Smart Grids: The Pecan Street Project

Because electricity is so readily available, we take it for granted. We forget how quickly we’ve gotten used to turning on the lights. As recently as the 1930s and ’40s—within living memory—Lyndon Johnson was just beginning to electrify rural areas of central Texas, which today include the state’s high-tech corridor. Watching the lights come on across the beautiful Hill Country was one of the proudest moments of Johnson’s life.

So it is fitting that the most exciting new development in the story of electricity is happening in the capitol city of Austin. The city is becoming a clean energy lab, staking out a leadership position in our energy future. The goal of the ambitious Pecan Street Project is to invent and deploy, at a significant scale, the most innovative urban power system possible. EDF has partnered with the city, Austin Energy, the University of Texas and corporate partners like Cisco, Oracle, Gridpoint and Applied Materials to develop the project.

Miriam Horn, co-author with EDF president Fred Krupp of the bestselling book Earth: The Sequel, and a team leader in Austin, says that this is the most interesting project she has ever worked on. “The old electric system is like a single-celled amoeba,” she notes. “Poke it, and it responds.” (Think back to 2003, when a branch falling in Ohio caused a blackout in the Northeast.)

Horn adds: “A smart grid adds brains and a nervous system. Instead of the one-directional system we have now—electricity is generated every time you ask for it—smart grids will be networked to find many different sources of supply, or to modify demand. They will enable dozens of things to happen instantaneously when you flip that switch, to find the lowest cost, lowest impact way to turn on your light.”

The Pecan Street Project is creating tools and installing 400,000 smart meters to give customers real-time information about, and control over, their energy use. “It’s like YouTube,” Horn says. “Citizens will no longer just be passive consumers but also energy producers with a system smart enough to manage itself according to their goals—buying them the cleanest power, or the cheapest, selling their homemade electricity when the price is right. Their refrigerator will know to cycle off for a few minutes when a cloud passes over their solar panels. They will be able to buy cars that run on electricity, and the car battery will know to charge at 2:00 am when windmills are churning out clean, cheap electricity and demand is low. And people will be able to sell electricity back into the grid—for a profit—during peak demand.”

Similar experiments are blossoming nationwide. President Obama recently announced a $3.4 billion stimulus grant to 49 states to deploy sensors and communications technology on transmission lines, substations and houses. This is a small down payment toward a safer, cleaner energy future.

But as EDF’s Mark Brownstein points out, a smart grid system will only work if, to the consumer, it is seamless, better than what we have now. “No one will adopt anything that has voltage fluctuations, or that is more expensive. And consumers have to get a share of the savings that smart grids will generate.” In addition, energy systems won’t come in one-size-fits-all models, but will be designed to make the best use of local resources. “Just as you wouldn’t dream of growing pineapple trees in your Rhode Island backyard,” says Horn, “the electric system in Seattle won’t be based on solar energy.”

Note to engineering students: this is the most exciting time ever to be in the energy business. If the future for the college graduate in 1967 was “plastics,” the future now, in one word, is “batteries.” Energy storage. That will make it possible to deploy energy from lots of different sources, even the sun, in the middle of the night.

Transforming the way we produce and use energy, the kind of change that can have a significant impact on global warming, must be developed system-wide. The Pecan Street Project captures a kind of world-altering approach, and its promise ignites hope. Sure, we’re consumers. But we’re citizens, too. It is ultimately up to us to demand a new system of power.

8 Responses

Comment from Gail Lord
November 6th, 2009 at 6:16 pm

I need someone to explain to me why it’s not the best solution for every building to have solar collectors to supply their own energy. This would obviate the need to destroy habitat, even in the desert, and correct the problem of loss of energy as it travels down long transmission lines.

Comment from Kenneth D Scott
November 6th, 2009 at 8:52 pm

I read, with interest, your story about the Pecan st. smart grid. OK,
1) I have a smart meter coming to me (let’s me see my usage even from my lap top)
2) Where do I purchase a smart unit that tells my fridge to shut off if a cloud passes? And, do I need to?

Seems that new technology in solar panels (amorphous vs crystal) will indeed generate power on cloudy days. Yes, Seattle has a lot of sun that will allow it to use solar as well as wind (according to a Shell seminar). Might add that solar mirrors can work well with stirling engines and generate electricity even more efficient.

We, as a nation, need to give big kickbacks to homes/business that use alternative energy. We also need to follow T-bone Pickens plan about wind generation in the USA. Think about all the above, check them out…and let’s do something now…not 100 years from now when NYC and LA are under water. Thanks for listening………

Comment from dlsunshine
November 7th, 2009 at 4:39 am

I agree, why not solar panels AND a windmill for every home? That’s actually what Thomas Edison advised — he wanted every home to be energy independent. At the very least, we need smaller, centralized energy stations, so we can get rid of those huge, ugly and dangerous monster power lines. And what about hydrogen for energy? Let’s get “smart” about how we create and use energy. We’ve had this technology for decades, time to make it work! Let’s TRULY save the planet by protecting it from mountain topping, coal slurry, and radiation from nuclear plants.

Comment from whiteneysa
November 9th, 2009 at 7:39 pm

I have no doubt that things with Pecan Street Project will get us in better placements. It will take money for idea-runners. Money to “give back” to the users of cleaner energy. Putting more jobs on the market sure even. I think we could have started these type things years ago, but surviving and watching other people create and make money all at the same time has made us tired. So, let’s just hope that the democracy doesn’t get out of hand from making things more business”y”. I am definately willing to vote for cleaner air and energy but can I afford it? Putting another percentage hike is not smart business here even locally since the business is expanding as stated in this column….could be good or bad I guess. More choices brings more jobs brings more choices on what and where to spend.

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November 10th, 2009 at 11:19 am

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Comment from equity release calculator
March 3rd, 2010 at 4:15 pm

A bus station is where a bus stops. A train station is where a train stops. On my desk, I have a work station..

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