Pecan Street Project: A path to smart grid's future

Pecan Street Project: A path to smart grid's future

Pecan Street is where the smart grid is being built. Located in Texas, three miles from downtown Austin, the Pecan Street Project is an impressive test ground for smart homes, energy management and consumer electronics.

Initially launched at the University of Texas, the project began in earnest in February 2011 by enlisting a number of noteworthy private partnerships with companies including Best Buy, Check-It, Chevrolet, Freescale, Intel, Landis+Gyr, Sony, SunEdison and Whirlpool.

Each company has a stake in developing and testing next-generation technology and figuring out new business models for advanced energy management systems.

The 700-acre project is built on the site of an old municipal airport, supported by a $10.4 million Department of Energy grant and another $14 million from private partners.

With 400 residential homes and select commercial buildings in a neighborhood smart grid, the goal is to deploy home energy management systems, supply electric vehicles and install rooftop PV systems.

"The project is focused squarely on consumers, enlisting real people to gather data from these homes to help structure next generation energy systems," said Brewster McCracken, Executive Director, Pecan Street Inc.

Some 60 Chevy Volts are included in the trial, marking one of the nation’s highest residential concentrations of plug-in vehicles. And more than 200 homes are equipped with rooftop solar panels for distributed generation.

The electric cars and solar roofs are all designed to work in unison with smart appliances and home energy management systems, providing valuable insight for utilities.

"We're finding the right time when EV owners want to charge their vehicles and offering residences to go off the grid with solar generation," said McCracken.

McCracken characterized the majority of the participants in the trial as "early adopters and innovators interested in the latest technologies."

To that end, the project is deploying Nest thermostats to 200 homes -- offering the stylish, "first-learning thermostat" as a best-of-breed new energy product.

But even with all this new technology, McCracken admits we're still in the early stages of understanding what the future holds for home energy management. He noted right now utilities struggle with the ability to manage all the data flowing in and have yet to fully realize smart grid capabilities.

"Allowing third-party data access will create new scenarios for the smart grid," said McCracken. He expects companies like Google or Amazon to find innovative uses for the data, considering the market is "really wide open and the most commercially interesting aspect of the smart grid."

Pecan Street Project plans to broaden out to 700 homes in the Austin area and 300 more in Dallas later this summer.