Could Big Data Lower Your Power Bill?

Pecan Street Project testing how smart grid technologies can help curb consumer energy use.

Just as consumers are turning to mobile apps to track vital signs and manage their personal health, researchers believe that smart grid and sensor-based data collection technologies in homes could help people better manage their monthly utility bills.

Brewster McCracken president and CEO Pecan Street Inc

"We've created a research test bed where people are opening their living rooms to enable solutions that will move the economy and improve the environment," said Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc.

A glimpse of tomorrow’s smart homes can be seen today in Austin, Texas. There, several hundred homes are providing real-time data about gas, water, electricity and solar power use. The homes, a mixture of “green” and conventional housing, are part of an ongoing smart grid research project called Pecan Street. The research consortium is a collaboration among the University of Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund, Austin Energy and a number of other companies, including Intel, Oracle and Sony.

According to Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc., this on-going experiment is giving valuable insights to residents, researchers, standards organizations and companies about how people use energy. Here, McCracken, who recently released a research study on consumer energy use based on Pecan Street, discussed how smart home data can lead to better consumer products and more energy- and resource-efficient homeowners.

How can consumers use technology to better manage their energy use?

There are several basic approaches for getting data on consumer electricity. There are smart meters that can give 1-hour to 15-minute snapshots of a home’s energy use. This provides some useful information, but it’s pretty limited. It’s almost like the old dial-up modems that let you do a few things on the Internet but nothing like watching a TV show through it.

If we want to get to the broadband Internet version of smart grid, we need what’s called a home energy measurement system or a hub device that reads the smart meter a lot more frequently than every 15 minutes. Looking at one minute versus 15 minutes of data can show more things. You can see even more details when you separate what’s happening on each circuit, like the consumption of the washer, dryer, dishwasher, television, air conditioner and when the refrigerator is being used.

Pecan Street smart grid project Austin Texas

Pecan Street Project turned the Mueller community of Austin, Texas, into a smart grid neighborhood of houses equipped with water, gas and energy use tracking technology. Photo Courtesy of Pecan Street Inc.

Are sensors the answer for providing people with real-time data they can act upon?

We know that the more information that can be gleaned from the home using technology, the more possibilities we have for new, useful applications. Information could be collected by very accurate, hardwired sensor systems, but they can be labor-intensive and expensive to install. Wireless systems are less labor-intensive, easy to install and have the ability to leverage the presence of the meter. These sensors become almost like the ones that report to the central computing system of a car to provide vehicle diagnostics. This is how you know if your tires are running low or if you have a problem with the fuel pump. The more sensors that you have in the home, the more your home begins to look like an OnStar system. These sensors could trigger a check engine warning light for the home.

It might work like a cable service and it might even come from your cable service. There could be a new device like the router for homes equipped with a smart meter. In addition to the TV, phone and Internet service from the cable company, they might offer all sorts of new services like security and diagnostics for their home. Or there might be a new type of device that reads the meter data every 10 seconds, something that the electricity companies bring in as a new value-added device that expands the capabilities of their smart meters.

Isn’t it a zero-sum game of adding energy consuming technology like big data centers to help people monitor, analyze and reduce their consumption of energy?

What we know is that decentralized systems that are mechanical in nature tend to be less efficient and decentralized systems that are information-based in nature tend to be more efficient. What history tells us is that transferring energy use to data centers from people’s inefficient air-conditioning systems would produce a positive environmental outcome. If people are making air-conditioning and heating maintenance decisions based on a software-driven report, that is a more efficient approach than not ever having the data center and letting people run their air-conditioning and heating inefficiently.

Intel home energy sensor on toaster

Research technology from Intel Labs is being used in some Pecan Project homes to analyze the electricity used by lights and appliances throughout the house. "In our research trials at Pecan Street, we hardwired the circuit so we get one second or minute interval reading of what each circuit is using," said Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc.

There are three ways that a homeowner could figure out if he or she has leaking air ducts. One way is to bring out a maintenance crew on an annual basis, leave the house for the day, have the house tinted and sealed off and do a high-pressure blower test to see the duct leak percentage of the home, for which you’d spend a couple of hundred dollars to complete. The other option is to install sensor networks inside of the ducts that detect airflow rates, measure them and compare them to normal ranges then report those to a data system. That could happen someday, but that’s very expensive and fairly labor intensive. The third option is to have something like Intel’s technology that can read individual circuits in the home. That could read the air-conditioning compressor and fan cycle, then report information to a data center that in about 8 seconds of reading data signals could tell if there’s a duct leaking. That sounds more realistic.

Does opening the smart grid and allowing others to develop services on energy grid pose a competitive threat to the energy companies?

We see that when developers design applications that reply upon the capabilities of a grid, they have no interest in undermining the grid. Instead, they rely on its performance. When cable and mobile telecom opened to third-party developers it provided new, unexpected and enduring revenue streams for the grid operators. The cable companies are getting $40, $50 plus a month from all of us through broadband Internet, a steady revenue stream that previously didn’t exist.

Could Big Data Lower Your Power Bill?

