Austin's Pecan Street, a Smart Grid 'City Bloc,' Adds PV Solar and EVs during Phase Two

By Cheryl Kaften October 12, 2011

A neighborhood in Austin, Texas, is going “Back to the Future,” as it moves forward on plans to completely redevelop a 700-acre former municipal airport site into a leading-edge, mix-used, sustainable urban test bed.

The development — a part of the Pecan Street Inc. demonstration project launched in 2009 by the University of Texas at Austin — is providing a real-world crucible of a smart grid and its various components. Now, it has announced that it is entering its second phase, which includes testing electric vehicle (EV) car chargers at 100 residences and solar energy generation at 176 homes.

Just three miles from downtown Austin, Pecan Street already has been certified as the largest LEED-ND community worldwide. LEED-ND is a rating system that integrates the principles of smart growth, urbanism, and green building into neighborhood design. The system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Congress for the New Urbanism, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It aims to benefit communities by reducing urban sprawl, decreasing automobile dependence; and promoting walkability and the proximity of housing to jobs and services.

Pecan Street Inc. is a non-profit smart grid and clean energy research and development organization, funded, in large part, by a November 2009 $10.4 million smart-grid demonstration grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. This year, it received more than $14 million in matching funds from project partners, which include Best Buy, Freescale, General Motors, Intel, SunEdison, Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr; Whirlpool; and Sony, which joined just last week.

There are about 200 residential participants so far in Pecan Street. Through the project, smart appliances, household batteries, plug-in cars, rooftop solar panels, smart grid water and smart grid irrigation systems, as well as advanced metering infrastructure from the project partners are being configured to communicate with each other — as well as with the grid at large — in a way that enables them to manage peak loads, reduce household power bills, and keep the grid humming smoothly.

Several hundred E350 FOCUS AX smart meters from Landis+Gyr, along with an associated communication networking platform, will make it possible for the Best Buy/Check-It, Intel, Sony, and Whirlpool home services systems to integrate pricing and demand management information from utility distribution systems.

When the project is completed, more than 4,900 planned homes (25 percent of them, representing affordable housing) and 4.5 million square feet of office and retail space will be “ultra-green-built,” with a reclaimed water system and carbon-sequestered landscaping.

“To be relevant, smart grid innovations must solve consumers’ problems and provide services that excite them,” said Pecan Street Inc. Executive Director Brewster McCracken.  “We are thrilled to have these forward-thinking companies working with our researchers and with the hundreds of residents who are volunteering their homes and their time.”

In this latest phase, the EVs are being supplied by General Motors, which by summer 2012 will start making 102 plug-in Chevrolet Volts available to people living in the test area, with a special offer of double the existing $7,500 federal rebate to spur purchases. Thus, this project also may come to represent the largest residential concentration of plug-in vehicles, as opposed to use by a corporate fleet (such as Google’s 250 and counting plug-ins). To date, more than 130 residents within a square-mile area have signed up to buy or lease a Volt.

Beltsville, Maryland-based SunEdison will be in charge of developing the solar panel-connected plug-in vehicle charging systems. Just how a rooftop set of solar panels that generates energy during the day will be used to charge cars that will probably do most of their charging at night remains to be seen— although at least some of the Pecan Street homes will have batteries in place, including some lithium-ion batteries being installed by Sony USA. Optimizing a solar power system’s output for both car charging and grid balancing represents another level of complexity.

The rooftop solar panels are already in place, with “about 60 percent [of them] west-facing,” McCracken said.

The organization offered additional incentives for installing solar on the west face of homes and higher incentives for solar on both the south and west sides of homes, so the effectiveness of both could be measured. During the hottest part of the year, August, the homes with solar were producing significant amounts of energy in the test.

The organization’s board includes representatives from The University of Texas, Austin Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Austin Technology Incubator, the City of Austin and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. More residential participants are still welcome to join.


Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

IoTevolutionworld Contributor

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