04/18/2012 04:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Smart Grid Utopia, Deep in the Heart of Texas

Sometimes the future shows up when you least expect it. Just ask Brewster McCracken. If his life had gone according to plan, right now he'd been running for re-election as mayor of Austin instead of driving one of his former campaign advisers around a new urbanist utopia he's creating.

And he couldn't be happier.

During his two wonky terms on the Austin City Council, McCracken preferred imagining a future smart grid than doing the usual political rigmorale, such as giving speeches, cutting ribbons, and stabbing each other in the back.

McCracken's eyes would light up when he described the possibilities of paying Austinites to park their electric cars at the city-owned airport lot to create excess power capacity when temperatures -- and electric usage -- spiked in the summers. But he could never translate his wonky glee to politics, and in 2009 he found himself on the wrong side of a lopsided mayoral election.

Freed from public life and with no interest in practicing law, McCracken took a job heading up Pecan Street, Inc., a public-private partnership with an ambitious goal -- to reinvent America's electrical system. Thanks to $10.5 million from the stimulus, Pecan Street is creating jobs and fighting global warming, Tejas style. McCracken is going green by making green.

"We are focused with market-based approaches. What we have found is that ... sometimes there will be people who say, 'Well, this is all folly,' and there are others who say, 'We should be requiring it.' And our view is that we need to understand what people want, what makes a difference, what has market potential," said McCracken.

The old excitable policy geek was still on display as he ferried a visitor around a smart grid neighborhood that acts as a real-world lab to get customer feedback on new technologies.

"We were funding so many solar panel installations last summer that one of the companies was bringing in extra crews from Colorado because there was so much demand. This community is buying electric cars at a higher rate than anywhere else in the world," bragged McCracken.

McCracken compares smart grid technology with the Internet, GPS and mobile telecommunications -- each of which revolutionized the economy, but not without cooperation from government, private industry and research universities.

"And this happened because there were a mix of wise investments, good products and wise public policy that all kind of came together, and it triggered tsunamis of economic activity," he said. "Fundamentally the solution will have to be a market-based solution, but also as we know from the Internet and mobile telecom, this does not happen in a vacuum."

So far the biggest research discovery is that air conditioning is a bigger problem in Texas than anyone expected. With a growing population and rising summer temperatures -- and no power capacity expected to be built in the foreseeable future -- McCracken sees a role for the kind of market-based solution that Pecan Street was set up to find.

"One of the approaches has been, 'Well, let's just turn off people's air conditioners in the summer in the afternoon.' We're like, 'When you look at the data and see how much people are using air conditioning, one of the things that shows you is their priorities. And comfort in your own home is an incredibly high priority," he said. "If we're trying to create an economy, the way you normally do it is to find out a more innovative way to solve your customers' problems."

And McCracken's off again, happily describing companies that are developing zonal air conditioning systems. If we can cool rooms instead of houses, then maybe we can avoid rolling brownouts during a heatwave.

Doing this has made McCracken's life better, too. He's "much happier now" than when he was in politics, and it's not all because of Pecan Street. He's remarried and has a baby girl as well as a son, Ford, from his first marriage. McCracken recalled an idyllic weekend spent with his family at the lake that brought home how much his life had improved since he left politics.

"I was telling Ford, 'Well, you know, we wouldn't have gotten to do this kind of stuff as often if I'd been on city council or if I'd won the election.' And he goes, 'Daddy, I'm glad you lost the election.'"

Little doubt from the smile on his face that McCracken feels the same way.