Pecan Street Project A Game Changing Energy Initiative

Posted on May 2nd, 2011 by

Brewster McCracken, Executive Director of the Pecan Street Project, provides some insight on the energy research that is taking place in the 700 acre Mueller Community in Austin, Texas.

Ben Lack: I’m with Brewster McCracken, the Executive Director of the Pecan Street Project. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Brewster McCracken: Thanks, Ben.
Ben Lack: You guys are based in Austin, Texas. I want you to start-off by talking to us a little bit about what does the group do?
Brewster McCracken: We are a research organization headquartered in the University of Texas. We’re working with the best researchers in the University of Texas, major technology and clean energy companies, and utilities. They come together to solve problems around electricity and its economic inclusion impacts.
Ben Lack: You guys really do help and work with a lot of organizations on helping them test their technologies. Can you go through with us the application of how you are either approached by different companies and organizations to test certain technologies, or how you approach other groups? And what is that relationship ultimately look like, and where do you test these things?
Brewster McCracken: We’ve received the Stimulus Award from the Department of Energy in late 2009. With that, we’ve recently released a procurement opportunity for companies to bring us their best ideas, and we’ll supply funding to help them test those ideas on a real electric grid with real customers. We then go out and listen to customers about what they want. We recruit volunteer participants. We only look for volunteers. That’s a good discipline to have because I think one of the fair questions that’s coming out on smart grid is “What’s in it for the customer?” We recognize and do believe that there is important value in having smart meters in information technology and electric grid, but it better serve a purpose that is relevant to people. One of the great things about telecomm is that, what happens with mobile phones is, suddenly we have new ways to communicate that made our lives richer and better. That’s the challenge we face in clean energy and smart grid. If all we did is the equivalent to put up a lot of cell phone towers but never create cell phones or smart phones or apps, then we’ll have an industry where it won’t be relevant to people. The challenge is finding the products and services that people want, that they value, and that makes their lives better, and making sure that those solve the very real environmental and the economic problems confronting the electricity industry.
Ben Lack: Where do you take these concepts and actually implement them and test them in the field? Is there a certain area in the city that you’re using or you use existing customers? How does that work out?
Brewster McCracken: We’re working with volunteer participants throughout Austin. A major area of focus on our Department of Energy funded smart grid project is in Austin’s Mueller community. It was in 2009, selected as the world’s largest LEED ND in the certified community.  It’s all green built. The residents are very progressive and interested in early adapters that’s a little bit why they live at the site of the old airport report. It’s a new urbanist community that has got a lot of exciting things about it, and the residents are all bending together doing things like having solar panels on as many of the rooftops as possible. That’s a big place where we’re working with volunteer participants to test out these ideas.
Ben Lack: How many people live in that community?
Brewster McCracken: Right now a little over 2,000 residents live in this 711 acre community. That community also contains the world’s largest lead platinum hospital, in fact the world’s first lead platinum hospital. The major retail area is all green built, as well — the stores you’ve heard of like Best Buy and Home Depot and Pet Smart. And so, this is a community– the hospital, the apartments, the film studio, in fact two film studios, and a lot of residents who live in homes and apartments. We’ve reached agreement with the residents who want to participate. We’ve reached an agreement on the front end. They’re providing a very reliable service to advance the knowledge about how we can create an electricity sector that solves our toughest economic and environmental challenges. They are full participants. Our smart grid demonstration project in Mueller includes two Mueller residents on our project’s executive committee. We did that because if you’re going to create an electricity system that is relevant to people and creates the products and services that have value to residents, you better have customers participate in decision making on the front end. There are a lot of places around the world where there are efforts to make a difference and try new ideas out, but they’re almost all oriented around what’s happening in the utilities side of the meter and having more the top-down approach. To our knowledge, we’re the only effort in the world where we’re starting from the customer’s perspective on smart grid, and working with technology companies and customers and utilities to construct the electricity system around the interest of customers and build it out.
Ben Lack: Could you give an example of maybe a recent test that you’ve done in the community that people said they’re willing to try out? And give us a little bit on the outcome on how that test is going.
