Great Ideas on Energy: Wasting Less Food, Making Energy Exciting

A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.


3. Save energy by wasting less food.

While waiting tables as a college student, now-UT professor Michael Webber was struck by the amount of food tossed out because restaurant patrons didn’t clean their plates.

“I worked at restaurants for six years and saw lots of food waste. Wow,” Webber recalls. “Food’s relatively cheap in America, so we don’t value it as much.” (By conservative estimates, the U.S. wastes roughly 27 percent of its food, and some researchers believe that figure is closer to 50 percent.)

So years later, Webber, a mechanical engineering professor, and his former research associate, Amanda Cuéllar, set out to study exactly how much energy was lost when Americans chucked all those uneaten nachos or unwanted veggies in the trash.

In their 2011 study, Webber and Cuéllar calculated that if Americans clamped down on food waste, the U.S. could decrease its annual energy consumption by roughly 2 percent.

That may seem like a small percentage, but it equates to saving around 350 million barrels of oil annually. That’s more than enough energy to power Switzerland for a full year, Webber says.

“As a nation, we’re struggling with energy issues,” he adds, “and reducing food waste is not the only answer to the problem, but it might be one of the easiest to implement.”

The amount of energy embedded in the food we throw away is more than all the energy we get from the corn ethanol we produce in a year, Webber says.

Webber hopes to further his research on energy and food waste to influence policymakers and society.

The UT campus has taken Webber’s findings seriously and is doing its part. In the last five years, the Division of Housing and Food Service has successfully reduced food waste in two dining halls from 112 tons to 59 tons per academic year by adopting smaller food portions, going tray-free, and investing in a marketing program.

The key to reducing food waste is educating every new freshman class, says Scott Meyer, director of food service.

“Anything we save, we put back into our plates,” Meyer says. “We might have steak more often or sushi. It’s a win-win.” —Sandra Zaragoza, with contributions from Melissa Mixon

4. Make managing energy exciting for customers.

Let’s say your house could see your calendar. It could adjust the room temp and even open the garage when you pulled into the driveway. And your hardware store knew your house had leaky windows and offered you a discount on new ones.

Pecan Street Inc. is bringing this day closer. The UT-based nonprofit consortium has been running a demonstration project on energy out of the Mueller development, less than two miles from the Forty Acres. There, 250 homes (plus another 200 elsewhere) have their energy use monitored. Many have solar panels and electric cars whose impact is gauged, too.

Most utility companies measure how much energy is used every 15 minutes for a house as a whole. Pecan Street homes have theirs checked every 15 seconds—and on six circuits in the house.

Pecan Street’s executive director, Brewster McCracken, JD ’95, MPAff ’95, can look at his iPad and see how much power his microwave, fridge, TV, and A/C are drawing at any moment, all on color-coded graphs.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center collects the usage information and analyzes it. To date, it has collected more than 7 billion rows of data.

The key, McCracken and his team believe, is that the data can’t be overwhelming. Instead, it must enable innovations. To succeed with customers, energy can’t be a matter of boring, behind-the-scenes money-saving. It has to be a source of instant, life-improving information—like leaving the teenagers home alone for a weekend and getting a notification if the toilet flushes 45 times in one hour on Saturday night. Now that holds homeowner appeal.

To make energy info more user-friendly, Pecan Street has partnered with private companies like Sony, providing them access (with strict privacy guidelines) to data about consumer energy use. Other participants include Intel, Whirlpool, and the GM subsidiary OnStar, which has made 100 electric Chevy Volts available for Pecan Street homeowners to buy or lease. “Whatever is developed in the next few years, customers have to love it,” Pecan Street spokesman Colin Rowan, BJ ’93, MA ’97, Life Member, says.

Pecan Street’s next endeavor: a $1.5 million commercialization lab in the Mueller community. The Pike Powers Commercialization Lab will provide testing facilities to UT researchers, member companies, and technology start-ups. Eventually, it will yield much more than just consumer energy management, but its first innovations are likely to be outgrowths of Pecan Street’s energy-monitoring project. Energy is about to get more glam. —Lynn Freehill

Read the next great ideas on energy here.

To see more on how Pecan Street Inc. and the Meuller development are setting new standards in residential energy management, watch this exclusive video from the Alcalde show on Longhorn Network:

Top, iStock.

Bottom, Austin’s Mueller neighborhood, less than two miles from the UT campus, has become a real-world laboratory for energy and consumer electronic companies. More than a third of Mueller’s 600 homes have installed rooftop solar as participants in Pecan Street’s research. More than 60 homeowners have purchased electric vehicles. Photo courtesy Pecan Street, Inc.


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