Preserving the Environment

Tomorrow’s Energy-Saving Neighborhood Is Being Built Today in Texas

August 21, 2015
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Tomorrow’s Energy-Saving Neighborhood Is Being Built Today in Texas
Mueller resident Dennis Mick is a Pecan Street program participant. He has solar collectors on his roof and an electric car in his garage. Information about his energy use can be accessed through mobile apps and on the web, in Austin, Texas, July 31, 2015. Courtesy EDF
This is the better, big data way to cut a home's energy use.

America’s most futuristic neighborhood is being built, perhaps surprisingly, in Texas.

Under construction in Austin, the Lone Star State’s liberal enclave, is a residential development boasting rooftop solar panels, electric vehicle charging stations and meters to measure the electricity usage of every appliance. Known as the Mueller neighborhood, the community is “smart grid experiment” where the Pecan Street research consortium brought together experts from universities and utilities alike to provide real-world data for one of the most important ecological questions of our time: How can we reduce our energy and water consumption?

“There was virtually no data available on appliance-level electric use. We were trying to determine if testing certain things out, like electric cars or home energy-management systems would affect people compared to how they used electricity before they got access to this stuff,” says Brewster McCracker, Pecan Street’s president and CEO. “There was not only no data on that but nothing on the market that would measure that. We spent a long time working with suppliers and configuring things to measure appliance use every minute 365 days a year.”

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Energy usage by homeowners and businesses fluctuates wildly, accounting for 41 percent of all consumption. To be more environmentally friendly, McCracken says, we need to think about reducing our use during peak times, as well as what will use less total energy. That’s why Pecan Street’s live data is so important for measuring exactly what appliances are putting heavy demands on the system. Its analytics can tell you that an electric vehicle charger puts the same load on the grid as a clothes dryer — both far less than an air conditioner. Previously, no one tested the kind of impact that a dozen electric vehicles on one block, let alone an entire neighborhood.

Through a mobile app, the research team informs customers of specific ways to reduce energy like, say, unplugging the microwave. Those suggestions have led to a 10 percent reduction in electricity use, McCracken, a former two-term member of the Austin city council, says. Overall, the Mueller neighborhood uses 38 percent less electricity on heating and cooling than their less green neighbors.

The stats help plan better infrastructure for an entire region. Conventional wisdom, for instance, holds that south-facing solar panels will absorb the most sunlight. Which is true generally, McCracken says, but energy companies should know that west-facing photovoltaic panels will absorb more energy during late summer afternoons when need is greatest, his team found.

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Additionally, Pecan Street can detect when something seems amiss on an individual home. “We found that people who have solar panels have minor maintenance issues, but they didn’t have any way to learn about them,” McCracken says. “By having that data, we were able to isolate the solar panels that are turned off. Other things could be more subtle. A single fuse that’s blown could produce at a reduced level. We have the data analytics running to detect that. It’s not something that you could stare at a rooftop or look at the electricity bill to see that happened, but better data helps.”

The research institute’s data collection has been so unique that other energy companies throughout the country have invited it to study their neighborhoods. Pecan Street now gathers stats from more than 1,200 homes, primarily clustered in Texas, Colorado and California, and ships the data out to 138 universities in 37 countries.

“We have strong reason to believe that access to better data and better information enhances our ability to solve problems,” McCracken says. “If we have better data on weather patterns, we can help people be safe in storms. If we have better data on car performance, we can make cars that work better.” With a hotter planet, drought in the West and superstorms along the East Coast, this Texan neighborhood couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time.

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