Being "Smart" at Home
TACC partners with local smart grid demonstration project to pave the way to a more sustainable future
If you had the power to improve your life, your community, and to make a significant contribution to future generations, would you? One hundred Austin residents in the Mueller development declared a resounding "yes" and have joined forces with Pecan Street Project to learn about smart grid technology and how to use energy more effectively in their homes.
As global energy prices continue to soar and with power generation accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint, energy efficiency is an increasingly important consideration. Now, more than ever, there is significant momentum from both the general public and government to make "smart grids" a high priority.
According to Michael Webber, associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at The University of Texas at Austin, utilities and energy companies are expected to spend $1-2 trillion over the next few decades on building, updating, and upgrading their grids nationwide. At the same time, energy consumers are expected to spend tens of billions of dollars on energy-related appliances in the home.
"Austin is a great test bed because we have energy-conscious, savvy residents who are willing to be partners in the process," Webber said. "In addition, we have an energy mix with similar diversity to the nation as a whole (nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind, etc.). And, we have very high peak loads in the summer because of the need for air conditioning. These peak loads create problems for the grid; therefore, we have more to gain by finding innovative ways to manage energy consumption."
A smart grid is a system that delivers electric power to consumers in a more intelligent manner than is now possible, and has enhanced controls that protect equipment and foster the safe integration of distributed energy sources throughout a neighborhood, a city, a region, and even a continent. By adding monitoring, analysis, control, and communication capabilities to the electrical delivery system, smart grids hold the potential to maximize throughput while reducing energy consumption.
"Before smart grid advocates and companies ask customers to invest in new products and services, we all need a better understanding of what they want, what they'll use and what they'll get excited about," said Pecan Street Project Executive Director Brewster McCracken. "Our work at Mueller is the most comprehensive energy consumer research being conducted anywhere in the country. It's the perfect place for real-world energy research, and we're thrilled that the Mueller residents have invited us into their community."
Bert Haskell, technology director for Pecan Street Project, is responsible for reviewing different technologies involved in smart grid research, selecting the best architecture, and developing the optimal solution for consumer smart grid usage.
"Our objective for the smart grid demonstration project at Mueller is to understand how the grid is going to benefit the consumer, and that makes us very unique compared to other smart grid projects," Haskell said. "Most of them are planned and run by a utility, and the utility is trying to benefit itself. We have the full cooperation and support of Austin Energy who is very interested in discovering how they can best serve their customers."
Installation of the monitoring system is simple and quick. A licensed electrician needs access to the resident's circuit panels (breaker boxes) inside and outside the home.
In a smart grid world, the consumer is given real-time and accurate information about their energy use, and can make decisions on how much to use, what time of day to use it, and how much to pay for the energy. For example, you may want to keep your house set at 75 degrees Fahrenheit when prices are low, but you may decide to increase your thermostat to 78 degrees if prices are high. Similarly, you may want to dry your clothes for $.05 per kilowatt-hour at 9:00p.m. instead of $.15 per kilowatt-hour at 2:00p.m.
Real estate agent Garreth Wilcock moved to the Mueller development from a sprawling 1960's ranch house and quickly realized the benefits of living in a planned community that promotes energy efficiency. "If we can use what we're learning here to impact the way homes are built and the way people can take advantage of changes in energy rates…that's exciting."
Communities like Mueller are also positioned to take advantage of new technologies, including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, various forms of distributed generation, solar energy, smart metering, lighting management systems, and distribution automation.
As early adopters, Pecan Street Project participants Wilcock and Kathy Sokolic participate on an advisory council to review new ideas and products and help decide what goes into the houses. Sokolic recently had her home evaluated for an electric car charger, which could have implications for the rest of the houses in the Mueller development.
"It's really important for me to practice what I preach," Sokolic said. "I drive my car a lot so I don't feel I live the lifestyle that I should. But, being able to move here, I was able to get solar panels, and I can move forward with all kinds of green initiatives. Living in an energy-efficient house and having the ability to participate in this program is fantastic."
How Supercomputing Plays a Role
As you can imagine, the smart grid demonstration project at Mueller is generating complex and large datasets that require powerful supercomputers to capture, integrate, and verify the information, and to make sure that it is properly synchronized and analyzed.
Enter the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), one of the leading supercomputer centers in the nation, located in Austin at The University of Texas.
