SXSW Eco: How ‘Big Data’ Can Lead to More Energy Efficiency

Photo courtesy of Nest

Smart thermostats like the Nest can give you more information about how you use energy, which could help reduce the strain on the Texas grid.

Epiphanies can come at the strangest times. Take the case of Michael Legatt.

Back in 2003 Legatt was in New York doing his laundry. He had loaded three washers, two dryers and was just getting ready to put the last quarter in the machine when all of the sudden the lights went out.

He figured he had tripped something by doing too much laundry at once. But it turned out he was just one of millions of people suddenly without power during the massive 2003 Northeast blackout, which affected 55 million people and took eleven lives.

“From the human side of things, we had a loss of what we call situational awareness,” Legatt says. A well-placed squirrel and a well-placed tree, among other factors, had suddenly plunged the most populous area of the country into darkness.

The fact that Legatt was doing his laundry wouldn’t mean much except for one thing: he is now the “Human Factors Engineer,” for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the Texas grid. He focuses on how Texans use energy and interact with the grid.

Legatt told an audience at the South by Southwest Eco conference about his experience in the blackout, because, he says, it was the moment he realized why “big data” is important to understanding electric grids.

In the years since, Legatt has worked for ERCOT’s team that is pulling numbers and data about how Texans use electricity.

There are 23 million customers in the ERCOT grid, and 6.7 million of them have smart meters, which send electricity usage information to the grid every fifteen minutes. That data shows a fascinating picture of energy use in the state.

Basically, it all comes down to AC.

“A lot of what we’re dealing with here [in Texas] is an air conditioning issue,” Legatt says. To illustrate this, he shows two days of energy use broken down by sector (residential, commercial, industrial, etc.) in Dallas side by side. One is from a 64 degree day in March. The other is from a 109 degree day in Dallas.

On that 64 degree day, residential use makes up a little more than a quarter of energy use. On that 109 degree day? “Home energy use quadruples,” Legatt says. “And makes up most of peak demand use.”

And the lion’s share of that August energy use is air conditioning.

You may be one of those people who have their AC on during August afternoons. Maybe you leave the house in the morning and set your AC to 82. (I know I do.) Even then, your unit will likely kick on during the afternoon and early evening hours. But if you knew how much power it took to run during that time, and how much it was costing you (for many Texas customers, rates can skyrocket during peak demand) maybe you’d adjust your thermostat up a few degrees.

“We’re trying to create a better interface,” Legatt says. “The more access you get to data, the more you can save.”

That’s where smart meters and smart thermostats come in. Residential users are starting to be able to access their energy use in real time thanks to innovative thermostats like the Nest, which announced its 2.0 version this week.

And it’s easier than ever to access the information from your smart meter. Programs like Green Button Data and Smart Meter Texas provide many Texans with that access. (To be fair, that data can still be somewhat obtuse, depending on the interface, and is only available in 15-minute intervals.)

Reduced air conditioner usage could also help the state meet its growing energy needs, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As more data becomes available, and the number of tools to digest and use it multiplies, the impact widens. At the panel today, for example, audience members heard how integrated data could be used to fight wildfires — a major issue in Texas.

It’s very forward-thinking, the equivalent of a concept car, but it provides a fascinating glimpse of how massive amounts of data — crunched and made accessible in real time — can be used to help fight fires, reduce energy use and cut back on emissions.

Disclosure: KUT Austin, the lead station of StateImpact Texas, is a sponsor of the SXSW Eco conference.

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