Austin Flexes Its SmartGrid Muscle As Pecan Street Data Comes Online

ATI’s Mitch Jacobsen

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

Ford Focus EVs

Ford Focus EVs at the Mueller Hangar

The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

ATI’s Isaac Barchas

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.

Data collection visualization via Pecan Street

Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT EV Project

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

Architectural Drawing – Pike Powers Lab

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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About George Dearing

George Dearing writes about technology, startups, and sustainability.
He advises clients on strategy and communications. You can follow him on Twitter here

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