"TACC has some of the world's fastest computers, so we're confident they can do any kind of crunching, rendering, or data manipulation," Haskell said. "They have the technical expertise to look at different database structures and know how to organize the data so it's more efficiently managed. We're very excited to work with TACC to come up with new paradigms on how to intuitively portray what's going on with the gird and energy systems."
With the sensor installations in place at each of the 100 homes, new data is generated every 15 seconds showing precisely how much energy is being used on an individual circuit. Initially, TACC developed a special data transfer format to pull all of the data into a database on TACC's "Corral" storage system. To date, the database contains approximately 400 million individual power readings and continues to grow.
Currently, TACC is collaborating with Austin Energy to compare their readings with the instantaneous usage readings from the participating homes at the Mueller development. Together, TACC and Austin Energy are calibrating the data to develop an accurate baseline about energy usage in the entire city of Austin.
"We're trying to create very rich resources for people to use in analyzing patterns of energy usage," said Chris Jordan, a member of TACC's Advanced Computing Systems group. "We're helping to enable forms of research that we can't even foresee right now, and over time as the resources grow and become more varied, we expect whole new forms of research to be conducted. We're really interested to see what people can do with it, such as how the data stream can transfer itself into a decision-making device for city planners and individual consumers."
One of the weaknesses in smart grid systems is the way they visualize data, which is often not intuitive. Since TACC is a leader in providing visualization resources and services to the national science community, and even conducts its own research into visualization software and algorithms, they were a perfect partner for the Pecan Street Project's research at Mueller.
"Everything can provide information, but to give the information context it needs to be meaningful," said Paul Navratil, research associate and manager of TACC's Visualization Software group. "In most scientific contexts, you're simulating a real phenomenon. With this project, we have abstract information, so we have to work to make the information meaningful to the researchers, consumers, and industry partners who want to demonstrate the value of this project."
Navratil says it is a massive data mining problem, but this is something he and the other experts at TACC work with on a daily basis.
"For us to maintain the data at this rate and give a good response time for someone who wants to query the site is certainly a challenge," Navratil said. "We not only have to show the information in an understandable format, we have to show it quickly, and that's the soups-to-nuts challenge of having an interactive data and visualization site."
To date, TACC staff members have developed an interface that graphs energy usage characteristics of the homes spread out across the city.
Phase Two of Pecan Street Project's Demonstration Project at Mueller
While Phase One of the project is a blind study focusing on data collection alone, in 2012, Pecan Street Project will focus on behavior change and integrate more customer-centric technologies.
"Customer-centric to me is really customer value – what do they want and need?" Haskell said. "I guess there's a certain ‘wow' factor around the idea that you can control a power system in your house from your iPhone, but to me that's not customer-centric. To me, customer-centric is that it all takes care of itself, and the customer doesn't have to think about it, but has the lowest possible power bill each month." And, ever new services they can elect to pay for.
Overall, Pecan Street Project is trying to understand how energy management systems can be integrated into our lifestyle. Haskell continued: "That's what we want to figure out―how that future automated home environment will interface to the smart grid to provide the peak energy demand characteristics that the utility needs to run their network without creating a burden on the consumer."
A deep curiosity has been awakened within Wilcock, Sokolic, and the other project participants; they are a group of people who are on a learning journey. They share articles with one another, meet regularly to discuss the smart grid effort, and often help each other with projects at each other's homes.
"It's about finding other ways of looking at things," said Sokolic, "and we definitely have to work together."
Pecan Street Project is interested in getting more people to make use of this data. The availability of clean, affordable, reliable energy is central to our economic and societal objectives. For more information on how to get involved, please visit: http://www.pecanstreetproject.org/
June 15, 2011
The Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin is one of the leading centers of computational excellence in the United States. The center's mission is to enable discoveries that advance science and society through the application of advanced computing technologies. To fulfill this mission, TACC identifies, evaluates, deploys, and supports powerful computing, visualization, and storage systems and software. TACC's staff experts help researchers and educators use these technologies effectively, and conduct research and development to make these technologies more powerful, more reliable, and easier to use. TACC staff also help encourage, educate, and train the next generation of researchers, empowering them to make discoveries that change the world.
- With power generation accounting for 40 percent of the U.S. carbon footprint, there is significant momentum from the general public and government to make "smart grids" a high priority.
- In collaboration with Austin Energy, the smart grid demonstration project at the Mueller development is providing rich information into how the grid will benefit the consumer and how utility companies can best serve their customers.
- Data generated every 15 seconds shows precisely how much energy is being used on an individual circuit. TACC is helping to capture, store, synchronize and visualize this data.
Public Relations Coordinator