Energy studies focus on Austin neighborhood

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Rooftops in an East Austin community are covered with solar panels. It’s a place where the concentration of electric cars may be higher than any neighborhood in the nation. And the energy industry is learning from what homeowners here do.

Daily life in the Mueller community is helping researchers learn.

Mueller is where the Pecan Street Demonstration. It’s a project of Pecan Street, Inc. which is based at the University of Texas.

“When I first moved here I didn’t think about [technologies such as solar panels and electric vehicles],” said Hon Chan, who moved to the Mueller area about five years ago.

“For the last year I didn’t even pay any electrical bill at all… [all the energy was] provided by the solar panels,” Chan said.

Chan installed solar panels with the help of subsidies. He also got help purchasing a Chevy Volt.

“I went up to Denver about two times already,” said Chan. “The total average is about 68 miles per gallon.”

The Pecan Street Demonstration tracks data from the solar panels and electric vehicles. Homeowners can log on to their computers to see it from themselves.

The data can update up to four times each minute.

From that information, researchers found solar panel systems in neighborhoods like Mueller could help utilities handle heavy demand in the summer. And in those cases, panels that face west do a better job.

The research also suggests utilities may be able to handle more electric cars than predicted. Drivers weren’t plugging in their cars as much as some models showed they would at peak hours.

“People can see what we’re doing and build more clean energies,” Chan said.

Mueller is not the only community with these “smart” technologies. Pecan Street, Inc. has more than 1,000 homes it is working with in Texas and California. The organization also plans expansion to Colorado.

Still, Mueller is where this began and 250 homes there are participating, along with another 250 elsewhere in Austin.

This demonstration isn’t free. Washington awarded Pecan Street, Inc. $13.5 million in stimulus money.

Homeowners in the Mueller area are volunteers. However, some opponents of “smart meter” technology want to be sure those meters are also optional.

What the Smart Grid technology tracks:

  • Solar – Panels are monitored for generation patterns.
  • EV charging – EVs are monitored for charging behavior.
  • AC/Heating – Information could help develop maintenance/performance insight.
  • Pricing Trial – Some participants are incentivized by a simulated pricing study.
  • Thermostat settings – Researchers are studying the performance and effectiveness of the pre-loaded thermostat settings.
  • Information/Text Messages during grid events – Researchers are studying the impact of providing instant information sent to participants via text message regarding peak grid activity.

Source: Pecan Street, Inc.

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