Time's Bryan Walsh explores how Austin has become an American powerhouse in cleantech innovation.
[A]s politically conservative as Texas tends to be, it's kept an open mind on renewable energy, which is one reason more wind power has been installed in the state than anywhere else. And within Texas, Austin has always been an outlier: a fairly liberal college town that has managed to marry high tech with hipster culture. Now that's paying off in the renewable-energy sector, as Austin contends with Silicon Valley as a top clean-tech hub.
The city has taken some major steps in promoting renewable energy. One hundred percent of the municipal government's electricity comes from renewable energy and the city's utility, Austin Energy, pledged to get 35 percent from renewable sources by 2020. The utility made progress with those plans last week as it activated a 30 MW solar farm, the first utility-scale solar-energy resource for Austin Energy and the largest in Texas.
But it's not just the local government and utility that are moving the city forward as a cleantech leader, it's the city's culture of cleantech innovation and entrepreneurial spirit:
[A]s clean tech began to heat up in the early part of the past decade, Austin was a logical place for start-ups and entrepreneurs to set up shop. An experienced technical workforce was already available, ready to shift from manufacturing computer chips to building solar panels. SolarBridge Technologies, which makes microinverters that improve the efficiency of solar modules, spun off from the University of Illinois, but when it came time to scale up, the company picked Austin over other clean-tech hubs like the Bay Area and Boston. "We like the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and there's just a ton of talent here that you can't get in Illinois," says Joe Scarci, SolarBridge's vice president of marketing. "It's a great place to recruit."
This is how industry clusters build: companies come for the employees, and they in turn attract more capital, more workers and more start-ups. That critical mass of innovation is one reason SustainLane Government, a network for green business, has ranked Austin the top city in the U.S. for clean-tech incubation. Austin-based green start-ups can also count on help from the University of Texas and the city government. The Clean Energy Incubator at U.T. supports young green start-ups, providing some initial seed money and holding networking events that can connect entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. The Texas Clean Energy Park — a public-private program in Austin — provides facilities and training for the smallest clean-tech start-ups.
While the city is making huge strides in cleantech, Austin is also working hard to make its downtown more livable, with a vision of becoming one of the most sustainable cities in the country. I don't want to say this city is the lone star in the state of Texas, but it's certainly a bright one.
Photo: Michael Connell/Flickr