The Pike Powers Laboratory and Center for Commercialization is set to open its doors Tuesday as Pecan Street Inc., the clean energy consortium, nears the end of its fourth year of operations.
The three-story, 3,800-square-foot lab and its boxy, modernistic design houses the energy equivalent of three residences, plus a two-car garage, where companies and researchers can develop, test and validate new products that could become standard fare for tomorrow’s homes and commercial buildings.
The $1.5 million facility, across the street from the old Mueller airport tower, is the physical realization of the Pecan Street’s agenda to use massive amounts of real-time data to determine what new technology works and what doesn’t. It has $600,000 of specialized testing equipment.
“We can test almost anything with an on-off button,” said lab director Scott Hinson.
Pecan Street already collects energy usage data from more than 1,000 homes in several Texas cities and San Diego, Calif. It just signed an agreement with the Circuit of the Americas race track to test the next generation of solar panels from a major manufacturer.
The consortium, based at the University of Texas, shares its data with its 15 corporate partners and more than 50 academic institutions that are members of the Pecan Street Research Institute.
“Our mission is to accelerate innovation in energy,” said Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s CEO.
The commercialization lab is the next step.
“This is a milestone,” McCracken said. “It’s another step in Pike Power’s vision of a modern technology economy. He’s been out there for a decade saying the missing piece is commercialization.”
Powers is an Austin lawyer and a self-made economic development guru who helped shape the city’s technology landscape with four decades of involvement in projects small and large, including the recruitment of Austin’s earlier research consortiums — MCC and Sematech.
Recently, Powers sat in his namesake lab, sketching on a notepad the key components of the regional economy and the lab’s role. He diagrams his thoughts so often that they have become known as “Pike-o-grams.”
“We have a world-class opportunity to tie it all together,” said Powers, looking at the sketch. “It’s a realistic opportunity to change how the world operates.”
With the lab, Pecan Street can now simulate any building’s environment with high-caliber equipment that controls every circuit independently, down to each plug. Outside researchers can work at secure computer stations without fear of disclosing proprietary information.
Hinson said he hopes to have eight to 12 outside researchers working in the lab on any given day.
The lab is designed with the future in mind.
“We don’t know all the technology coming in,” Hinson said.
The current configuration has 12 times the natural gas flow of a single residence, four times the electrical sources and 35 kilowatt-hours of electricity storage. In the garage, electrical vehicles and rechargers can be studied. The lab has a rooftop patio that gives researchers easy access to solar panels.
“It’s like having three houses in one building,” Hinson said.
The lab also has its own data center.
“In one place, you can touch everything needed for a product,” said Bert Haskell, Pecan Street’s chief technology officer.
The lab will allow companies — from startups to corporate giants — to test consumer electronics and applications to deal with everything from smart meters, energy management, solar panels, natural gas fuel cells and the next generation of appliances and electronic devices.
In the future, for example, a home’s or commercial building’s electronic devices will routinely communicate with smart meters through Internet gateway devices. That has implications for consumers wanting to save money and enjoy more convenience as well as for utilities trying to manage peak usage of electricity.
San Diego Gas & Electric recently joined Pecan Street to improve its energy management during hours of peak power demand.
Why would a California utility come to Texas for help?
“We’re the only entity like this in the U.S.,” McCracken said.
Pecan Street’s massive amounts of data from its 1,000 participating homes is part of the draw.
“This is real data from real users,” McCracken said.
Real-time monitoring of power usage could have other benefits.
What would it be worth if a homeowner’s air conditioner warned him it needed attention, as opposed to shutting down on an August afternoon?
“It would be like a check light on your car’s dashboard,” McCracken said.
In a broader sense, McCracken summed up Pecan Street and its new lab: “Data helps isolate things that matter to the customer.”