Building the Power Grid of the Future

The power grid of the future is being developed in east Austin on a 700-acre mix of homes and businesses, and UT ChE faculty and students are at the heart of the multidisciplinary research collaboration.

The public-private research initiative, known as Pecan Street Inc., launched just three years ago in the Mueller development, and has already garnered international praise, attracted almost a dozen industry partners and secured millions in funding — including more than $3 million in direct funding for research, education and technology commercialization at the university.EnergyNOW TV magazine features Pecan Street Project, click here to listen to the video


Tom Edgar, chemical engineering professor and principal investigator with the project, and ChE graduate student Wesley Cole are working alongside fellow Cockrell School of Engineering faculty and students to provide an unprecedented research test bed — one that could reinvent the way communities across the U.S. generate, distribute, store and consume energy.

“Having a real life test bed with real people living in real houses and giving us real-time data on all their resource use on this level is unprecedented,” said Joshua Rhodes, an architectural engineering graduate student who is studying the water and energy use of homes in the project. “Modeling this kind of system only goes so far and these actual data sets will give us a deep look into how homes use their resources in real-time. Knowing this will give us the opportunity to tackle inefficiencies that you can’t see on a once-a-month electric, gas and water bill.”

An added boon to the research group is the construction of a new $1.5 million, one-of-a-kind research lab scheduled for completion this summer in the Mueller development. Known as the Pike Powers Commercialization Lab, the space will provide students, faculty and startups from the university’s Austin Technology Incubator with research, education and commercialization opportunities.

“The lab is going to be a one-of-a-kind facility in which students will conduct research on ‘clean’ energy and consumer-oriented smart grid technologies. This home lab and its comprehensive research scope can rarely be found around the world,” said Alexis Kwasinski, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who is overseeing research in the lab. “We’re creating a setting where UT students will be able to collaborate directly with startups and other industrial participants in testing and developing their products, and students will be able to do research about advanced energy concepts.”

Through the research, the group aims to develop an intelligent power grid — one in which information and energy flow both ways rather than one-way between utilities and consumers. Such a grid would allow power generation and distribution to react in real-time to consumer demands and the intermittency of solar/wind energy production. Residents could monitor their home’s energy use from cell phones and schedule appliances, like a dryer or battery charger for an electric vehicle, to run during times of day when power is in least demand and therefore less expensive.

And many homes in the project are equipped with solar panels, meaning residents can offset the cost of their electric bill by selling excess solar power to their local utility company.

“We’re finding there are real advantages for distributing solar power over every house as opposed to having one big solar plant,” said Bob Hebner, director of the university’s Center for Electromechanics, who is co-leading the research work being done by members of Pecan Street Inc. “We’re probably writing the handbook for the next generation of builders and engineers for how you want to incorporate solar into homes and businesses.”

Through research by students like Rhodes and Wesley Cole, the group is moving closer to making the scenario of a large-scale smart grid a reality.

Rhodes’ research involves studying 150 homes in the project and 25 older homes in the Austin area that have been installed with technology to collect data on how and when they use water. As far as UT researchers know, such data does not yet exist.

The “smart water” research could eventually enable a water utility to remotely read water meters and turn off water connections so that the resource is more intelligently managed, Rhodes said. That way if a homeowner was away on vacation and a pipe burst, the utility could turn off their water. Rhodes said that real-time water use data will also allow homeowners to find small leaks that they would not notice on an aggregated monthly water bill, but could end up costing tens of thousands in foundation/home repairs, including costly mold damage.

Cole is researching how all of the various energy systems — from solar, to wind and coal — interact with the grid. The collected data is stored and crunched using supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, and then turned into models by Cole.

“The data are very unique and very rich,” Cole said. “Through this research, I’ve met other faculty, been connected with Austin Energy and industry partners, and I’ve been connected with a lot of students outside of my discipline who I’m now collaborating with.”

Cole said it’s also interesting to apply his chemical engineering background in control principles, which are typically applied to managing chemical plants, to something as complex as an integrated and intelligent power grid.

He, Rhodes and other students are currently developing an app that would allow residents to see how much energy they are using in relation to their neighbors. The app is being submitted to the Department of Energy for consideration.

A key point distinguishing the demonstration project in Pecan Street Inc. from other power grids is that the Austin project is focused on consumers and how their behavior changes with the more information they have about the water and energy usage.

“That’s what drives what happens here and it’s telling us what the grid of the future will look like,” said Professor Tom Edgar.

Edgar said 10 engineering students are supported each year through a $3.07 million grant awarded in 2010 by the National Science Foundation. Many of the students continue their research with the project even when their funding through the NSF grant expires.

“We have a strong intersection of people who know about technology and policy related to energy, and that’s really important because a lot of these issues we’re dealing with aren’t purely about technology,” Edgar said.

Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc., said the expertise brought by faculty and students is invaluable to the project.

“Faculty and students from the Cockrell School of Engineering are leading every aspect of Pecan Street’s smart grid consumer field trials. This goes way beyond research,” McCracken said. “There is no other university in the nation where students and professors are working this directly – with real customers and product development teams from global technology companies – on developing and testing real-world applications at the intersection of electricity systems, big data and consumer technologies.”

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