Pecan Street and Exponential Growth of Solar

July 25, 2014

Brewster McCracken and the Amazing Pecan Street Project sounds like a great name for a movie, – with a marvelous electric flying vehicle, maybe.

Brewster McCracken is CEO of the Pecan Street Project – an Austin, Texas based research outfit that has been following the experiences of early adopter households who have upgraded to solar panels, electric cars, and smart meters.

The longitudinal study is revealing a number of surprising insights into how real people use new energy technology – which I’ll be covering in future posts. I had a wide ranging Skype conversation with Brewster not long ago, much of which will make its way into new video projects – but I wanted to share a sample now. This is one whipsmart guy and one cool, informative initiative.

Time Magazine:

Dan McAtee and Laura Spoor’s utility bill last year came to $631. That’s not bad considering the average annual electric bill in Austin, the Texas capital, is more than $1,000, largely because air-conditioning may be the only thing locals love more than barbecue. But it’s even more impressive once you realize the bill actually came to negative $631. The solar panels on their roof mean McAtee and Spoor produce more electricity than they consume. “We got the biggest system we could get,” says McAtee, pointing to the array of panels laid atop their one-story home like domino tiles. “Now we’ve got what you might call overgeneration.”

But while the solar panels stand out–such arrays are rare in Texas–what really sets McAtee and Spoor’s home apart can’t be seen at all. Smart circuits are tracking their electricity use on a minute-by-minute and appliance-by-appliance basis, providing a running record of how power flows through their home. On his computer, McAtee opens a website that shows in near real time the rise and fall of their electricity use over the months. When Spoor opens the refrigerator to get a pitcher of lemonade, the readings spike for a moment, reflecting the extra watts consumed as the appliance compensates for the rush of warmer air. “You can literally see when a lightbulb is turned on,” says McAtee, 73, who spent years as an engineer at IBM before his retirement.

These insights come courtesy of Pecan Street Inc., a research group running the most extensive energy-tracking study in U.S. history (backed in part by the Department of Energy). Its ground zero is Mueller, a planned green community in Austin where hundreds of households have signed up to have their electricity use monitored on a granular level. Researchers track when and why Mueller’s residents consume power and how fast-growing new technologies–like solar panels, connected appliances and electric cars–are affecting the grid. (Thanks in part to an incentive program, Mueller has more electric vehicles per capita than any other U.S. neighborhood.)

That kind of data is unprecedented in the electricity industry, whose essentials have remained largely unchanged since 1882, when Thomas Edison opened America’s first commercial power plant. The Pecan Street team is already using it to upend long-held theories about electricity use and test provocative new distribution methods, which could make our power cleaner and cheaper. With U.S. demand for electricity projected to rise at least 30% over the next 30 years, the methods it pioneers may be our best shot at avoiding a future full of brownouts, blackouts and sky-high energy bills. “Mueller is the community of the near future,” says Suzanne Russo, chief operating officer at Pecan Street. “But everything we’re learning is going to be applicable to every community in America.”

Even 3 years ago, before the most recent Solar City and Sungevity explosion in installs, many observers were wondering what a solar explosion might look like.

Ramez Naam in Scientific American:

Yet solar power is still a miniscule fraction of all power generation capacity on the planet. There is at most 30 gigawatts of solar generating capacity deployed today, or about 0.2 percent of all energy production. Up until now, while solar energy has been abundant, the systems to capture it have been expensive and inefficient.

That is changing. Over the last 30 years, researchers have watched as the price of capturing solar energy has dropped exponentially. There’s now frequent talk of a “Moore’s law” in solar energy. In computing, Moore’s law dictates that the number of components that can be placed on a chip doubles every 18 months. More practically speaking, the amount of computing power you can buy for a dollar has roughly doubled every 18 months, for decades. That’s the reason that the phone in your pocket has thousands of times as much memory and ten times as much processing power as a famed Cray 1 supercomputer, while weighing ounces compared to the Cray’s 10,000 lb bulk, fitting in your pocket rather than a large room, and costing tens or hundreds of dollars rather than tens of millions.

If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology, then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone – incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.

So is there such a phenomenon? The National Renewable Energy Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy has watched solar photovoltaic price trends since 1980. They’ve seen the price per Watt of solar modules (not counting installation) drop from $22 dollars in 1980 down to under $3 today.

Regular readers may remember Ray Kurzweil’s simple observation of what the mathematical implications of solar development seem to be.

8 more doublings, and counting.

 

 

 

49 Responses to “Pecan Street and Exponential Growth of Solar”


  1. Here is a great solar video for homeowners.


  2. This Isabel interesting article about how the cost of solar is much lower than people think.
    http://costofsolar.com/cost-of-solar-is-2-100-times-cheaper-than-you-think/


  3. […] More from my interview with Brewster MacCracken of Austin’s Pecan Street Project. […]


  4. […] more from my Skype interview with Brewster MacCracken of Austin’s Pecan Street Project – today, surprising findings about EV owners – […]


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