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.