In the summer of 2011, Texas experienced a heat wave that had electricity providers sweating. So many homes were cranking the air conditioning that utility companies feared the electric grid couldn’t handle the strain. One Austin neighborhood stood out. During triple-digit afternoons, homes in the area with south-facing solar panels drew half the energy they needed from their own rooftops.
That kind of detailed information can be invaluable to utility providers and policymakers who have to worry about the consequences of brownouts or more sustained losses of power. Few research organizations track energy usage as minutely--and across such a range of traditional structures and more modern green construction--as Pecan Street Inc. Headquartered at the University of Texas at Austin, the nonprofit is generating information that could change the way utility companies think about pricing and distributing energy, and how consumers think about their energy use. Tracking how a critical mass of solar panels could affect a neighborhood’s electricity demand is only the beginning.