Harnessing the Power of Pecan Street Inc.

The energy consortium and its partnering traineeship program are hitting a stride in number of researchers and resources, which will help to accelerate the pace of commercialization.

When Kate McArdle set out to study clean energy, she picked The University of Texas at Austin because it would give her access to the nation’s largest power grid testing bed — Pecan Street Inc.

McArdle is now part of the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT), which is based on a collaborative project between UT Austin and Pecan Street Inc., a nonprofit consortium focused on large-scale energy research and testing. Along with UT Austin faculty and students, more than a dozen companies are members in Pecan Street — and all are studying how consumers use power, with the goal of more efficiently conserving, distributing and storing energy.

Pecan Street “is a very unique opportunity as far as what types of research it offers,” said McArdle, an IGERT fellow and graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “I’m interested in combining software engineering with the smart grid. [Pecan Street] offers access to data that is unparalleled compared to what I found at other schools — the data is a big draw.”

IGERT researchers

From left, IGERT affiliates and engineering graduate students Charles Upshaw, Joshua Rhodes and Robert Fares stand on the second floor of the soon-to-open Pike Powers Laboratory and Center for Commercialization. The building will be outfitted with consumer products for testing and office space for researchers.

First-year IGERT students are entering at a time when both the program and Pecan Street are growing in number of researchers and resources, which will help to accelerate the pace of discoveries and commercialization. In May, Pecan Street will unveil a $1.5 million, one-of-a-kind laboratory for testing consumer products, called the Pike Powers Laboratory and Center for Commercialization.

“Both IGERT and Pecan Street have matured together, with more experienced students mentoring the new ones but also now doing excellent independent research themselves in the third year,” said Thomas F. Edgar, principal investigator for Pecan Street and interim director of UT Austin’s Energy Institute. “The goals and emphasis of Pecan Street have changed during the last five years, but the researchers have been opportunistic, moving into new areas as needed.”

Now in the third year of a five-year, $3.1 million NSF grant, IGERT has reached a total of 25 student researchers. There are six graduate students in the latest group of IGERT fellows, and seven graduate student affiliates who are supported by the U.S. Department of Energy through a subcontract to Pecan Street. Many of these students are from various departments within the Cockrell School of Engineering.

Pecan Street itself has evolved into the world’s first independently researched network of power meters. Today, Pecan Street collects data from more than 450 homes participating in its smart grid, an electric grid that allows power consumption to be measured using local and remote technologies. In a smart grid there is a two-way flow of power information from homeowners to utility companies, enabling power generation and distribution to react in real-time to consumer needs and changes in solar/wind energy production.

By late spring, IGERT faculty and students and Pecan Street company members will gain access to the Pike Powers Lab, a three-story testing laboratory tucked into the Mueller community, a 700-acre residential and commercial development in East Austin where Pecan Street is monitoring more than 200 homes and around 60 electric vehicles.

electric car charger

An electric vehicle charger station at the Pike Powers Lab, which will open in May.

A state-of-the-art building, the Pike Powers Lab is outfitted with both AC (alternating current) and DC (direct current) power outlets and has exposed ceilings that allow for the flexible installation of wiring. It will be a testing hub for everything from energy-efficient appliances to electric cars.

More significantly for IGERT, the Pike Powers Lab will help researchers move from computer modeling to in-home testing.

“The lab is built for testing home-industry-related systems,” said Charles Upshaw, an IGERT affiliate and graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “It’s a very ‘Austin’ model in terms of bringing industry and academia to work together in a shared environment like this.”

The Pike Powers Lab will give first-year IGERT fellows and affiliates an advantage, Upshaw added.

“They are figuring out their research problems with the lab infrastructure to support them,” he said.

In addition to the lab, Pecan Street has actively engaged corporate partners, including Freescale, Green Mountain Energy, Intel and Texas Gas Service, that are not only testing products there but are also informing UT Austin research.

“The list of companies that Pecan Street is bringing in here is really impressive,” said Robert Fares, an IGERT affiliate and mechanical engineering graduate student. “That’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to with the lab. We can see what sort of questions they are interested in from a product development standpoint, and we can interpret those from a research perspective and develop our own questions.”

From a research standpoint, the biggest attraction is the massive amounts of data Pecan Street collects that can be crunched with the assistance of supercomputers at UT Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). About 89.5 million unique current and voltage reads are fed into the supercomputing center daily.

The data presents both an opportunity and a challenge for researchers tasked with figuring out ways to mine the data, said Joshua Rhodes, an IGERT affiliate and civil engineering graduate student.

“The term big data is everywhere. We are on the cutting edge of how to leverage all of that information,” Rhodes said. “As far as I know, this doesn’t exist anywhere with this much complexity.”

Leveraging Pecan Street’s smart grid data, industry partnerships and the new state-of-the-art energy test center, IGERT researchers will continue making discoveries that could potentially change the way the world consumes and distributes energy.

“It’s been a great experience,” McArdle said. “Pecan Street wants to help IGERT make the most out of its resources."