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Pecan Street CEO shows us unrivaled new laboratory

3-story facility, hundreds of homes ready to test gear

Rockville, MD (May 13, 2013) -- Pecan Streets CEO Brewster McCracken gave Smart Grid Today, the leading independent, daily, professional news journal of the smart grid industry, a tour of the Pike Powers Laboratory & Center for Commercialization in Austin, Texas. The exclusive interview was of such value to the industry that Smart Grid Today publisher Modern Markets Intelligence, Inc., is sharing it with the electricity industry free of charge.

The story has been slightly edited for this format and is included in its entirety below and at smartgridtoday.com/pecanstreet0513.

Test equipment from Dell systems, National Instruments and Schneider is arriving at Pecan Street Inc's new lab, the Pike Powers Laboratory & Center for Commercialization. The organization is bringing to life "the only testing facility in the United States that can do verification of disaggregation algorithms," Pecan Street CEO Brewster McCracken told us during a recent visit to the housing development where the lab is situated, in Austin, Texas.

Those systems, from firms such as Bidgely and Onzo, purport to take whole-meter data and figure out what each appliance is doing -- and now they will have a place to prove it works, he added. They can use the hard reads on individual circuits from Pecan Street's direct-load measurement systems installed at circuit panels in research participant homes, McCracken said.

This will let them test and improve the accuracy of their algorithms and other control systems, McCracken said. They will know if an AC or pool pump is the culprit on a higher-than-expected bill.

"We have hundreds of homes and by the summer, nearly 1,000 that are measuring the electric KWH and voltage and apparent power of up to 24 circuits plus the whole home, in 1-second and 1-minute intervals," he added. "This is the only place in the country, to our knowledge, where that kind of independent testing can be performed and verified and used to actually improve the performance of these algorithms."

There is a great deal of potential for disaggregation approaches in "measuring individual major loads for things like nonintrusive load monitoring and for isolating out, for home maintenance purposes, individual systems," McCracken said. "But the state of nonintrusive load monitoring disaggregation is still pretty early."

Based at the University of Texas, Pecan Street is used to disruptive innovation, having developed a course focused on developing disruptive innovation to create new markets and set the smart grid and clean tech industries in motion (SGT, 11-Aug-22).

Nonintrusive load monitoring is "one of the holy grails, for instance, in the air-conditioning and appliance industry where high-resolution electricity use measurements could be used to detect and report maintenance issues in a manner similar to a 'check engine light'," he added.

What did they learn so far?

Pecan Street researchers found current transformer (CT), collar-based systems to be the most accurate method for measuring individual circuits, but the component and installation costs of these systems will need to come down -- or the commercial applications made possible by them will need to expand beyond energy management for them to catch on in the residential market, McCracken said.

If that sort of system as a matter of course gets installed at the time that an AC compressor or a solar panel is installed, "that is a potential way that market evolution could occur," McCracken said. "The other possible model involves a system incorporating a gateway device that can pair with the meter to get higher resolution of electric use data and an algorithm that analyzes and disaggregates the data.

"For gateway devices to gain traction, installing a gateway and pairing it with a smart meter will likely need to become as simple as installing a WiFi router," he added.

New lab is big

The three-floor, Pike Powers Laboratory & Center for Commercialization in Austin has 12 times the natural gas flow rate of single-family homes. It has four times the electrical service, or 800 amps. "We have 35 KWHs of electric storage on site," McCracken said.

Researchers at the new lab will be working on methods for modulating power use of specific products such as EVs, in response to pricing and grid condition signals delivered over the internet and utility power meters (SGT, Mar-20).

Each of the three floors "is independently controllable down to the plug and circuit level," he noted. "That is meaningful, for example, if a company wants to test the ability of operating one of the floors as a simulated small commercial entity and then modulate electric levels and the actual performance of specific appliances -- or find out whether meters can communicate with gateway systems using different iterations of a smart-energy profile or different gateway systems or different wireless networks.

"Anything of that nature can be tested here independently."

