Living laboratory shows how a smart grid works

Austin community benefits from clean energy system of the future

Solar panels dot the roofs of homes in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin

Solar panels dot the roofs of homes in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin.

Pecan Street, Inc.

The Mueller neighborhood in Austin, TX, doesn’t look like the site of a revolution.

Built in 2005 on the city’s old municipal airport, Mueller has the feel of a small town. Behind that tranquil façade, however, Mueller is center stage for a bold project that aims to reinvent the way we manage, use and generate electricity.

Pecan Street Inc. (Pecan Street) is a $30 million initiative developed by the City of Austin in collaboration with EDF, Austin Energy and the University of Texas. The Mueller neighborhood, the locus of Pecan Street, is a laboratory of ideas and technologies that will move the nation’s $1.3 trillion electricity market toward a future in which energy is cheap, abundant and clean. If Pecan Street is successful, every neighborhood in America will look like it in 20 years.

Pecan Street will help create an energy system that is cleaner, more resilient and less expensive than anything we’ve seen before.

Marita Mirzatuny EDF’s project manager for Pecan Street

The Need: Cleaner, cheaper, more reliable energy

Since 1882, when Thomas Edison switched on the world’s first commercial generator in New York City, the electric grid has been a one-way path from power plants to consumers. But as demand has grown – it rose 20% from 1999 to 2009 – cracks have appeared in the system.

Every day, blackouts effect on average 500,000 people. In the U.S. today, the average substation transformer is 42 years old – two years past its life expectancy.

New investment is coming – an estimated $1.5 trillion will be spent upgrading our decrepit electric grid over the next 25 years. The question is: Do we spend that money building bigger versions of Edison’s machine, or do we attempt to use energy more wisely?

The Solution: The smart grid

That’s where Pecan Street comes in. Pecan Street is a testing ground for a smart grid — a newer, cleaner and more efficient version of our outdated electric grid, which is wasteful and expensive, and polluting.

Central to how the smart grid works is its innovative use of technology, particularly wireless communications and the internet.

With this new kind of electrical grid, “all the devices in your house will work as a whole to find the most efficient and inexpensive ways to use energy,” says Marita Mirzatuny, EDF’s project manager for Pecan Street.

Family on porch

Mueller residents know the entire community shares the benefits of a smarter grid.

Credit: Julia Robinson

Most Pecan Street homes now have smart meters – wireless energy monitoring devices that tell residents how much electricity they’re using at any given time. More than 200 homes now also have solar energy, making Mueller the largest concentration of solar homes in the world. Fifty households use electric vehicles.

In a typical Pecan Street home of the future, appliances will talk to each other and to the grid, which will be constantly adapting to changes in supply and demand. Residents will program their dryers and hot water heaters to run when energy is cheap, or when the energy source is renewable, like solar or wind.

Rooftop solar panels will monitor the morning weather forecast to calculate how much energy they’ll produce that day, and set up a schedule for using it or selling it back to the grid at peak demand. The solar panels will help charge electric vehicles. When the sun is down, the batteries in the electric vehicles can help power the house. If you forget to turn off your hot water heater after you leave for vacation, no problem – you can do it on your cell phone.

This is not a fantasy. Some of this is already happening at Pecan Street, and much more is in the works. Some very large and influential companies are betting that the smart grid experiment succeeds, and many sit on Pecan Street’s advisory board, including Intel, Whirlpool and LG Electronics.

Pecan Street has unveiled a new research laboratory where smart grid technologies can be tested. The new, $1.5 million Pike Powers Laboratory, located right next to Mueller, will research a new generation of appliances, electric vehicles, air conditioners, and solar panels that will be needed to make the Pecan Street vision a reality.

Ambitious environmental goals

Pecan Street is also working with the University of Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), home to some of the most fastest computers in the world. Data gathered from Pecan Street homes and analyzed by the university’s computers will reveal how Pecan Street residents are using energy, and how they can use it more efficiently. Already, the computing center is crunching a staggering 900 terabytes of data from the Pecan Street homes.

Pecan Street has an ambitious environmental goal: reducing carbon emissions by 64% compared to an average Austin neighborhood. Houses equipped with solar panels will consume no more energy than they produce, achieving zero net carbon emissions.

“If you manage your energy footprint, you manage your environmental footprint,” says Mirzatuny. “Pecan Street will help create an energy system that is cleaner, more resilient and less expensive than anything we’ve seen before.”

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