Brewster McCracken: We went live in the beginning of February in 2011 on the first phase of our smart grid demonstration project, and that’s with one-hundred households in Mueller. In that we were doing, we’ve network those hundred homes and volunteers with sensors that are capturing their real-time electricity usage and out gas and ZigBee water usage on the fifteen second increments. What we’re finding out is how do people use electricity gas and water during the day, not just on an over-all basis, but what specific systems inside the homes are responsible for maybe big spikes during the course of the day. That’s the only second time in the US, and that’s been done in Sunbelt to find some information out; and it’s the first time we’ve ever done it with the knowledge and with analysis on things like solar panels and energy efficiency. Because we’re trying to find out and quantify what kind of a difference does solar panels make on the energy usage of a home, and what kind of a difference does two different levels a green building make. We found out some interesting things already. For instance, homes with solar panels in the Mueller community during the fall, they produce more electricity than they consume during the day. Another thing we found out is that a surprising big energy hog in the home during the day is the cable box. A cable box is using 300 watts 24/7 on average, and that’s as much as a lot of plasma televisions but at least the plasma TV gets turned off. The cable box, it never does. That’s the kind of knowledge that once you know something about it, you can start targeting solutions toward it. Almost all the efforts in smart grid around the world, they talk about turning off people’s air conditioners on the summer afternoons. In my mind, that’s called the secret plot to kill smart grid. I take the thing the people value the most, and take it away from them and say that that’s the solution. There is more suffering and less comfort. Hopefully, where we are at smart grid is to make people’s lives better for solving economic, environmental problems, to doing it in a way that has the needs and interest of customers driving the solutions.
Ben Lack: How long does this test going to take place?
Brewster McCracken: The first phase we’re in when we’re doing this baseline analysis- how people use electricity- that will go on for twelve months. That will get along until the end of January of 2012. At that point, we’re going to begin the second phase of our research in the Mueller community and in the adjacent communities to Mueller. And that’s going to evolve the point of the most cutting edge home-energy management systems from the best companies in the project sector. With that, we then begin networking and things like electric vehicles, home appliances, LED lighting, rooftop solar panels, and even home energy storage. What home energy needs and systems look like to us is the nerve center for how energy is getting managed in buildings and homes in the future.
Ben Lack: Why are you choosing to spend your time on something that is so cutting edge in an industry that needs so much of it?
Brewster McCracken: I blame my 8th grade science teacher Mr. Matlock because he was the guy when I was an 8th grade kind in Baker Junior High School in Corpus Christi, Texas. He started teaching us about solar energy. For some reason it just clicked in me in that this is something where you could use technology and science to solve big challenges and actually create a better future. Because of him, I have built a solar water heater in my parents’ backyard in 8th grade, and entered it in the one and only Corpus Christi Alternative Energy Fair in Cole Park on Corpus Christi Bay. And in fact my brother about a year of the half that found that photo of me back when I had kind of show on Cassidy here down to my shoulders, and Corduroy shorts on. And there’s a picture of me at that fair with selling my home-made solar water heater to some people drinking Schlitz beer. I also used my lawn mowing money to buy a PV kit with the motor from the back of the Old Star and Sky magazine. And I never really lost that. In year 2000, very shortly after I moved to Austin, I became one of the original subscribers to the Green Choice Clean Energy Offering from Austin Energy. That was something that I never had lost. And then I became involved in efforts to promote clean energy in Austin. I ran for the Austin City Council, and served for six years from 2003-2009. Austin Energy is the largest utility in the nation that has elected officials as it Board of Directors– the City Council members are the Board of Directors of Austin Energy. So, I have the incredible privilege of getting to take that passion I’ve had since 8th grade and learned the nuts and bolts of what the realities of running a major, national utility. Austin Energy is the nation’s fourth largest municipally owned utility. And they created the building code that became the basis in the lead rating system, and they’ve had the longest running clean energy program in the nation within the utility. We learned the realities of everything from running a transmission-distribution system and billing all the way to what are the different economic and environmental issues of different types of electricity generation. But ultimately, I’m like a lot of people. I’ve gotten into this because I want to make a difference in my life. And when I found this that this is an area where we’ve been thinking of doing things the same, old way for over a hundred years, and we can do better, and I want to be part of the people who helped contribute to that better future.
Ben Lack: Well, Brewster, thanks so much for giving us some of your time today. We really appreciate it. This is very, very cool. I wish you guys all the best. If folks want to learn more about the Pecan Street Project, can you tell us where they should go?
Brewster McCracken: We have a website,, it’s all spelled out. And we have a lot of education materials including a report that we issued last year in March 2010. We have a couple of forthcoming white papers. We’re meeting about next-to-final draft, one I have earlier this morning. It really lays out for people, if you want to get into clean energy and smart grid and create a company or a job, what do you do? Those are the things we’re starting to tackle. You’ll be able to find information on our website that includes some great analysis plus some top economists and researchers.
Ben Lack: Fantastic and thanks so much. I look forward to staying in touch.
Brewster McCracken: Me, too, Ben. Thanks a lot.

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