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In Austin, Charged up About Smart Power

July 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Miles O'Brien examines power grid reliability in a neighborhood near Austin, Texas that uses "smart grid" technology to track - and control - its energy consumption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, an energy story about electricity and a so-called smart grid.

This month’s big storms and power outages have prompted questions about whether there’s a more efficient system for managing power and electricity.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien explores the approach that one community in Texas is taking.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s time to power up for another morning at the Fisher home in Austin, Texas. Grant, Ashley and Quinn (ph) start their day like most of us do. They pour some juice, make some breakfast, see what’s on the tube.

But under this roof, they don’t take all the electrical magic for granted. Actually, the Fishers, both urban planners, think a lot about electricity, where it comes from, where it goes, and where it is headed. The Fishers have two solar photovoltaic power systems, sophisticated digital meters and state-of-the-art thermostats that allow them to fine-tune their indoor climate here or online when they’re away.

GRANT FISHER, homeowner: This is my e-gauge monitoring system.

MILES O’BRIEN: They can also monitor what the solar panels produce and how much energy they’re using.

GRANT FISHER: So, right now, you see we’re actually generating live 24 watt hours. And that’s not a very lot, but that’s for — this is for our — the southward-facing array only.

MILES O’BRIEN: Right. And it’s been a cloudy, rainy morning.

GRANT FISHER: Cloudy, rainy morning, yes. And we’re actually using right now 4,000 watts.

MILES O’BRIEN: Grant offered me a quick demonstration, which shed a little light on how the power to track the use of power has changed the way they live.

GRANT FISHER: We will turn off the light.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ready? Go ahead and turn it off. Oh, just like that. Look at that. If nothing else, it makes you realize when you flip the switch, what that means.

The Fisher house sits in a new neighborhood built on the site of the old Mueller Airport. It’s the center of the Pecan Street project, a four-year-old nonprofit with a goal that is one tough nut to crack, figure out to deploy so-called smart grid technology. It is one of more than 130 smart grid projects in 34 states.

The 300 homeowners in this project are still connected to the controversial grid, but are trying out some added features, sort of like the first families to get digital cable.

BREWSTER MCCRACKEN, executive director, Pecan Street Project: This is real similar to a pharmaceutical clinical trial’s effort, but it’s on electricity and consumer electronics.

Former Austin City Councilman Brewster McCracken runs the project with federal stimulus money, along with help from utilities, corporations and charitable foundations. Washington has invested $3.4 billion to help develop smart grid technologies nationwide. The private sector has ponied up an additional $4.7 billion.

So when you say we’re developing a smart grid, that implies what we have is a dumb grid. Is it dumb?

BREWSTER MCCRACKEN: When you have a mechanical grid of mechanical devices that have to be individually read and something goes wrong, well, how do you find out about it?

MILES O’BRIEN: And that was a big part of the problem at the end of June, when a swathe of powerful thunderstorms spawned so-called derecho windstorms that knocked down thousands of trees, leaving millions in the Mid-Atlantic states without power for many long hot days and nights.

Utilities didn’t have a precise handle on the scope of the blackout because the U.S. power distribution system has yet to join the digital data revolution.

Oh my God. Look at this. It looks like mission control.

Smart online meters like the Fishers have can give utilities real-time data on how their customers are using their product, or in the case of a derecho, not.

BREWSTER MCCRACKEN: When you can measure and manage millions of meters at a single data center instantaneously, it makes it possible to do a lot faster outage restoration, because all of the time that is spent trying to figure out where the outage has happened is eliminated.

ASHLEY FISHER, homeowner: Ready, Quinn?

MILES O’BRIEN: The Fishers have lived here for four years and have yet to experience a single power outage. The power here is more reliable because, well, take a look around you. None of the power lines are above ground. They’re all buried. Pretty typical for a new development like this one.

But what about older neighborhoods where the lines are still on poles? Is it practical to think about burying them? Probably not on any sort of mass scale. But as it turns out, power grid reliability is much more than that.

It’s also about matching supply and demand when usage peaks, not easy for utilities now. And there is a huge new challenge on the horizon. You will find them in 59 garages here, electric cars, most of them Chevy Volts. It is the largest collection of plug-in cars in one U.S. neighborhood.

Ashley Fisher is pretty charged up about that.

So, how does it drive?

ASHLEY FISHER: It’s great. It’s the nicest car I have ever driven.

MILES O’BRIEN: And just like home, driving this electric car gives her much more insight on her energy usage.

ASHLEY FISHER: I think more information is always going to make something more reliable and better able to be maintained and be more nimble, more able to change as things change.

MILES O’BRIEN: And the Pecan project is generating a lot of information.

Solar production and electrical consumption in the study homes are measured every 15 seconds. So far, they have gathered about six billion points of data. It is compiled and analyzed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center.

Paul Navratil is the manager of the Scalable Vis Technologies Group.

But we really haven’t applied supercomputing technology into electrical distribution to this point, have we?

PAUL NAVRATIL, Texas Advanced Computing Center: We’re at a tipping point. We’re getting there with smart grid technology that allows us to collect the data to start making these insights and then finding these discoveries.

But that’s really been the first wave. And then, once we’re able to collect this data, we can more definitively say what solutions are the best ones for people to pursue.

MILES O’BRIEN: One somewhat surprising finding? Solar panels that face west turn out to be more useful, because they generate more power at the end of the day, when the A.C.s are cranked and the electric cars are plugged in.

But the real solution lies in finding a practical way for people to store the energy generated when the sun is at its peak so it can be used when demand is as well.

Pecan’s lab director, Scott Hinson, showed me one of the lithium ion batteries they will be testing in one solar-equipped home. Right now, electric utilities do not allow their customers to attach batteries to the grid or use their solar arrays to produce power in an outage for safety reasons.

Here, they hope to prove it can be done.

Ultimately, does this approach make the whole system more reliable or just more efficient? Or are those two the same thing?

SCOTT HINSON, Pecan Street, Inc.: Those are very similar things.

Any system, any engineering system that is used near its maximum become unreliable. That’s just the way it is. A more efficient system will become more reliable.

MILES O’BRIEN: Ask anyone in the Mid-Atlantic who got a weeklong taste of life in the 19th century what they think of our antique means of generating and distributing electricity. They will probably tell you it’s for the birds. Maybe the storms are a reminder it’s high time to put the power lines online.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the Pecan Street project, we talked to Miles as he cruised the neighborhood in a Chevy Volt. That’s in a video on our Science page.

Not everyone in Texas is sold, of course. A small group of people opposed to smart meters was scheduled to hold a march in Austin today to make that clear. Next week, we will report on some of the objections, including health risks and privacy considerations.