Brewster McCracken

Brewster McCracken, Executive Director of Pecan Street Inc., speaks Tuesday evening about the preliminary results of research on a Smart Grid. The smart grid can highlight areas where energy is being wasted.

Photo Credit: Philip Hutchinson | Daily Texan Staff

Austin-based smart grid researchers conducted field trials in the North Austin Mueller neighborhood and found more efficient ways to place solar panels and measure energy consumption.

The preliminary results of Pecan Street Inc.’s research on smart grid technology present ways to boost energy efficiency in residential and commercial appliances. At the Austin Forum presentation on June 5, Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc., said his team noticed interesting patterns in consumer energy use during the two-year study of Mueller.

“We’re not yet sure about everything that could be done with all this data that we’ve collected, but already we have noticed important trends,” McCracken said. “One of which is that west-facing solar panels almost supply the total energy demands of consumers during peak times.”

McCracken said there are certain times of day that have peak energy demands, differing between weekdays and weekends.

“With the data acquired from smart grids, you can see the exact time that electricity consumption is at its highest,” McCracken said. “And even more importantly, you can see what devices are using what amount of electricity.”

Collecting data on every appliance in a household isn’t without its risks, McCracken said.

“Of course, privacy with [large amounts of] data is also a big concern,” McCracken said. “With access to that data, the wrong person could tell when you’re not home and then rob it, or an insurance company could figure out if you have become liable because you are using some kind of medical device.”

Because of this, it would be difficult to make the data open source, but there is still room for application developers to figure out how to manipulate the data to make life easier for everyone, McCracken said.

Ross Baldick, electrical and computer engineering professor, said the current state of electrical grid technology applies to energy usage monitoring and how energy goes from production to transmission.

“Smart grid means different things to different people,” Baldick said. “Arguably, the generation and transmission part of the grid, together with the system operator, is already quite smart.”

Baldick said smart grid technology could be used to save consumers money on their electrical bill by targeting inefficient appliances.

“Often, people also include home energy management as an example of smart grid [technology], although I’m not sure I would strictly consider my home as part of the grid,” Baldick said. “The benefits of automating your home energy could be increased ability for consumers to keep track of energy usage, like receiving an email when your AC is performing less efficiently than it should, and helping improve [power stability].”

Juan Ontiveros, executive director of Utilities and Energy Management at UT said the University uses smart grid technology to monitor and manage its energy use.

“We have been using the smart grid approach as it applies to our total energy production for about seven years,” Ontiveros said. “We have installed a real time digital control system to manage the electrical distribution from our power generation and back up power from Austin Energy to our campus buildings.”

Ontiveros said UT’s energy management system can intelligently manage power outages without causing disruptions on campus.

“Shutting down chilled water production has thus far been sufficient to sustain our power production when [there are shortages],” Ontiveros said. “Normally we can do this without the campus even knowing we had an issue. We have not had to shed other campus facilities thus far. We work hard to avoid this issue.”

Ontiveros said UT’s system has proved effective for decades and the University hopes to add to their smart grid capabilities.

“Campus reliability is one of the primary benefits [of the smart grid] and this has served us well for 40 years since we have only experienced three campus-wide power outages in this period,” Ontiveros said. “The University is already expanding the digital power management grid to import facility electrical information to indicate and diagnose problems in the facilities faster.”

UT chemical engineering professor, Thomas Edgar, is a board member for Pecan Street Incorporated. The organization is dedicated to researching alternative energy solutions and will begin construction next week.

Photo Credit: Fanny Trang | Daily Texan Staff

A green energy research company working directly with the University will soon relocate to an energy-efficient neighborhood one-and-a-half miles from campus.

Pecan Street Inc., a research and development organization dedicated to studying clean energy options, will begin construction next week on the $1.5 million Pike Powers Commercialization Lab, said Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc. UT became one of the founding members of Pecan Street Inc. three years ago and the company has since raised $3.3 million in research money for the University, McCracken said.

McCracken said the goal of Pecan Street Inc. is to perfect the future of home energy. The Pecan Street Inc. office is currently located at UT’s West Pickle Research Center, but will have its own lab near the old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport by August, McCracken said.

“You won’t be able to see it from campus but it’ll definitely be just a short walk or bike ride away,” McCracken said. “In this area, there is a big interest in green energy. There are more and more people putting solar panels on their roofs, and it’s pretty amazing.”

The Mueller neighborhood demonstration project, an urban neighborhood built on the old Mueller airport site where researchers with Pecan Street Inc. test green energy products, now has 210 homes that use solar panels and will soon have 100 electric cars within a one mile radius, McCracken said.

“One hundred electric cars within a mile is the densest population of electric cars in the U.S,” McCracken said. “Usually five within one mile is considered a lot, so this is huge.”

About 20 UT graduate students and professors will conduct research at the new lab, said Thomas Edgar, chemical engineering professor and Pecan Street Inc. board member.

“The number of researchers required to pull this together has really been great for supporting both students and faculty,” Edgar said.

The supercomputer at the J.J. Pickle Research Center is used to store the data collected by researchers, he said.

“The students are met with the daunting task of organizing all the data stored in the supercomputer and then making sense of it,” Edgar said. 

He said giving graduate students a chance to work in a real research environment that affects the real world is a great learning experience.

“So many times students want to work on graduate projects alone but these 20 students will have to work together, ask each other questions and compare data and we want to ensure they can do that,” Edgar said.

The lab will mostly be in use by engineering students but will be available to others as well, Edgar said. He said outstanding students are usually identified by professors to help with the research.

“More students should research green energy because it is something we are all going to have to deal with,” electrical engineering freshman Bianca Remmie said. “Older students are always coming into my classes telling us about research opportunities and to talk to our professors about it and I can’t wait to.” 

Printed on Thursday, February 2, 2012 as: Green research company relocates