AUSTIN -- Residents in an Austin neighborhood are part of a first-of-its-kind research program that s studying how electric cars affect the power grid.

Drive through the neatly-paved streets of the Mueller neighborhood and you re likely to see more than just a few electric cars, mainly Chevy Volts. In fact, General Motors says the neighborhood now has the highest concentration of electric cars in the entire country.

The electric car is the biggest new use of electricity to show up in people s home in half a century, said Brewster McCracken, executive director of Pecan Street Inc., a group that is studying how everyday owners use their electric cars.

We re plugging in cars that have the same load-size of an air conditioner, McCracken said. It could cause some reliability challenges. So we re trying to understand that on the front end, while we have time.

Overall, he said the power grid is stable, but as the number of electric cars grows, knowing their impact is paramount.

What we see with electric cars is no different than what we saw with laptop computers and early mobile phones, which is something that does a few things really well, and some long-term technology value benefits, but it s not all the way there right now, McCracken said.

But trying out the technology in its infancy is appealing to some drivers.

We kind of jumped at the opportunity to try an electric car, Dennis Mick said. He and his wife were among the first to agree to participate in the research program headed by Pecan Street.

I think I m part of a change that needs to happen, said Carole Mick from her home, where a months-old Chevy Volt sits in the garage, plugged into an outlet.

Those participating in the program received rebates to install smart meters and were offered a $7,500 rebate for the purchase of a Volt.

The Micks have had their car for four months and have used only three gallons of gas. That s after they put about 4,600 miles on the odometer.

Today, researchers are studying their nearly every move. After installing a smart meter and solar panels, the Micks can see just how much electricity they re using and generating from day to day.

So far in the program, they ve discovered the solar panels produce nearly enough energy to charge their Volt entirely. It is data that researchers will compile for the next five years.

My hope is that we are the tip of the iceberg; and that other communities, other states, and other countries learn from what we are learning here, Carole Mick said.

To learn more about the program and research Pecan Street Inc. plans in North Texas, visit their website here.


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