Pecan Street Project, NREL and UT begin design of Home Research Lab

Press Release • April 26, 2011

(AUSTIN – April 26, 2011)  – Pecan Street Project announced today that it has acquired a site and will soon begin construction of a smart grid interoperability research facility. Researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) will lead the programming and technical specification development for the facility, which will be located in Austin’s Mueller community.

Pecan Street Project executives leading the development and operations of the lab are John H. Baker, Jr. and Ariane Beck. Prior to joining Pecan Street Project earlier this year, Mr. Baker was Austin Energy’s chief strategy officer and Dr. Beck was the assistant chair of the University of Texas Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The Home Research Lab will serve as a neutral third-party research facility. Researchers from Pecan Street Project, The University of Texas, NREL, multiple utilities and private sector companies will be able to use the lab for testing and evaluating interoperability industry standards along with testing performance and integration of multiple companies’ home smart grid systems with electricity, gas and water utility distribution and back office systems. Specific technologies that will be tested include electric vehicles, home energy management systems, smart appliances, home storage, rooftop PV and advanced metering. The facility will also include public education programming.

Construction is scheduled to begin in September 2011 and active operations to commence in March 2012. Pecan Street Project has contracted with Austin-based custom homebuilder The Muskin Company to develop the Home Research Lab. Architects for the facility are University of Texas School of Architecture faculty Matthew Fajkus, Ulrich Dangel and Tamie Glass, Department of Architectural and Environmental Engineering professor Atila Novoselac and Austin-based architects Michael Hsu and Kevin Stewart from Michael Hsu Office of Architecture.

Nationally unique features of the Home Research Lab include:

  • The active involvement of Tier 1 research university and national lab researchers from UT and NREL
  • The lab’s neutral third-party position as a facility for multiple utilities and private sector technology companies to work collaboratively in a consortium environment with these university and national lab researchers
  • The opportunity for companies to test their solutions’ interoperability with utility distribution systems and with products from multiple companies
  • Access for University of Texas students to participate in lab research and collaboration
  • The lab’s ability to connect with NREL for ongoing real-time research collaborations between the Austin-based lab and NREL’s Golden, Colorado facilities

Pecan Street Project will build the lab in a three-story live-work unit site across the street from the former Mueller Municipal Airport’s air traffic control tower. The tower, which was preserved after the airport’s decommissioning, has become an iconic structure in the green-built Mueller community.

“This lab will provide an opportunity for University of Texas researchers and students to collaborate with utilities and the best researchers from the private sector on the technologies that will solve our toughest energy, environmental and economic challenges,” said Pecan Street Project executive director Brewster McCracken. “Having the lab’s development led by our partners from NREL, an accomplished, visionary utility executive like John and an outstanding researcher like Ariane ensures that this lab will provide significant value.”

“Our intent is to develop not just a demonstration lab, but a true research and testing facility,” said UT engineering professor and Pecan Street Project board member Dr. Tom Edgar. “This facility will be a unique opportunity for our researchers and the private sector to help shape the future of energy delivery and management.”

“Our researchers at NREL are excited about their involvement with Pecan Street Project,” said NREL senior research engineer Dr. Bill Kramer, who will lead NREL’s work on the research facility. “We see this new home research lab as a way to complement our existing research facilities with real-world performance and utility data.”

NREL’s researchers are part of Pecan Street Project’s customer-focused smart grid demonstration project at Mueller.

“The straightforward simplicity of our overall building design allows for the flexibility of complex laboratory research and simulated living scenarios,” said UT School of Architecture assistant professor Matthew Fajkus. ”The building will be highly sustainable in its capacity for adaptation as well is in its integrated technology and smart grid implications.”

“Here, in one of the country’s most forward-thinking communities, this lab will allow researchers to test some of the most forward-thinking ideas in home design, operation and construction,” said Alan Muskin, president of The Muskin Company. “We look forward to being part of this unique collaboration and to helping bring the future of American homebuilding to this great neighborhood.”

“During my years in the utility industry, I wished we had had access to an outstanding research facility and the opportunity to collaborate with top-flight researchers,” said Pecan Street Project director of utility systems research John Baker. “I am committed to developing a lab that will provide this kind of opportunity not just for Pecan Street Project’s own researchers, but also for UT researchers, innovative companies and utilities from across the country.”

