Making Energy Exciting

Alcalde - University of Texas November 5, 2012

A century ago, The University of Texas was built on energy. Some sources may have changed, but as these brilliant innovations prove, UT is still charging ahead.


Make managing energy exciting for customers.

Let’s say your house could see your calendar. It could adjust the room temp and even open the garage when you pulled into the driveway. And your hardware store knew your house had leaky windows and offered you a discount on new ones.

Pecan Street Inc. is bringing this day closer. The UT-based nonprofit consortium has been running a demonstration project on energy out of the Mueller development, less than two miles from the Forty Acres. There, 250 homes (plus another 200 elsewhere) have their energy use monitored. Many have solar panels and electric cars whose impact is gauged, too.

Most utility companies measure how much energy is used every 15 minutes for a house as a whole. Pecan Street homes have theirs checked every 15 seconds—and on six circuits in the house.

Pecan Street’s executive director, Brewster McCracken, JD ’95, MPAff ’95, can look at his iPad and see how much power his microwave, fridge, TV, and A/C are drawing at any moment, all on color-coded graphs.

The Texas Advanced Computing Center collects the usage information and analyzes it. To date, it has collected more than 7 billion rows of data.

The key, McCracken and his team believe, is that the data can’t be overwhelming. Instead, it must enable innovations. To succeed with customers, energy can’t be a matter of boring, behind-the-scenes money-saving. It has to be a source of instant, life-improving information—like leaving the teenagers home alone for a weekend and getting a notification if the toilet flushes 45 times in one hour on Saturday night. Now that holds homeowner appeal.

To make energy info more user-friendly, Pecan Street has partnered with private companies like Sony, providing them access (with strict privacy guidelines) to data about consumer energy use. Other participants include Intel, Whirlpool, and the GM subsidiary OnStar, which has made 100 electric Chevy Volts available for Pecan Street homeowners to buy or lease. “Whatever is developed in the next few years, customers have to love it,” Pecan Street spokesman Colin Rowan, BJ ’93, MA ’97, Life Member, says.

Pecan Street’s next endeavor: a $1.5 million commercialization lab in the Mueller community. The Pike Powers Commercialization Lab will provide testing facilities to UT researchers, member companies, and technology start-ups. Eventually, it will yield much more than just consumer energy management, but its first innovations are likely to be outgrowths of Pecan Street’s energy-monitoring project. Energy is about to get more glam. —Lynn Freehill