SXSW: Using Big Data to Shrink Energy Waste

Austin has emerged as a hub for clean tech—and the Pecan Street Project is a pioneer in using big data to study how we use (and abuse) energy.

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Ken Welsh

It was virtually impossible to attend SXSW interactive in Austin this past week without running into a panel that referenced “big data”—the concept that nearly every aspect of our economy and indeed our lives will be transformed by our growing ability to gather and analyze the vast amounts of data being produced through our computers, smartphones and new sensors. (At least we hope we can analyze the data—in a talk at SXSW political wizard Nate Silver noted that there’s no guarantee that our ability to accurately understand the terabytes of data being thrown at us will keep pace with our ability to collect it.) Given that the focus at SXSW is digital, most of the big data panels and talks concentrated on how business or medical care will be upgraded—one panel on the use of wearable technology, tiny sensors that track the doings of our bodies, had a line that nearly stretched out the venerable Driskill hotel.

But energy use could also be transformed by big data analytics—and here, at least, the bar is low, because most of us have very little idea how much energy we might be using or wasting. Utilities rarely track electricity use on anything other than a monthly basis, which is why your bill for power use is less detailed than your cell phone charges. The first rule of big data is that you actually need to get the data—and one place where that’s happening, surprisingly, is in Austin itself. The progressive blue capital of deep red Texas, Austin has long been a tech hub—even before SXSW, Austin had the computer company Dell and the semi-conductor research consortium Sematech. But thanks to the Pecan Street Research Project—a collaboration of the University of Texas, Austin Energy, the Environmental Defense Fund and a number of other companies—Austin may have gathered more data than any other place about residential energy use. The project tracks the energy use of more than 500 homes in Austin (along with another 400 plus in Houston and the Dallas area)—including both green homes and conventional ones—along with dozens of electric vehicles. Their meters collect nearly 90 million unique electricity use and voltage reads per day. It’s very big data indeed.

Pecan Street just compiled what is likely the country’s deepest ever research study on consumer energy use, and Brewster McCracken—CEO and president of Pecan Street—gave me a look at the results. You can download the full presentation, but here are the highlights:

  • Power use more than doubles during the brutally hot Texas, compared to the relatively cooler months. No surprise there—though the sheer amount of electricity needed to keep Texas’s air conditioners going might be—but nearly all of that increase comes from the residential sector. During the winter, residences use up just 27.4% of the study group’s electricity, with large-scale commercial and industrial facilities taking up the largest share. But in the summer, residences consumer more than half of the total power load, putting so much pressure on the grid that brownouts are a real possibility. 
  • Cooling already consumes around 50% of electricity use as air conditioners become more common and summers get hotter. (Texas just suffered through a brutally hot drought last summer, and things aren’t likely to get better any time soon.) Well guess what—summers are predicted to became even hotter in the future as the climate continues to warm, which means more electricity use for cooling and therefore, more stress on a pushed to the limit electrical grid. Something will have to give.
  • Or something will have to change. The Pecan Street study found that new green built homes used 45% less electricity for cooling per square foot than a conventional home. Retrofitted green homes—meaning buildings that were conventional but which had later been upgraded—used 25.4% less electricity per square foot for cooling. Imagine how much a difference it might make for the Texas grid if green buildings were the norm, instead of the exception? That’s the difference between lights on and lights off.
  • Many of the houses in the Pecan Street study are equipped with rooftop solar, and during the summertime it performed. South-facing PV panels could provide almost match the peak power demand of a hot Texas summer day. Combine PV with a green building, and you might be able to Texas proof your home.
  • Get a gas-powered dryer. Electric dryers in the study used up 38 cents worth of electricity per load. Gas-powered ones used just 8 cents per load.
  • And the single worst energy offender? Electric heaters, which McCracken told me use up more electricity even during the mild Texas winters than air conditioning does in the summer.

As a use of sensing and big data, cutting needless energy waste isn’t as sexy as, say, using a snippet of your DNA to create a genetically linked familiar that will stay with you your entire life. (Seriously—that’s something I heard about at SXSW.) But it’s a whole lot more important.


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Eng. Samy Alkenawi
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Faculty of Engineering, Mansoura University
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One of the problems is that people are always looking to figure out the payback period,instead of being primarily interested in responsibility.I've been a green builder for over 20 years and over the last 5 years or so things have really changed and the products that are available have skyrocketed and come down in price.It does not break the bank to build a house that is energy efficient. It takes responsible clients and responsible contractors to just say no to loose megoose houses. An energy efficient home will save energy and be more comfortable from day one for the life of the home which should be 100 years +.  The paybacks are there for sure, but today we are still up against short sighted people who don't care because they figure they will move on in 5-10 years.  Like low flush toilets, minimal green techniques should be mandated and thankfully in some areas they already are.


We need a lot more intelligence, meaning brain power, if we are going to get anywhere on energy. 'Big data' is of minor importance, comparatively speaking.

All the bullet points listed are obvious and require no data to understand the problem. Part of the problem is the effort to convert the energy problem into a computer (data) problem.

But the important issue of cost is largely ignored in the discussion, showing not much promise for whatever analysis might come out from analysis of 'big data'.

Cost is mentioned with regard to clothes dryers, but here the problem of comparing costs is that electricity costs are highly subject to government chicanery, with that cost representing motivations and values that will never be understood by data analysts. It is true that natural gas clothes dryers are far more efficient from an honest thermal efficiency point of view, because, big surprise, electricity has to be generated by fossil fuels. An analysis needs to recognize the marginal impact of any proposed change, meaning how the grid supply will respond to such a change. When the marginal impacts are understood, we might see the end to the notion of an electricity generating 'mix' or worse still, the notion that building of renewable sources of electricity will make it a wise choice to use electricity. The reality is that there will be no merit in electrification until there is reserve capacity in the set of renewable sources.


Electricic devices can often be counter-productive, as can be the case with clothes dryers.

Electric devices have great merit where such are a basis of convenience which can be very important. The negative point about electric heaters is flawed where an electric heater is used briefly in a cold room as an alternative to heating the whole room.

Electric vehicle usage is particulaly useful in the special tractor which we call the Miastrada Dragon which can be seen on youtube, the latest being 'Miastrada Dragon At Work'. Or click: