In the summer of 2011, Texas experienced a heat wave that had electricity providers sweating. So many homes were cranking the air conditioning that utility companies feared the electric grid couldn’t handle the strain. One Austin neighborhood stood out. During triple-digit afternoons, homes in the area with south-facing solar panels drew half the energy they needed from their own rooftops.
That kind of detailed information can be invaluable to utility providers and policymakers who have to worry about the consequences of brownouts or more sustained losses of power. Few research organizations track energy usage as minutely--and across such a range of traditional structures and more modern green construction--as Pecan Street Inc. Headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin, the nonprofit is generating information that could change the way utility companies think about pricing and distributing energy, and how consumers think about their energy use. Tracking how a critical mass of solar panels could affect a neighborhood’s electricity demand is only the beginning.
"Smart grid is almost more of a shorthand term for bringing big data to electricity," says Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street. By applying information technology to the electric grid, so-called ‘smart grid’ initiatives could lower electricity prices, make the system more reliable, and unlock new opportunities for innovation. McCracken envisions a future in which customers run their appliances, and manage their home’s utilities from their smartphones.
President Obama included $3.4 billion in smart grid investment in his 2009 stimulus package, and over the past few years utility companies have been steadily installing smart meters in people’s homes. Such meters provide customers with detailed information about their energy use--usually on an hourly basis--and help utility providers both locate and respond to outages faster.