The next stage of a National Science Foundation-funded project on the concept of community energy has provided positive results for researchers completing the first round of survey data collection for the Mueller neighborhood project in Austin, Texas.  

The effort, “Community Energy: Technical and Social Challenges and Integrative Solutions,” has been awarded funding under the NSF Smart and Connected Communities program of $99,965 for work through June 2020. Additional support comes from the Syracuse Center of Excellence.

Principal investigator and School of Information Studies (iSchool) Professor Jason Dedrick says the study meets an urgent need to improve the reliability and resilience of the electric grid and to integrate new technologies, such as rooftop solar, battery storage, and electric vehicles. While newer technologies can strain an aging grid not designed to handle them, they also can provide valuable grid resources, such as demand response and load shifting, if managed properly, he notes.  

The community energy-use concept involves integrating small-scale solar power, demand management, and energy storage at a community-wide level to create economic, environmental, and social value for individuals and communities, while simultaneously improving the reliability and resilience of the electric grid.

Resident Input Key

Though the project has great potential benefits, it raises issues that must be addressed in order to capture the highest potential, Dedrick says. These include determining how economic and behavioral incentives are perceived and valued in a community context; how residents and other stakeholders regard the project and what factors are key to their participation; and how highly granular data can be analyzed, visualized, and communicated to encourage acceptance and facilitate participation in the program at the community level.

Purposeful involvement of residents and stakeholders at each study stage has been key to maximizing the likelihood of participation success, according to Dedrick. In its first stages, researchers interviewed community leaders and Austin Energy representatives and conducted community workshops regarding the community energy concept. Participants also were shown various dashboards displaying individual and community-use scenarios regarding renewable energy to obtain feedback on the design process.

The research project works in collaboration with the Pecan Street Institute in Austin, which collects detailed household electricity data on over 300 homes in the Mueller neighborhood there.

Positive on Concept

Response to the community energy idea from Mueller Community members has been good so far, Dedrick reports. Initial results show that Mueller residents have high levels of rooftop solar, electric vehicles and smart thermostats, and that they are excited about the community energy concept. That’s not surprising, he adds, because of the neighborhood’s “green” status and its home to the Pecan Street Institute.

“Enthusiasm for community energy is encouraging, as the community has participated in a number of commercial and academic studies and there was some concern about ‘study fatigue,’” he says. “Feedback on our energy dashboard also was very positive, possibly because we involved the community in the design through workshops. Overall, we learned a great deal from this planning grant and are looking forward to developing a working version of the energy dashboard and testing its acceptance and use by residents.”

Next, the survey expands to other Austin households not currently affiliated with the Pecan Street energy data program to provide a good comparison data sample.

Dedrick is principal investigator on the interdisciplinary project, working with Assistant Professor Elizabeth Krietemeyer of Syracuse University’s School of Architecture and Tarek Rakha of Georgia Tech’s School of Architecture as co-principal investigators. iSchool doctoral student Ehsan Sabaghian has conducted the community workshops, designing the survey and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data.