“I know from working with UT research programs how critical a sophisticated, independent research facility is to fact-based applied research,” said Ariane Beck, project manager for Pecan Street Project. “This lab will provide a technically excellent proving ground where utilities, companies, researchers and students can collaborate in a neutral, third-party setting.”

About John H. Baker, Jr.

John Baker joined Austin Energy in 1994. He served in various roles during his tenure, including vice president of customer care and marketing, process manager of system operations and reliability, manager of distribution system support, and manager of distribution engineering and design.  From 2002 until his retirement from Austin Energy in 2010, he served as chief strategy officer, leading the development of the utility’s aggressive long-range renewable energy and energy efficiency goals.

In addition to overseeing the home research lab, Baker will manage the organization’s Industry Advisory Council, a collection of technology and energy companies that are participating in the organization’s smart grid research. He will also serve as the primary liaison for utilities on the organization’s Technical Review and Advisory Committee, which includes ERCOT, Bluebonnet Electric Coop, CPS Energy, Oncor and Pedernales Electric Coop.

About Ariane Beck

Prior to joining Pecan Street Project in 2011 as the organization’s project manager, Dr. Ariane Beck served as the assistant chair of UT’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering. Her work at UT included managing development of lab facilities and space construction, leading the department’s successful accreditation review and managing the day-to-day operations of the university’s sixth largest department (with 66 faculty, 30 staff and 1,900 students).

Dr. Beck holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. Her research accomplishments include designing, fabricating and characterizing wide band gap UV avalanche photodiodes (APDs) in SiC, GaP and AlGaN/GaN material systems for use in biological agent detection and non-line-of-sight communications under the DARPA SUVOS program, and designing processes for recessed window and thin-metal structures to enhance carrier collection efficiency.

About the National Renewable Energy Laboratory

NREL is the Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for DOE by The Alliance for Sustainable Energy, LLC.

About the Smart Grid Demonstration Project at Mueller

In November 2009, the Department of Energy awarded Pecan Street Project, Inc. a $10.4 million regional smart grid demonstration grant to deploy an advanced smart grid project at the Mueller development in central Austin. The Mueller neighborhood – a public-private joint venture between the City of Austin and Catellus Development Group – is located at the site of Austin’s former airport.

The demonstration project will integrate with Austin Energy’s next generation smart grid platform to create, operate, and evaluate an open platform Energy Internet – a type of smart grid that allows two-way electricity and information flow and is modeled on the architecture of the Internet.  Residential and commercial participation in the project is voluntary.

The project will analyze these results against control groups and distribution feeder systems in other locations in the City of Austin to quantify how the integration of these technologies impacts electricity usage and bills, the utility’s finances, environmental outcomes and overall system performance.

In February 2011, the organization completed systems installation and went live with the first phase of its smart grid demonstration project in Austin’s Mueller community.  Deployed by Austin-based Incenergy LLC, the home smart grid systems capture minute-to-minute energy usage for the whole home and six major appliances or systems. The project achieved an installed cost per home of $341 ($241 for equipment plus $100 for installation).

The systems are deployed in 100 homes at Mueller, all of which are green built and 11 of which have rooftop solar PV systems. This spring, Pecan Street Project will deploy Incenergy systems in a second group of 100 homes outside Mueller that are at least 10 years old. All participants in both groups are volunteers.

The data collected from these first 200 homes will provide a baseline against which the organization can compare the impact the technologies and services to be tested will have on energy consumption.

About Pecan Street Project Inc.

Headquartered at The University of Texas at Austin, Pecan Street Project Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) smart grid and clean energy research and development organization.  Incorporated in 2009, the organization’s board includes representatives from The University of Texas, Austin Energy, Environmental Defense Fund, the Austin Technology Incubator, the City of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

In September 2009, it received funding from the University of Texas and a grant from the Capital Area Council of Governments through an award from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. In November 2009, the organization received a U.S. Department of Energy stimulus award for a Smart Grid Demonstration Project at Austin’s Mueller community. In November 2010, it received an award from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to research the impact of energy efficiency retrofits in older homes.

In March 2010, it released a report of recommendations for how to spur energy system advancements. The recommendations were the product of joint industry-university-utility-public sector working groups. For more information or to download the report of recommendations, visit www.pecanstreetproject.org.