TexasIsHot – Energy Efficiency

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Dec 28 2012

How a Texas neighborhood became EV heaven

by david in Blog with 0 Comments

“This is one of the few places where you can see a Chevrolet Volt traffic jam,” laughs Scott Hinson, the lab director for Pecan Street Inc., an alternative energy project in Austin, Texas.

More precisely, Pecan Street is a one-square-mile neighborhood in Austin, Texas, that has become the heart of an ambitious project aimed at testing out alternative technologies – such as plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt as well as “smart grid” electric distribution – and also running an incredibly detailed analysis of how effective such technologies really are at reducing energy consumption.

The project has drawn the support of General Motors and a wide range of utilities and high-tech firms, such as computer maker Dell and chip-making giant Intel. The U.S. Department of Energy has so far kicked in $10.4 million, private partners another $14 million. But the critical piece of the puzzle has been getting local residents to sign up.

“The project is focused squarely on consumers, enlisting real people to gather data from these homes to help structure next-generation energy systems,” Brewster McCracken, the project’s executive director, explained in a statement.

So far, about 600 homes and commercial buildings have agreed to participate. What that means can vary: The most basic requirement is hooking up to a smart grid system and then permitting Pecan Street Inc. to closely monitor each home’s consumption of energy at a level akin to the slow-motion camera networks now use to watch an NFL quarterback’s throw.

Disasters such as Superstorm Sandy, as well as major blackouts, have routinely demonstrated that the nation’s electric grid is creaky, at best. “It’s not getting better,” John Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the public interest research group ProPublica. “It’s getting worse.”

Complicating matters, utilities are facing the prospect of having to handle the potential demands of electric vehicles like those Chevy Volts. There are already 60 electric cars in use in the Pecan Street community, most of them Chevrolet plug-ins. Eventually, however, utilities could be asked to power up millions of electric vehicles.

“The electric car represents the largest electric load introduced into a residential home in the last 50, maybe 75 years,” notes Hinson.

Smart grid systems are designed to help maximize both the efficiency and robustness of America’s electric utility network – and make sure there’ll be enough power to go around without necessarily adding hundreds of new generating stations. Among other things, Pecan Street participants agree to have power to such things as air conditioning and battery car chargers temporarily interrupted if grid demand peaks.

Meanwhile, the monitoring system takes about 1,440 snapshots every 15 minutes revealing how power is being used in each participating home or business. The data generated is so precise it can reveal when a low-power light bulb is turned on and where – though steps have been taken to maintain participants’ privacy.

Ultimately, the information gathered by the project should help utilities – as well as consumers – understand the literal ebbs and flow of electric demand.

The Pecan Street project also will help create a better understanding of the role utility customers can play in the generation of renewable energy. About 200 participants now have added rooftop solar panels to their homes.

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While there’s a nationwide push to increase the use of renewable energy there’s also some pushback from utilities who warn not only of the cost of solar and wind generators but their potentially erratic nature. Several years ago, Texas utilities faced an unexpected brown-out situation when winds becalmed the state’s largest wind farms, creating a sudden energy shortage.

General Motors, which has been active in the Pecan Street program, is betting that those Chevy Volts may play a role. The maker is looking at ways to modify the vehicles in subsequent generations so consumers could tap the energy stored in their batteries in the future should a home be hit by a blackout.

An even more expansive program would tap into batteries after the vehicles they’re used in are sent to the scrapyard. The automaker expects that even after a decade of driving there’ll still be plenty of life left in those lithium-ion battery packs.

GM is now partnering with Duke Energy, a major U.S. utility, and ABB, one of the world’s largest suppliers of electric grid equipment, to test the potential of using old electric-vehicle batteries to create an energy backup system. That’s “the Holy Grail,” suggests Duke’s new technology project manager Dan Sowder, because it could “help enable the safe and reliable integration of renewable energy into the grid.”

The partners are testing a prototype battery-backup system that could handle four to five homes. Eventually, such devices might be placed throughout the Pecan Street neighborhood – though even smaller units might be used in individual homes, the partners suggest.

Programs like Pecan Street are helping consumers and utilities alike get a better sense of what the nation’s energy future might look like, one neighborhood at a time.

