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.