Pecan Street Project testing how smart grid technologies can help curb consumer energy use.

Just as consumers are turning to mobile apps to track vital signs and manage their personal health, researchers believe that smart grid and sensor-based data collection technologies in homes could help people better manage their monthly utility bills.

Brewster McCracken president and CEO Pecan Street Inc

"We've created a research test bed where people are opening their living rooms to enable solutions that will move the economy and improve the environment," said Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc.

A glimpse of tomorrow’s smart homes can be seen today in Austin, Texas. There, several hundred homes are providing real-time data about gas, water, electricity and solar power use. The homes, a mixture of “green” and conventional housing, are part of an ongoing smart grid research project called Pecan Street. The research consortium is a collaboration among the University of Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund, Austin Energy and a number of other companies, including Intel, Oracle and Sony.

According to Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc., this on-going experiment is giving valuable insights to residents, researchers, standards organizations and companies about how people use energy. Here, McCracken, who recently released a research study on consumer energy use based on Pecan Street, discussed how smart home data can lead to better consumer products and more energy- and resource-efficient homeowners.

How can consumers use technology to better manage their energy use?

There are several basic approaches for getting data on consumer electricity. There are smart meters that can give 1-hour to 15-minute snapshots of a home’s energy use. This provides some useful information, but it’s pretty limited. It’s almost like the old dial-up modems that let you do a few things on the Internet but nothing like watching a TV show through it.

If we want to get to the broadband Internet version of smart grid, we need what’s called a home energy measurement system or a hub device that reads the smart meter a lot more frequently than every 15 minutes. Looking at one minute versus 15 minutes of data can show more things. You can see even more details when you separate what’s happening on each circuit, like the consumption of the washer, dryer, dishwasher, television, air conditioner and when the refrigerator is being used.

Pecan Street smart grid project Austin Texas

Pecan Street Project turned the Mueller community of Austin, Texas, into a smart grid neighborhood of houses equipped with water, gas and energy use tracking technology. Photo Courtesy of Pecan Street Inc.

Are sensors the answer for providing people with real-time data they can act upon?

We know that the more information that can be gleaned from the home using technology, the more possibilities we have for new, useful applications. Information could be collected by very accurate, hardwired sensor systems, but they can be labor-intensive and expensive to install. Wireless systems are less labor-intensive, easy to install and have the ability to leverage the presence of the meter. These sensors become almost like the ones that report to the central computing system of a car to provide vehicle diagnostics. This is how you know if your tires are running low or if you have a problem with the fuel pump. The more sensors that you have in the home, the more your home begins to look like an OnStar system. These sensors could trigger a check engine warning light for the home.

It might work like a cable service and it might even come from your cable service. There could be a new device like the router for homes equipped with a smart meter. In addition to the TV, phone and Internet service from the cable company, they might offer all sorts of new services like security and diagnostics for their home. Or there might be a new type of device that reads the meter data every 10 seconds, something that the electricity companies bring in as a new value-added device that expands the capabilities of their smart meters.

Isn’t it a zero-sum game of adding energy consuming technology like big data centers to help people monitor, analyze and reduce their consumption of energy?

What we know is that decentralized systems that are mechanical in nature tend to be less efficient and decentralized systems that are information-based in nature tend to be more efficient. What history tells us is that transferring energy use to data centers from people’s inefficient air-conditioning systems would produce a positive environmental outcome. If people are making air-conditioning and heating maintenance decisions based on a software-driven report, that is a more efficient approach than not ever having the data center and letting people run their air-conditioning and heating inefficiently.

Intel home energy sensor on toaster

Research technology from Intel Labs is being used in some Pecan Project homes to analyze the electricity used by lights and appliances throughout the house. "In our research trials at Pecan Street, we hardwired the circuit so we get one second or minute interval reading of what each circuit is using," said Brewster McCracken, president and CEO of Pecan Street Inc.

There are three ways that a homeowner could figure out if he or she has leaking air ducts. One way is to bring out a maintenance crew on an annual basis, leave the house for the day, have the house tinted and sealed off and do a high-pressure blower test to see the duct leak percentage of the home, for which you’d spend a couple of hundred dollars to complete. The other option is to install sensor networks inside of the ducts that detect airflow rates, measure them and compare them to normal ranges then report those to a data system. That could happen someday, but that’s very expensive and fairly labor intensive. The third option is to have something like Intel’s technology that can read individual circuits in the home. That could read the air-conditioning compressor and fan cycle, then report information to a data center that in about 8 seconds of reading data signals could tell if there’s a duct leaking. That sounds more realistic.

Does opening the smart grid and allowing others to develop services on energy grid pose a competitive threat to the energy companies?

We see that when developers design applications that reply upon the capabilities of a grid, they have no interest in undermining the grid. Instead, they rely on its performance. When cable and mobile telecom opened to third-party developers it provided new, unexpected and enduring revenue streams for the grid operators. The cable companies are getting $40, $50 plus a month from all of us through broadband Internet, a steady revenue stream that previously didn’t exist.