Austin smart grid

Posted on March, 01 2012

Smart grid, smart meter pioneer

Smart grid, smart meter pioneer

Austin, Texas, is the first city in the world to have built a citywide smart electric grid. Their Smart Grid 1.0 was completed by 2009, much due to the fact that the utility is owned by the city. Austin is already working on Smart Grid 2.0 – the next generation that will increase control of consumption as well as the grid’s capacity to support small variable energy sources such as solar and micro wind. Over $20 billion had been invested in smart grids globally by 2009, a figure which is expected to increase tenfold by 2020.

Keywords: smart grid, smart meter, renewable energy, energy savings, electric power companies

The global market for smart grids is growing exponentially, primarily due to large government investments in recent years in the EU, US, China, Japan, and South Korea. This has led to a series of pilot projects in cities, for example in Boulder, Chattanooga, San Diego, Amsterdam (see also Amsterdam), Mannheim and Yokohama. Unlike many other projects, Austin's smart grid was wholly initiated and financed by the city itself.

A pioneering town for smart grids
When Austin started its project in 2003, through its municipally-owned utility Austin Energy, the city was one of the earliest adopters of a smart grid – according to the company it was CIO Andres Carvallo who coined the term. When Austin's Smart Grid 1.0 was completed in 2009 it was the world's first fully operational, citywide system. Austin Energy had invested $150 million in 410,000 smart meters, 86,000 smart thermostats, 2,500 sensors, and 3,000 computers, servers, and other network components. One million consumers and 43,000 businesses are connected to a broadband network that is integrated with the grid in order to monitor, control, and maintain production, transmission, and consumption of electricity in Austin. The project has delivered savings to Austin Energy as well as a better overview of consumption for costumers.

That the City of Austin owned its utility has been crucial to the success of the project (see also Gainesville). Several U.S. projects run by private utilities have encountered difficulties. One of them, the famous Smart Grid City project in Boulder, Colorado, came to a halt in 2011 because of runaway costs, and conflicts between the city and the private utility, Xcel. The residents expressed their dissatisfaction with the quality and cost of the project in a referendum in November 2011, which gave authorities the mandate to take over the grid with a municipal company. The residents of Boulder were a driving force in starting up the project; a long process now lies before them before the work can continue.

Smart Grid 2.0
Austin is continuing with Smart Grid 2.0, which will integrate devices from homes, factories, and offices. The Pecan Street Project, in the Mueller district, is testing various solutions in a thousand homes and 75 businesses in collaboration with the cream of the high-tech industry, including GE Energy, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Microsoft and General Motors. When the solutions have been integrated, Austin's smart grid will be interactive and "self healing" and will enable:
  • Decentralised production of electricity from small, renewable sources such as solar panels and small wind turbines
  • Storage of electricity, both centrally and locally, in electric cars for example
  • Monitoring and control of smart consumer appliances in homes - refrigerators and washing machines, for example – which makes utilisation planning possible for times when costs are low
  • Charging of electric cars
  • Improved consumer services, such as the web-based monitoring of electricity consumption in real time and web-based monitoring of devices in homes and businesses
  • Smart electricity markets, with tariffs controlled by availability and demand that varies by time of day and season of the year
  • More advanced policies for green energy and energy efficiency

Support for green energy
From the point of view of city authorities, the project aims to strengthen Austin's position as the largest U.S. cleantech centre outside of California, turning the city into a laboratory for renewable energy (see also San José and Baoding). Austin is well known for its ambitious environmental programmes, including:
  • A climate plan, with the goal of carbon neutral municipal operations by 2020 and 30% renewable sources of energy in Austin Energy’s electrical production by 2020
  • A programme for combating the urban heat island effect by planting trees and green rooftops
  • A programme for green buildings which, among other things, includes a requirement for energy declarations
  • A programme of renewable energy which provides, among other things, loans and rebates for the installation of renewable sources of energy and energy-saving measures

Initially, investments in smart grids were primarily motivated by the savings potential via more efficient transmission, reduced operating costs, and reduced peak loads. According to the US Department of Energy, costs in the US can be reduced by more than 20%. The long-term vision for the smart grid is a fundamental transformation of the old system of electricity production, with its large, centralised production plants and inefficient distribution system to a mass of passive consumers. In the system of the future, the production of electricity will be decentralised and green. Transportation will be integrated and not based on oil. And a great many users will not only consume but will also produce and store electricity.

Austin Energy, “Austin Energy Smart Grid Program”,

City of Austin, Environment,

Andres Carvallo, Chief Information Officer, Austin Energy, "LIGHTSON: Austin Energy Delivers First Smart Grid in the US", Electric Energy Online, 2009,

Pecan Street Project,

“Smart grid”, Wikipedia,

Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse, “Austin Energy Smart Grid 1.0 and 2.0”,

US Department of Energy, Smart Grid,,

"Austin energy project tests EVs, smart appliances and more", Greenbang, October 3 2011,

Mary Logan Barmeyer, "Smarter Grids for Smarter Cities", Smarter Cities, A Project of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), August 16 2010,

Kate Galbraith, "Austin Studies Power Grid, Including Plug-In Cars", New York Times, September 28 2011,

SmartGrids – European Technology Platform,

Vincenzo Giordano, Flavia Gangale, Gianluca Fulli, Manuel Sánchez Jiménez, 2011, Smart Grid Projects in Europe: lessons learned and current developments, European Commission Joint Research Centre – Institute for Energy,

E-energy, "Model City of Mannheim",

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision,

Text by: Martin Jacobson

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