Exclusive: Texas project to put green products to the test

HOUSTON (Reuters) - “Green” manufacturers and technology companies are stampeding to find a home in a proposed Texas development that will put the water- and energy-saving devices of tomorrow to the test in a real-world urban setting.

Texas A&M University System and a Dallas-area developer are creating a $127 million commercial and residential “incubator” where cutting-edge sensors will monitor data on everything from light bulbs to appliances and toilets.

Companies like General Electric Co, Philips Electronics, Owens Corning, LG Electronics Inc and Kimberly-Clark Corp are lining up to test their products in the proposed Urban Living Laboratory.

The 73-acre site, 15 miles north of downtown Dallas, once used to test new varieties of wheat and cotton, will be developed starting in late 2011.

“One of our goals is to change the way cities are built and operated by creating this compelling business model for the benefits of green building over time,” said Kevin Rogers, director of real estate for Realty Appreciation Ltd, the company chosen by A&M to develop the site.

Realty Appreciation envisions a 1.1 million-square-foot sustainable community that will inject the human factor to research related to energy, water, air quality and transportation.

U.S. buildings account for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 74 percent of electricity produced and 13 percent of water, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which promotes sustainable building standards for new and old structures, called LEED certification.

While Texas is better known for oil and gas production, it now ranks as the No. 1 state in emission-free wind-energy, and Dallas was the first major U.S. city to develop comprehensive green building standards.

A technology platform designed by Johnson Controls Inc will collect data from every thermostat and faucet for analysis not only by companies, but by more than a dozen interested universities.

“For the first time, we are building a technology platform that will measure every product in these buildings as well be able to tell how people are utilizing these products, so we know how behavior affects the performance,” Rogers said.

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The data collected will allow researchers to “study the process of building a green community -- the design and construction -- as well as the operation and management,” said J.P. Hymel, a Johnson Controls account manager.

Cloud computing technology will help researchers and developers better understand how efficient energy and water investments made during construction can save operational costs over a building’s lifespan, Hymel said.

Hot areas for academic study include urban design and economics, indoor environmental quality and facility management, officials said.


For the lab’s product partners, access to the data is worth the risk that some highly-touted “green” products may not live up to expectations in real life, said Rogers.

“The only reason these companies are banging my door down to get into the (lab) is they want access to the data,” Rogers said.

Appliance makers and power companies will better understand consumer habits as they roll out smart meters and smart appliances in the next few years.

The lab could “set a new sustainable living standard, not just for Texas, but for the entire country,” said Jongmin Shin, vice president of eco-strategies for LG Electronics, which hopes to place a wide range of appliances in the lab.

While the partners have their own research methods, nothing beats the real world, said Jim Burke, chief executive of Dallas-based TXU Energy, which will supply electricity to the facility’s common areas and compete to serve residents.

“If we can satisfy customers in a development like this, we’ll clear the bar in terms of what kinds of solutions we want to roll out overall,” said Burke.

As urban growth becomes constrained by shrinking water resources, Piscataway, New Jersey-based American Standard hopes to showcase water-saving toilets, faucets and sensor-operated sinks in the urban lab to show cities they can increase their water resources, said Jeremy Cressman, vice president.

The lab will allow research of people’s indoor water use and the way in which new water-saving fixtures -- which may have special maintenance needs -- fit into daily operation of office, hotel and home settings, said Cressman.

“A lot (of research) can be looked at and really formalized,” he said. “We want a public place where people know this is what we are doing; we are measuring.”

The project will differ from other sustainable research efforts with its “technology refresh” program that requires partners to replace products every few years, said Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. “You learn; you modify; you analyze on a continual basis,” he said.

Rogers is now talking to potential partners in the building infrastructure sector, an area he sees as ripe for innovation.

Light bulbs and refrigerators are vastly more efficient than a decade ago, Rogers said, while concrete, wood, glass and roofing materials have not changed much.

“We have to get the building to help save and conserve,” Rogers said. “This is not just about conservation; it’s about innovation. When you innovate, you can change the world.”

Editing by Gerald E. McCormick