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Envision Charlotte Meets Pecan Street

Last week, I, along with several other Envision Charlotte Board Members travelled to visit the Pecan Street smart grid project in Austin, Texas.   We hope this will be the start of a recurring “exchange program” between the two cities for sharing of information and best practices related to smart grid deployment.  There are significant differences between the two projects.  Pecan Street is focused on the residential sector; Envision Charlotte on commercial office buildings.  Envision Charlotte is deploying innovative behavior change, social networking and employee training to reduce energy use, while Pecan Street is heavily focused on technology solutions. 

But, there is also a lot in common.  Both organizations desire to reduce energy use and find alternatives to our outdated energy system.  Both believe that smart grids and energy efficiency can be cost effective and drive economic development.  Finally, both groups are rigorously measuring the impacts of their actions. 

What we saw in Austin was very cool.  We started by visiting a home in the Mueller neighborhood, a playground for testing the latest in home energy management and appliances.  In one house’s garage was a wireless energy monitor that connects to the home’s circuit breaker box and allows homeowners to view real time energy use from different appliances and lighting systems in the home.  Residents now know exactly how much it is costing them to make coffee each morning – or power up their flat screen TV. 

Also in the garage was a Chevy Volt, along with four charging stations from different manufacturers (according to Pecan Street staff, they all perform roughly the same).  Up on the roof was a series of solar panels, whose every watt is being recorded to learn important things about installation location, potential for offsetting peak generation, and storage solutions.  Although each of these technologies are impressive on their own, only when operating together do they represent the next generation of home energy management where consumers have complete knowledge and control over their energy choices.  It’s pretty empowering.

This innovative project didn’t happen accidentally.  It came about through lots of perspiration from their Executive Director and former Austin Council Member Brewster McCracken; design recommendations from hundreds of folks in the private sector, local community and NGOs (including EDF); prodigious fundraising; and hard work from staff, board members, and participating companies.  Some of my key takeaways from the trip are as follows:

Residential Technology Still a Wild West – Unlike the commercial building automation universe, where users have more experience integrating energy management and building systems to speak the same code and talk to one another, residential systems are still in their infancy and competing languages make it extremely difficult to get different pieces of hardware to talk to one another.  Pecan Street will often need to write new code or develop other workarounds to get vendor equipment to work as described.  This is one of the reasons why EDF has joined the OPEN network, to help ensure that smart grid investments in different states maximize interoperability.

The Incredible Power of Data – Pecan Street collects a data point from each home circuit every 15 seconds.  With dozens of circuits per home and hundreds of participating homes in the Mueller development, the Pecan Street project has rapidly approached billions of discrete pieces of data that can be captured, sorted and analyzed.  Although a challenge to work with data sets this large, once properly harnessed, they provide incredible insights to consumers, utilities, researchers and policymakers on energy use.  Pecan Street can see exactly what happens to the grid when someone opens their refrigerator or micro-waves dinner, and use that information to develop strategies for homeowners that will reduce energy use and improve reliability.   

Test Technology, Scale, Inform Policy – Pecan Street is unique in its approach in several ways, but one of the most significant is that it enables a technology to policy pathway.  Pecan Street’s test labs experiment with the latest in home energy management technologies, present those solutions to homeowners in the Mueller neighborhood for adoption and enable EDF to identify regulatory or policy mechanisms that can further accelerate smart grid investment.  As an example, last year EDF was able to help secure provisions in a Texas energy bill that enable demand response programs and payments for utility customers.  This technology to policy approach is something that Envision Charlotte will need to reach our ambitious 5-year, 20% energy reduction goal.

All in all, it was an incredible trip.  Over the coming years, as Envision Charlotte develops more programs and scales its impact, we hope to repay the warm hospitality of Pecan Street by hosting their team in Charlotte and sharing what we have learned.  We’ll promise good conversation, great BBQ and a continued devotion to collaboration.

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Energy Innovation Series Feature #3: Smart Grid Consortium From Pecan Street Inc.

Throughout 2012, EDF’s Energy Innovation Series will highlight more than 20 innovations across a broad range of energy categories, including smart grid and renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency financing, and progressive utilities, to name a few. This series will demonstrate that cost-effective, clean energy solutions are available now and imperative to lowering our dependence on fossil fuels.

For more information on this featured innovation, please view this video on Pecan Street Inc.

The last few years have been somewhat of a blur for most of the people involved in Austin-based Pecan Street Inc. (Pecan Street).

“In 2008, this was an idea on a napkin in a coffee shop,” says Brewster McCracken, the holder of the napkin and now executive director of Pecan Street. “In 2010 we secured funding to launch a smart grid demonstration project. In 2011 we established the most robust collection of consumer energy use data on the planet. We want to see how people interact with new technology options. What works, what people like, what impact it has on their energy use and the grid itself.”

The organization strives to ‘re-imagine’ how we make, move and use energy on our existing system rather than reinvent the system itself. It has been tagged by the smart grid industry press as one of the hottest efforts in the country.

Pecan Street, which was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit in 2009, is an research and development consortium headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin. Its team consists of nearly a dozen staff and a web of researchers from the University of Texas and more than 10 member companies like Best Buy, Sony, Intel, Oncor, Texas Gas Service and Whirlpool Corporation. The Pecan Street board is comprised of members from the City of Austin, the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the University of Texas, the UT Clean Energy Incubator, Austin Energy and Environmental Defense Fund.

Source: Pecan Street Inc.

The deployment of 100 Volts in one square mile will be among the densest concentrations of plug-in vehicles in the country.

Pecan Street was initially funded through a $10 million grant from the Department of Energy, which was matched locally with another $14 million to conduct detailed research on the consumer energy usage and the smart grid. The organization also received funding by the Doris Duke Foundation to collect “energy lifestyle” data at 15-second intervals on a disaggregated level (measures 6 circuits) on 200 homes.

Its test bed is the Mueller community, a green-built redevelopment of the city’s former airport. Just two miles from downtown Austin, Mueller is one of the hottest zip codes in town for people looking for clean, green urban living. Over the course of the five-year demonstration project, Pecan Street will deploy smart grid technology — home energy management systems, solar panels, electric vehicles, new pricing models and more — in up to 1,000 homes in and around Mueller. And did we mention that Pecan Street is the world’s largest LEED-ND certified community?

So far, Pecan Street has loaded up Mueller with some remarkable smart grid stats: a third of the homes have solar panels and, by this summer, 100 Chevy Volts will be tooling around town and parking (and recharging) within Mueller’s one-square-mile radius.

Greentech Media calls Pecan Street “the most ambitious EV-solar-smart-grid integration project in the United States.”

And this spring, the organization broke ground on the country’s first smart grid commercialization lab, located among the homes and retail in Mueller, that will serve as a testing facility with nationally unique opportunities for commercialization, research and education.

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