Two-car garage is lab, too

The garage, where McCracken was charging his Volt the day he visited with us, has room for two EVs and Schneider EVLink EV chargers. "From a product-testing-capabilities level, the garage itself is actually an independent testing facility," he noted.

"There are four separate testing facilities within this laboratory and center that can operate independently or in an integrated fashion. This is to have a lot of the dedicated testing capabilities when it comes to things like … natural gas-fuel charging an electric car and battery control systems."

The new lab is in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin where an ambitious effort to redevelop Robert Mueller Municipal Airport into a mixed-use urban village in the heart of the city has helped Austin chart new directions, the MuellerAustin.com website said.

Why do it in Mueller?

Mueller is envisioned as a sustainable community that is meeting extensive goals in housing and economic development -- and the award-winning Mueller master plan and the ambitious master development agreement with Catellus Development Group and the City of Austin are the culmination of decades of community planning efforts from visionary neighbors and active citizens, the website added.

Mueller is three miles from downtown Austin and the Texas State Capitol and two miles from the University of Texas at Austin, it said.

Over 200 of the Mueller homes participating in Pecan Street Research Institute's research have rooftop solar, McCracken said, and one, within sight of the new lab, has nearly 11 KWs of PV -- though the average installed size among participants is 6 KWs, he added.

What is the institute?

The research institute and Pecan Street Inc are divisions of the same organization, the latter being the new name of the smart grid projects group that started up in 2008 as the Pecan Street Project. The former is a scientific research organization that was started since then, the Pecan Street website explained.

The Pecan Street Project was an example of an R&D project that proved it was possible to integrate substantial amounts of PV to the grid, Jim Thomson, a principal consultant at Deloitte & Touche, told us recently (SGT, Mar-29).

Even at 6 KWs, a rooftop solar PV system will provide "way more electricity than the home will use for the bulk of the daylight hours. It will provide a very significant peak demand reduction at those hours when it is still daylight and there is elevated use going on," McCracken said. The homeowners -- many of whom have installed west- and south-facing systems -- sell power back to Austin Energy.

Lab can test solar, too

The third floor of the new lab includes direct roof access. This will give firms that want to test a specific panel technology or inverter technology easy access to a south-facing solar array that will, of course, have micro-inverters, McCracken said. "They can swap out one or two individual panels on the array and see it perform side-by-side with the standard system," he added.

The first experiments in the new lab will involve solar inverters, disaggregation verification and small, commercial fuel-cell performance, McCracken said.

Research fills big gap

Looking back to the start of Pecan Street Project, "the biggest surprise for us was how little was known about what was happening inside of our homes," McCracken said. "We moved down this path of becoming the largest generator of original research data on how people use electricity and natural gas in their homes because we wanted and needed that information for our evaluation of systems and we discovered that information was not available."

The institute last month opened consortium memberships to faculty and students at universities worldwide -- setting "pathways by which other universities could access the research data to carry out original academic research," he added. In the first week, faculty and students from nearly 20 universities signed up, including American Sentinel, Columbia, MIT, Monterey Institute, San Antonio College, Stanford, Texas A&M, the University of Florida, the University of Texas at Arlington, Yale and universities in Australia, Ireland, India, the Netherlands, Romania, UAE and the UK.

What is next?

"We are four miles deep and 100 yards wide -- because our research has been confined to this metropolitan area," McCracken said. "But we have already begun moving outside of Austin." The institute expanded its Pecan Street Project to homes in Dallas-Fort Worth and Corpus Christi. It plans to expand its research into homes outside of Texas as soon as this summer.

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SMART GRID TODAY'S MISSION is to deliver daily, unbiased, comprehensive and original reporting on emerging trends, applications and policies driving the modern utility industry -- in a signature format that features highly concise and easy-to-understand news copy based on trusted reporting, exclusive interviews, informed analysis and strategic insights that our subscribers rely on to succeed every business day. Smart Grid Today is published 247 times a year by Modern Markets Intelligence, Inc. (MMI), publisher of independent trade news for the evolving energy industry of the 21st century. It is located in Rockville, Md. Sam Spencer founded MMI in 2009 after writing, editing, marketing, publishing, running and inventing trade news publications and related products for over 20 years.

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