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Testimonials
  • "I applaud the Coalition and its partners for their tremendous effort in bringing this information to consumers and I encourage all Texans to visit the website and learn what they can do to be energy efficient and save money on their electric bill." - State Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas), Chairman of Senate Business and Commerce Committee
  • "“As the Texas population continues to grow, so will our energy consumption needs. We must have tools that empower the consumer to choose their products and monitor their usage wisely. TexasIsHot.org is a great resource, which is exactly what Texans need in today’s deregulated market.”" - State Rep. Burt Solomons (R-Carrollton), Chairman of House State Affairs Committee
  • "In order to meet our goals, we need programs like the TexasIsHot campaign to help change the way people think about energy." - State Sen. Troy Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay), Chairman of Senate Natural Resources Committee
  • "Texas leads the nation in wind power because it makes money, not because it makes us feel better. Texans are a practical, penny-wise people who I think will be happy to learn how to save a few bucks on their power bills with the common-sense advice at TexasIsHot.org."-Jerry Patterson, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office
  • "If every Texas household adopted just a few of the dozens of energy efficiency strategies referenced on TexasIsHot.org, our air would be cleaner, our limited supply of natural resources would be better protected, and our wallets would be heavier..." Kip Averitt (R-Waco), Former State Senator and Chairman of Senate Committee on Natural Resources
  • ”The TexasIsHot campaign targets an important piece of the clean energy effort -- educating Texans on the way we use electricity and quantifying the financial and environmental costs associated with our use. By just reducing the amount of electricity we use and waste, TexasIsHot.org can show people how to save money..." State Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin)
  • "Fluctuating energy costs are really hurting Texas families and businesses, but by just making a few easy changes, Texans can cut down on energy waste. TexasIsHot.org is a tremendous resource which arms consumers with the information they need to save themselves money by becoming more energy efficient, and help our environment." State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston)
  • "Texas is the third fastest growing state in the nation with a net growth of 1,000 people each and every day. This brings many challenges including providing clean and affordable electricity. That is why I'm excited about TexasIsHot.org. This website is an instructional resource that will help Texans save on their energy bills at home and in the workplace..." State Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford)
  • "Now, more than ever, Texans need to work together to conserve energy and to make more efficient use of the energy we consume. The TexasIsHot.org website is an extraordinary resource for people who want to save money and help conserve our precious natural resources..." State Rep. Rafael Anchía (D-Dallas)
  • "By partnering with the TexasIsHot Coalition we can extend our effort’s reach, leverage our resources, and ensure that Austin’s energy grid continues to be a test-bed for technologies, products, and services that will transform our state’s energy system." Brewster McCracken, Executive Director, Pecan Street Project
  • "The City of Houston is working harder than ever to make Houston green and energy efficient, but we need the help of every citizen. I would encourage everyone to take a moment to explore the TexasIsHot website to learn what we can all do to make Houston, and the rest of Texas, the green and energy efficient example for the rest of the nation." Mayor Annise Parker, Houston
  • "Energy efficiency is one of our top priorities. Partnering with the TexasIsHot Coalition will help us educate citizens and local businesses about energy-efficient practices in order to meet our goal of reducing residential and commercial electric use." Gavin Dillingham, Chief of Sustainable Growth – General Services Department, for the City of Houston
  • "We are excited about the new partnership that the City of Corpus Christi has entered into with the TexasIsHot Coalition. TexasIsHot.org provides a platform to educate policy makers, city employees and citizens on how to save money and help the environment by conserving energy..." Mayor Joe Adame, Corpus Christi
  • "I am excited that the City of Corpus Christi has joined the TexasIsHot Coalition and look forward to working with them to help Texans become smarter energy users. Energy efficiency is by far the best way for people to reduce their bills and help the environment, but we need education and outreach to make this happen." State Rep. Solomon Ortiz, Jr (D-Corpus Christi)
  • "Because of its fast growth and hot summers, Texas has to get smarter about energy conservation. I applaud the efforts of Corpus Christi and TexasIsHot to help businesses and residents reap the benefits of increased efficiency." Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen)
  • "Energy efficiency is the cleanest, quickest and cheapest way to get smart about energy use, saving both money and the environment. I applaud the TexasIsHot Coalition in their effort to educate Texans about the benefits of energy efficiency..." Luke Metzger, Director, Environment Texas
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