Texas Project Transforms How Consumers Interact with Energy Use

By Marita Mirzatuny

By making consumers more aware of their energy usage patterns in real time, the Pecan Street project in Austin, Texas hopes ultimately to achieve a two-thirds reduction in the average homeowner’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Pecan Street’s research focuses on distributed generation, storage, demand response, energy efficiency, new pricing models and other technical and economic innovations in and around the home.

In the heart of the old Mueller airport in Austin, Texas lies a mixed-use redevelopment area of 700 acres that is home to shops, the Dell Children’s Hospital, park space and many of the homes that participate in the Pecan Street smart grid demonstration project.

Formed in 2008, Pecan Street Inc. is a consortium of global companies ranging from Intel, Landis & Gyr and LG, to 3M, Schneider Electric and SunEdison. As a founding board member, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) provides environmental oversight and analysis of environmental metrics, in conjunction with Austin Energy, the City of Austin, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the University of Texas and the Austin Technology Incubator.

With a DOE grant awarded in 2009 and a Department of Commerce grant in 2010, the foundation was ready to deploy and begin collecting energy data, which continues today. Deployment of research equipment is funded partly by these grants and others, and partly from consortium members.

While the smart grid enables cleaner technologies almost by nature, it is not guaranteed to be truly green without investment in the best technologies that can reduce environmental impacts and avoid climate change-causing emissions. Achieving that is a core goal of Pecan Street—not just an incidental benefit—and it is here, in particular, where EDF brings expertise to the project.

A specific objective of the Pecan Street project is to achieve a 64 percent reduction of electricity consumption, and thus greenhouse gas emissions as well, in a typical Austin home. Getting to this target requires a multifaceted approach, and begins with understanding the residential consumer.

Residents of the Mueller neighborhood are mainly of highly educated individuals who are typically early technology adopters. All participants in the Pecan project come from a pool of volunteers who signed up on its website, in neighborhood and community recruitment meetings or at interested organizations; they were chosen to participate based on certain criteria. Their homes are equipped with energy monitoring equipment that collects incremental energy data from the whole house and several circuits within the home. The circuits selected for each home vary somewhat and are determined by Pecan Street's research team. Because the organization is very focused on new energy technology, homes with solar panels or electric vehicle charging stations have stand-alone circuits to support the equipment.

Of the over 900 Pecan Street residential participants, 286 live in the Mueller neighborhood. More than 200 of the participating homes have rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV) and over 50 have electric vehicles, making this the largest concentrated community of EV owners in the world. (Pecan Street EV buyers obtain a $7500 credit, matching the Federal credit of the same amount that many qualify for.) A basic objective of the Pecan project is to help households use such technologies efficiently and to good environmental effect, harnessing a host of other technologies.

A recent study by Accenture found that only “24 percent of consumers trust their electric utility to inform them of actions they can take to optimize energy consumption.” What is more, “87 percent said that once their utility supplies them with a smart meter, they expect the company to provide additional energy-related products or services, including…home-energy management (HEM) solutions.” Although Texas has installed more smart meters than any other state, HEM systems allowing customers to interface with their energy usage and alter it have not been widely deployed yet.

Obviously, utilities benefit from smart meters directly in terms of efficiency and reduced costs, but where the responsibility falls for investing or incentivizing HEM systems (HEMS) is still a bit uncertain. The work at Pecan Street, it is hoped, will help clear this crucial matter up, by evaluating in rigorously designed and executed trials how consumers interact with energy use technology.

Home energy management systems (HEMS), like energy remote controls or iPads with customized apps for the home, were some of the first technologies to be deployed. They provide the essential platform for residents to understand and engage with their energy use. For customers not inclined to be constantly interacting with energy use information, the HEMS allow for personalized “set-it and forget-it” mechanisms.

Data taken and updated every 15 seconds provide insight into previously unknown problems. For example, recent results show that electric dryers for clothing consume about 50 percent more electricity than the next largest appliance in homes that have such driers. Acquiring such information may persuade a homeowner to purchase a gas dryer instead or air-dry clothing when possible.

Dynamic pricing trials began in March and will continue through September of 2014. The idea is to value the price of electricity at its true cost at certain times of the day, for example, at afternoon peaks when energy demand on the electric grid is highest, and convey prices to the customer. In particular, 25 EV drivers in the “time-of-use” electricity rate trials are encouraged to charge vehicles at night when they can use west Texas wind power, that is otherwise curtailed, instead of when they get home in the afternoon during peak energy demand (when the grid relies mainly on fossil fuel generation).

Accenture found that if utilities were to provide customers with “a variable rate plan option in which the price of energy changes throughout the day, 92 percent said they would expect the utility to offer new features to help them manage their bill.” Again, the work at Pecan Street can help decipher exactly how utilities and their customers can manage new information.

Demand response (DR) programs, in which customers are offered rebates if they allow utilities to automatically reduce energy usage during peak afternoon times, are already underway in Austin Energy’s service area. Pecan Street is expanding its reach into multi-family housing with a DR trial beginning in Fall 2013. All participants will be provided with HEMS, mobile apps, a tablet and a Nest learning thermostat.

Pecan Street Inc., with its new Pike Powers Laboratory & Center for Commercialization and expanded partnerships in San Diego and Colorado, is learning to fully utilize vast amounts of energy data to allow researchers, including those from EDF, to modernize our outdated energy infrastructure and accelerate the transition to a clean, low-carbon energy economy. All of this will require a new type of relationship between consumers, technologies and utilities.




Marita Mirzatuny is a member of the smart power team of the Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Climate & Energy Program. She works on smart grid development, renewables, demand response and policy involving the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and the Texas Legislature. She has helped design the environmental metrics for the Pecan Street project, in which EDF is a partner. Prior to joining EDF, she interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and worked for various environmental non-profits in California and Texas. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an M.B.A. at Texas State University, in San Marcos.