego and Research Triangle in North Carolina — have benefited from being the home cities of these organizations. These regions become key areas where the industry’s innovations emerge and where companies cluster. That’s exactly what has happened in Austin with semiconductors and in San Diego with life sciences.

Looking back to those early days of organizing a clean energy coalition on the City Council, did you ever envision the project would grow into what it is today — or that it would become a full-time job for you?

Pecan Street began as a UT-public sector-private sector collaboration; in fact, our first meeting in 2008 was held in the George Kozmetsky Room at UT’s West Pickle Research Building. We are just the latest example of an approach to economic development that Dr. Kozmetsky developed when he was UT’s business school dean. This approach starts with a collaboration of a research university, the public sector and the private sector on initiatives focused on innovation in emerging technology sectors.

This approach was first tested when the State of Texas and UT made it the core of their strategy in the 1983 MCC consortium competition. At the time, the idea that a research university should play a leadership role in economic development was unprecedented. Now, it’s a globally influential approach. It’s arguably one of UT’s greatest contributions to global economic development, and it has shaped for a generation how our region comes together on initiatives in emerging technology sectors.

Because of our region’s experience in university-public sector-private sector technology initiatives, our university-public sector-private sector teams recognized early on that a consortium would be a critical component for driving economically viable innovations in smart grid. During my tenure on the City Council, I started the Emerging Technologies Committee and worked extensively with leaders at UT on emerging technologies initiatives. I learned a lot from them, and it has made a big difference in my work leading Pecan Street’s consortium research.

What are the two or three most important accomplishments of Pecan Street to this point, and why?

The three accomplishments about which I’m most proud are each reflections of Pecan Street’s mission, which is pretty unique in the smart grid space.

First, we are dedicated to promoting UT research, commercialization and educational opportunities. In our 15th month of operations, we passed the $3 million mark in direct funding of UT research and scholarship. We are funding research by 10 UT faculty and seven students, we are providing full scholarships and stipends to these students and we have on staff two full-time postgraduate research fellows from UT. We are also providing unique field research and industry research collaboration opportunities for UT students and faculty.

Second, we are a fact-driven research organization. We have successfully implemented a research trial that one of the researchers we support, UT’s Michael Webber, calculates is the deepest consumer energy research in the U.S. From a technical perspective, that was a big challenge. No commercially available solution existed for what we were doing. We had to install energy measurement equipment in hundreds of homes, monitor the performance of these systems, develop protocols and processes for delivering the data securely to UT’s supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center and organize the data so our research teams could evaluate it. Through this, we have developed research competencies for managing independent large-scale field trials that are absolutely unique and that are already yielding research results that have attracted considerable attention in the utility world.

Finally, Pecan Street is explicitly a collaboration that includes the community in our work. Early on, the decision we made to involve actively the community in our work has made a huge difference. Around the country, people are protesting smart grid installations, while in Austin we have enjoyed incredible support from the communities participating in our research. It shows once again that when people have the opportunity to shape the decisions that impact their lives, they respond positively, and the resulting effort is the better for it.

What are the two or three key goals for Pecan Street in the coming months and years; where should the consortium be in five years?

Pecan Street is currently building what appears to be the nation’s first independent smart grid research and commercialization lab. In five years, we envision the lab serving a two-fold mission. First, the lab will serve as the hub for our commercialization work with Austin Technology Incubator. We see it as a place where startup companies coming out of UT and ATI can test, refine and demonstrate their products. Second, we are developing the lab to be an elite university-caliber facility where Pecan Street and UT researchers and students can collaborate with the private sector on cutting edge applied research in consumer-focused smart grid, wireless, IT and clean energy applications.

Is the City of Austin doing enough to promote clean energy and smart grid initiatives? What would your advice be to the City Council and Mayor Lee Leffingwell on those subjects?

Pecan Street began in much the same way that UT’s Austin Technology Incubator started — through a collaboration of the university, public sector and private sector. City leadership played a leadership role in shaping the economic development and public interest missions of both ATI and Pecan Street and in bringing together key leaders at the outset. And, as with ATI, city leaders have remained consistent in supporting the independence and research freedom of our team of Pecan Street and UT researchers. Pecan Street focuses our joint university-industry research on creating advances that benefit consumers, the economy and the environment. Consortia are not in the business of telling government what to do. We take that limitation on our activities seriously. We strive through our research to provide information that is useful to consumers, companies and policymakers. We let that research speak for itself.

Read More From Barry Harrell at The Austin American Statesman bharrell@statesman.com; 912-2960

About this series

Statesman Sunday Interview

There are many interesting and insightful people in the Central Texas business community. On Sundays, the American-Statesman business reporting team brings you in-depth interviews with some of them, focusing on topics that matter to our community. To nominate someone for the Statesman Sunday Interview, email Statesman business editor Barry Harrell at bharrell@statesman.com.

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