University of Texas at Austin Team Wins $250,000 Award from Austin Energy

An interdisciplinary team at The University of Texas at Austin won first place and a $250,000 award in Austin Energy's "National Research Ideas" competition, a contest soliciting proposals for cost-effective ways to integrate utility lines into urban areas while protecting mature trees and promoting future plantings.

The competition, announced in September 2006, arose after a severe ice storm hit Austin, resulting in fallen tree limbs causing serious power outages to businesses and homes in the Capitol City. In an attempt to resolve problems associated with overhead electrical lines and the urban tree canopy, Austin Energy introduced the national competition.

"The solution this team came up with is really indicative of the approach we're going to have to take on a broad scale if we're going to tackle our future energy challenges and the growing climate crisis," said Austin Mayor Will Wynn. "We're going to need holistic approaches that can integrate complex technical issues, optimize competing needs and address questions of human behavior and preferences."

The University of Texas at Austin team, lead by Steven Moore, professor in the School of Architecture, was composed of graduate students, faculty and professionals from the architecture, landscape architecture, planning, engineering, business, law and public policy.

The students were supported in their research by faculty from several disciplines, including Professor Kent Butler, planning; Professor Michael Garrison, architecture; Professor Mack Grady, electrical engineering; Assistant Professor Hope Hasbrook, landscape architecture; and Lecturer Dason Whitsett, architecture.

The team's proposal, "People, Power, Progress," approaches the issue from a socio-technical perspective, incorporating new technologies with the needs of various stakeholders, including city officials, private utilities, industry, environmentalists and citizens.

"Our team struggled to understand the social context of the problem from the multiple perspectives of engineering, business, law, public policy, planning and architecture before crafting a tool that would help Austin Energy and Austin's citizens make difficult decisions," said Moore. "The issue at hand is not only efficient operation of a public utility, but citizen engagement in creating a city that is also a functional ecosystem."

The winning proposal is divided into three parts: ways to better manage the urban forest in Austin, a palette of technical tools for underground and overhead utility lines (including innovative designs for six overhead and two underground technologies) and the means to construct a community interface, allowing stakeholders in each neighborhood to determine the best solution for their community.

The final report includes a number of technical tools, but most significant is a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based decision-making tool that will help neighborhoods, environmental groups and other utilities make cost-effective, reliable, and aesthetically and ecologically sounds choices.

A competing team from The University of Texas at Austin lead by Dean Almy, associate professor in the School of Architecture, and Ross Baldick, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, won third place honors and $10,000.

The $250,000 first-place award will be used to create a permanent endowment to support interdisciplinary graduate student research in sustainable design and development.

Other teams competing in the contest were from Cornell University, Morgan State University, Texas A&M University, University of Michigan and Western Illinois University.