One morning this week, several dozen residents of northeast Austin gathered to inspect three plug-in Volt cars. They peered at the electric and gasoline engine components beneath the hood and took turns sitting behind the wheel.

“I really hate buying gas,” said Joan Neuberger, a history professor at the University of Texas, who is one of more than 140 local residents who have expressed interest in obtaining a heavily discounted Volt next year.

The plug-in cars will be part of the continuing roll-out of an Austin smart-grid study called Pecan Street, which today is announcing partnerships with a handful of major companies, including Whirlpool, Best Buy and Chevrolet, the Volt’s manufacturer. The companies will test how people use new-age products and systems, including solar panels and “smart appliances” as well as plug-in cars, and how it all affects the functioning of the electric grid.

There are about 200 residential participants so far in Pecan Street, which is financed partly by a 2009 federal stimulus award of $10.4 million. Besides monitoring the way participants’ utilize electricity, researchers are also measuring water and natural gas usage.

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Very early results from just a few houses are already showing interesting trends — for example, in the spring, electricity usage dips lowest on Thursdays (the reason is a mystery). In the winter, natural gas usage is highest in the hour after 7 a.m.

The project is also looking into whether south-facing or west-facing solar panels work better for the grid. One hundred Volts will be offered to participants with a special rebate of either $7,500 (in addition to a federal tax credit of the same amount) for those who buy, or $3,000 for those who lease, courtesy of federal stimulus money. Researchers aim to measure how and when people charge their cars and how car charging can be integrated with solar panels.

Pecan Street, which is affiliated with the University of Texas, is one of several smart-grid projects in the state. Another, by the Center for the Commercialization of Electric Technologies and also financed partly with federal stimulus money, will run studies on a new Houston neighborhood that people are still moving into. Texas is a good place to conduct smart-grid research, experts say, because the deregulation of the electric market roughly a decade ago means that electric companies are motivated to offer consumers different ways to monitor and pay for their electricity.

“Texas is really leading the nation with respect to promoting a well-balanced approach to smart-grid,” said Jerry Jackson, a former Texas A&M professor who now leads a national smart-grid research consortium based in Orlando, Fla.

More than 4 million “smart meters” are already installed in deregulated parts of Texas, according to the Public Utility Commission, and many more should be installed by the end of next year, said Donna Nelson, the commission’s chairwoman.

The installation of smart meters has been slightly contentious in Texas, but not nearly as controversial as it has been in California, the other major smart-meter state. Smart meters allow many Texans to monitor their electric usage on a website in 15-minute intervals, if they choose. This information allows people to know when they are using more electricity than expected.

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For Pecan Street researchers, one of the surprising findings to date is that there is little difference in energy usage between homes in Mueller, a new, green-built Austin neighborhood, and older homes outside that neighborhood.
What that suggests, said Brewster McCracken, the project’s executive director, is that personal behavior appears, so far, “to be much more important than the green building rating of the home.”

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