Austin smart energy project

Pecan Street focuses on customer side of meter

Phil Carson | Feb 21, 2011


Pecan Street Project in Austin, Texas, stands out for its early embrace of stakeholder collaboration and its lack of reliance on a utility-centric, ratepayer risk model followed by at least one troubled predecessor (aka SmartGridCity).

The project just issued a new request for information (RFI) from vendors who would like to partner in this comprehensive smart grid demonstration project, allowing those vendors to have their gear tested in a real-world project. The deadline for interested parties is May 17.

The new RFI reflects some changes over the past months from its original form, which are worth calling out because those changes reflect the project's focus.

"The biggest evolution is that our entire deployment is around home energy management (HEM) trials," Executive Director Brewster McCracken told me. "The HEM is the operating system for customer participation.

"One thing that's unchanged from our initial RFI in late November is that—unique to this nation's smart grid projects—the focus here is on the customer side of the meter.

"I'd like to clarify that we're not trying to identify one solution provider," McCracken added, "but will test many solutions to help develop standards and best practices for HEMs for smart grid systems."

As many as 1,000 homes in the Mueller neighborhood adjacent to downtown Austin (formerly the site of the municipal airport), as well as older nearby neighborhoods will be participating in energy management trials to begin this fall, McCracken said.

Right now, in Phase One, those homes are wired to gather baseline energy use information, including electricity, natural gas and water. In Phase Two, the project will integrate a variety of dynamic pricing models for participating homes, which will also incorporate electric vehicles, solar photovoltaic panels and home energy storage. Each home will be monitored as a whole house as well as six separate circuits for various energy consumption patterns.

The project has been modeling the effects of different technologies on over-arching challenges faced by utilities such as peak demand, pollution and finances relating to meeting those two challenges. Participants discovered that when HEMs were involved in the mix, the value propositions of various technologies changed radically, many of them positively.

Naturally, having been a critic of Xcel Energy's conduct of its SmartGridCity project in Boulder, Colo., with its cost overruns charged to ratepayers, I had to ask McCracken how Pecan Street would avoid such a scenario.

"First, having stakeholder participation by actual consumers can give us feedback and act as an early warning system if we get off track," he said. "One lesson we learned from SmartGridCity is that we're taking the exact opposite approach. They took the utility side of the meter and they generated great expense without consumer involvement. You have to do both, but the customer side has been neglected."

On the issue of potential ratepayer liability, McCracken said:

"If you are a regulator and you want an insurance policy against rate shock, you'd want a nonprofit corporation based in a tier-one research university," he said.

That, in fact, is the model for Pecan Street Project, which has involvement from a wide variety of stakeholders, including Austin Energy, but no recourse to cost recovery mechanisms typically available to investor-owned utilities.

The project got off the ground in 2009 with an impressive array of local partners, which included the City of Austin, Austin Energy, The University of Texas, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Austin Technology Incubator.

While I won't recount the details, the project attracted $10.4 million in federal stimulus funds and $14.5 million in local matching funds, which includes in-kind services from many stakeholders and financial support from the Capital Area Council of Governments, augmented last October by $350,000 from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

I also spoke with Bert Haskell, who joined Pecan Street in August 2010 as technology director, with a background in renewable energy and consumer electronics. We touched on the interoperability aspect of the project.

Haskell said Pecan Street would approach interoperability from three domains: technical, informational and operational. The technical domain refers to communications standards and the informational domain refers to data formats. As for the operational domain, Haskell said, "we'd like to understand the policies and regulatory frameworks and business models that will emerge in the new energy economy."

"Our program right now is pretty unique," Haskell said, "with a level of collaboration and focus on what consumers want out of a smart grid. I hope we're emulated around the country. Smart grid will not be business as usual. We think the power industry is going to re-invent itself."

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily


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Brewster McCracken answers reader's question

That is a very perceptive reader comment.  


Our current Phase 1 is the control group. Participants do not receive any feedback or information during this 12-month data collection period. We are finding out how people currently use energy, gas and water without the introduction of new technologies, pricing or information feedback (such as real-time customer information displays). 


In particular, the 100 homes outside of Mueller will have a statistically distributed array of building ages, levels of improvements and customer demographics. Many of these homes will have done little or nothing to energy conservation. The homes that went through the ECAD audit did not have required upgrades - only audits. The preliminary data suggests that nearly 90 percent of homes that went through the ECAD audit process in fact made no upgrades. One area of inquiry in that portion of our work will be to find out why some people made improvements while most apparently did not.


Dr. Michael Webber from The University of Texas will be leading the project's statistical evaluation of results. His analysis will be subject to peer review and the wide range of formalized academic scrutiny that accompanies publication of academic research results and conclusions.


Pecan Street

Austin Energy's project seems to be more carefully thought out than some of the others I'm acquainted with.  It also has the important advantage of being in ERCOT, an energy-only wholesale market where so far, at least, politicians and regulators have resisted the temptation to "protect" consumers from occasional high prices. 

I'm hoping the Pecan Street experiment will finally put to rest any reservations on the part of regulators and self-styled consumer advocates that consumers are unable to deal with dynamic pricing.  If tied to wholesale prices, dynamic retail pricing provides the information consumers need to adjust their electricity consumption in ways that benefit the grid without subjecting consumers to the confusing plethora of tariffs and program rules that characterize more typical and largely unsuccessful attempts to influence consumer behavior via electricity pricing.  I still think wholesale markets provide too little forward visibility, but that's a problem that can be fixed.

I'm also hoping that at least some consumers have an opportunity to experiment with a rate that combines a tailored hedge with exposure to real-time prices, because I think this is going to be the most sensible and most popular way for consumers to take advantage of the benefits offered by dynamic pricing.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Please explain....


If you could edify our readers with a brief explanation of your preferred "tailored hedge with exposure to real-time prices," please.

Regards, Phil Carson


The PSP has an outstanding charter. That said, the "partner" list contains a wide array of green enthusiasts/proponents. It will take a good measure of discipline for project leaders to keep biases at bay...and that must be done for the sake of credibility.

Currently the PSP has 100 homes in Mueller and 100 homes elsewhere, all being subject to energy audits. According to the RFQ for auditors:

"Upon completion of the 200 energy audits Pecan Street Project will quantify the
environmental, energy and economic impact of energy retrofits and green building. This
analysis will compare the load profiles of three groups of buildings:

1) 100 new green built homes at Mueller,

2) A total of 100 older homes that received ECAD audits with a sampling from those
that undertook recommended retrofits, and

3) A sampling of homes that received ECAD audits that undertook relatively few or
no efficiency retrofits."

It seems to me what is missing here is a "control group"...a group of 100 homes that has done nothing toward the goal of energy conservation. The load profile of this group would provide an independent "base case" which self-adjusts for seasonal excursions. While it is impossible to get a completely sterile control, this would probably suffice.

It is imperitive that the PSP get the science right. A failure to do so will ultimately discredit the entire effort...and at this point in the era of Smart Grid hysteria, we've already got plenty of discredited efforts.

Thanks for this thoughtful remark

I'll foward this comment to Brewster McCracken and see if, indeed, a control group as you outline is in the works. I'd be surprised if it isn't.

Let's see what he says.

Regards, Phil Carson