The Pecan Street Project
Around the country, more and more energy customers are asking “What can I do to make a difference?”
Pecan Street Inc. is a University of Texas-based research organization that is conducting research trials with volunteer energy customers that allow them to take charge of their energy use, reduce their carbon footprint and help utilities and technology companies design new energy and consumer electronic products and services. These volunteers are part of the world’s largest research network of real-world energy use.
Our research began in Austin in 2010 and has since expanded to other parts of Texas and to other cities across the country, including Boulder, Colorado and San Diego, California.
“Our goal is to speed up innovation in energy, and the way we think that needs to happen is by involving the customer in decision making,” Colin Rowan, director of communications for Pecan Street, said. “We’re inviting them into a large energy field trial to find out what they like, what they don’t like and what they want.”
Supported by a $10.4 million smart grid demonstration grant from the Department of Energy and more than $14 million in matching funds from partners, Pecan Street Inc. and our team of researchers from The University of Texas, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Environmental Defense Fund have recruited more than 1,200 participants that are helping us test and evaluate:
- distributed clean energy
- energy storage technologies
- smart grid water and smart grid irrigation systems
- smart appliances
- plug-in electric vehicles
- advanced meters and home energy management systems
- green building
- new electricity pricing models
It’s an ambitious effort intended to not only “smarten” up the grid, but find true benefits that energy customers want.
All residential and business participants in Pecan Street’s research are volunteers. None are paid, and none have to pay to participate. All usage data is collected and maintained under strict cyber-security standards approved by the Department of Energy. All data is encrypted, and each participant’s data is anonymized.
Pecan Street’s work began in Austin, where its network of participants represents the highest concentration of electric vehicles in the country and one of the most “solar heavy” communities. Volunteers receive technologies that track energy use in the home to make energy monitoring more intelligent and cost-effective. Some additional technologies are also being tested with select participants.
The Mueller neighborhood is located on land used for decades as Austin’s airport, and its redevelopment was the perfect opportunity to launch Pecan Street’s research in 2010. Our participants are now spread across the rest of Austin, across Texas and now into San Diego and Boulder, Colorado.
But Mueller has garnered a lot of attention. As a result of Pecan Street’s research, approximately a quarter of the homes have solar panels, and the neighborhood boasts the highest concentration of electric vehicles in the country
Interested individuals can still apply to participate in Pecan Street’s Austin work.
In 2012, Pecan Street and Green Mountain Energy launched a research trial that was made possible by additional funding from the Department of Energy and supported by the Smart Meter Texas home energy access initiative.
Through this project, Pecan Street developed and tested a free home environmental solutions app based on data from the Smart Meter Texas portal. The app brings the often daunting task of energy management right into the hands of energy customers who are eager to make a tangible impact for themselves, their community and their environment.
More than 250 homeowners participated in the trial. They received access to a personalized website that allows them to monitor their energy use and its correlation to utility bills alongside practical, individualized tips for reducing energy use and costs.
Pecan Street is currently recruiting participants in the Dallas / Ft. Worth area.
In 2013, the city of Boulder teamed up with Pecan Street on a pilot program called Community Power Partnership to track energy and water use in 50 homes in two diverse neighborhoods and to track energy use at 25 businesses and a Boulder high school. Participation is voluntary and confidential; homeowners and businesses have access to their own data, Pecan Street has access only to anonymized data, and the city running its research queries through Pecan Street.
The initial program will run for two years, but the monitors could stay in the homes for longer if residents and the city find the information useful.
What Boulder officials learn from the energy monitoring could shape the programs and services offered by a future city-run electric utility, said Kara Mertz, Boulder’s local environmental action manager. In addition to gaining a better of understanding of how customers use energy and water in their homes, the city will also use the findings to determine whether people change their energy and water habits in response to real-time data. City officials also want to learn about the actual — rather than the presumed — energy savings from its Climate Smart programs.
“This is really where the rubber meets the road,” Mertz said. “What kind of services do people want? Unless we start now trying to figure out what people want, on Day One of the utility, we won’t know.”
In addition to looking at energy use, Pecan Street collects demographic and facility information — how many people live in the home, what kind of energy efficiency modifications have been made, whether the home has solar panels or an electric vehicle, whether someone works at home during the day. This information makes it possible to compare use in homes with similar size and occupants. Boulder recruited a diverse group of participants so people can see: how their usage compares to someone with similar households, not just homes close to them.
Pecan Street and San Diego Gas & Electric began working in the new Civita neighborhood to enroll 50 residents in a research trial that will provide SDG&E with a better understanding of energy consumption and how behavioral changes impact the electric grid. This research will benefit many different areas within SDG&E, including procurement, Home Area Network projects, and future smart grid related activities.
“This research will take smart grid technology to a new level by providing among the most detailed energy usage data to customers through technology that is not even on the market yet,” said John Sowers, SDG&E vice president for generation and resource planning. “Through the research study, SDG&E will learn how this in-depth data can help customers to make smarter energy decisions and save money.”
Pecan Street provides participants with a free website and mobile application that provides real-time information on the customer’s electricity use down to the appliance and circuit level as well as information on appliance, rooftop solar panel and home energy performance. The service is powered by an “energy data router” installed at the customer’s circuit panel. The router is manufactured in California.
By understanding how customers use electricity at the circuit level, SDG&E hopes to identify ways to tailor future utility programs related to home area networks, energy efficiency and demand response. Demand response programs signal customers when to reduce usage in order to meet resource demand when the grid is reaching capacity. This knowledge could also allow SDG&E to recommend specific measures customers can take to both reduce use and cost.