Meet Susanna Finnell and Brewster McCracken, two individuals with novel visions for reducing carbon footprints. Knowing that the government isn’t likely to spark provocative thinking or creative solutions, these two entrepreneurial-minded individuals each crafted an approach to applying the lessons of sustainable living—one based on a change in individual lifestyle and the other designed to shift an entire community. Both Susanna and Brewster grabbed the baton from government and took individual action aimed at reinventing America’s electric system.

Susanna and Brewster prove that it’s the people who tip the scales for change and translate issues that a government believes would make a powerful impact into game-changing action. They leveraged tax rebates and subsidies as well as other government-designed provisions, and brought them to life in unusual and provocative ways.

In 2008, Brewster McCracken was living in Austin, Texas where he had served two terms on City Council. One day he and a small group of colleagues came up with a novel idea: Why not go a step beyond governmental policy that attempted to legislate greater energy efficiency and actually build the equivalent of a huge Petri dish to experiment with what would really drive lower energy use? Why not try to engage the entire community in grassroots-led efforts in reducing Austin’s carbon footprint and speed up the pace of change?

“As a country we’d been wrestling with what the killer apps might be in the areas of clean energy and sustainability. But we didn’t have a living laboratory to test what really works. How could we find out how real people make day-to-day choices about energy use? Based on those questions, I helped to create Pecan Street—a smart-grid test community that sharpens everyone’s focus on how to reduce energy consumption.”

Today, Pecan Street is a multi-faceted, rapidly growing project that includes participation by hundreds of families who have signed up to have their houses and vehicles monitored to study electricity use. The families have the option of using electric vehicles, newly-designed smart devices, and an array of gizmos created to support low-energy living. They can turn off their lights from their smart phones, watch their energy consumption patterns in great detail, figure out which times of day are best for washing clothes or dishes, giving Pecan Street participants the opportunity to evaluate, rethink, and reconfigure their energy use. Families plug in their cars, monitor their homes, and share their energy use information with the entire community.

McCracken is the Pecan Street’s Executive Director and works with collaborators from the University of Texas who monitor the energy, corporate partners including Freescale, Green Mountain Energy, Intel, Landis+Gyr, LG Electronics, Lockheed Martin, Oncor, Onstar, Oracle, Sony, SunEdison, Texas Gas Service, and Whirlpool who apply the research findings to the design of energy efficient products. The result is an entirely new mindset about the electric grid.

People make change. Governments can help fund it.
Is it the people or government leaders who deserve credit for the change that’s occurring in Austin’s Pecan Street experiment today? It could be argued that government played a key role since they supported Pecan Street’s 2008 vision through a $10.4 million grant from the Department of Energy in 2009. However, rarely does one hear that the government is responsible for getting people excited about shifting their energy use. For the engagement and reinforcement, it’s all about the people—one hundred percent.

Susanna Finnell is a recent convert to the Pecan Street way of life. She grew up in Switzerland, where she was fiercely aware of energy constraints. Energy wasn’t abundant and it was expensive. She remembers that one time the government in Switzerland even tried to motivate people to turn off their lights at night by staging a night light conservation contest between two cities. But according to Susanna, contests and government policy can only go so far. After moving to Austin, Texas, she was inspired so she plugged into the city’s energy-efficient values and she decided to do something radical—live in a house that was carbon-neutral, using solar panels to generate enough electricity to power her energy needs.

Susanna turned to Pecan Street for a sense of community and guidance.
Government can tell you that it’s good to conserve energy, but you need a level of detail that most utility companies can’t provide and you need daily reinforcement for staying the course. The Pecan Street project supplies both.

Energy rebates have definitely played a part in making Susanna’s financial equation balance, but it wasn’t the government subsidies that inspired her carbon-neutral decisions. “The rebates on solar panels helped, but my real inspiration has come from the realization that I can change my energy use patterns and have such a dramatic impact. We live our lives as if electricity is free and infinite, but once we see that air conditioning costs can be reduced by more than a third, it might makes us wonder—what else I can do?”

Pecan Street is setting a new standard in Austin and becoming one of the city’s local heroes. They just won the Austin Chronicle’s award for The Best Way to Turn Some Green Even Greener, citing the powerful results they’ve achieved in just three years’ time:

“By offering rebates to participants, the project has helped to solar-power the Mueller neighborhood, which now boasts over 200 homes with rooftop systems and the highest concentration of electric cars in the nation.”

Pecan Street represents the new world order, where the intent of the government is embraced by communities connecting with people on a deeper level. They provide the missing link between policy and passion, tapping into the creativity of individuals like Susanna Finnell and thousands of other people who want to play a meaningful role in rethinking the electric grid. In the end, government can set the course, but it takes impassioned people to make the impact.