It doesn't take too long for visitors of Mueller, a 700-acre master-planned community in Austin, to realize that the neighborhood is peculiar.
The planned community, built on the site of the former Mueller airport, boasts almost too-perfect rows of homes with cheery pastel exteriors and quaint front porches. And then there are the neighborhood's green flourishes—solar panels that adorn every other rooftop and the eco-friendly hybrid cars that roll almost silently through the development's tidy streets.
Mueller isn't just a subdivision—it's a life-size green energy research test site. The New Urbanist, a mixed-use development, is home to a five-year "smart-grid demonstration project" led by Pecan Street, Inc. , a nonprofit research and development organization focusing on green energy, and Austin Energy.
In late July, General Motors announced that it is partnering with Pecan Street, making 100 Chevy Volts available to Mueller residents to buy or lease. Since February, Pecan Street has been providing financial incentives for residents to join, matching the $7,500 federal tax credit extended to owners of electric vehicles with their own $7,500 rebate. Those who opt to lease will receive a $3,000 rebate.
Mueller's 600 residents are currently using about sixty electric vehicles, according to Colin Rowan, Pecan Street's director of communications, and 52 of those vehicles are Volts.
Now, the recent influx of electric cars in Mueller has allowed Pecan Street to test the impact that high concentrations of electric cars might have on the area's smart energy grid.
"We're interested in how the grid performs when you have a lot of electric vehicles pulling power in one area, and how people use them and charge them,” Rowan said. “That sounds kind of basic, but it actually puts some interesting stress on the grid. We're very interested in finding out how that can be optimized so that it is actually a benefit to the grid and not a liability.”
Pecan Street's project in Mueller is supported by a $10.4 million federal grant and $14 million from project partners. The smart-grid demonstration project will also introduce energy-efficient appliances and smart energy meters to homes, fund the construction of LEED-certified buildings, and test new energy storage technologies.
Grant and Ashley Fisher are urban planners who live with their infant daughter in a bright cobalt-blue house in the neighborhood. The couple has plunged headfirst into the project; they bought their cherry-red Volt in February 2012.
"We both had relatively new, functioning cars at the time,” Ashley said. “We just really believed in the research and wanted to be early adopters.”
Now, Ashley uses the car daily on her ten-mile commute to work. Charging the car costs $25 per month and they only need to refill the car's tank every few months.
But those with longer commutes might not be so enchanted with the Volt, as the car can only make it 35 miles on a full battery charge. The Austin American Statesman 's car columnist Pete Szilagyi noted that, depending on how often the Volt's gas engine is used, gas mileage could be "as poor as the mid-30s," significantly lower than the Prius's combined fuel economy of 42.
The car's charging time is considerable, too: it takes ten hours for the battery to fully recharge on a standard home electrical outlet. (Austinites considering electric vehicles do have some other options in this area, as there are now 103 recharging stations for electric vehicles sprinkled across the city.)
And the Volt has a base price of $40,000, which means , even with the available rebates and credits, it may be out of reach for many drivers . (For comparison, the Toyota's Prius hybrid starts at $24,000.)
Although Pecan Street only plans on monitoring the electric vehicles in Mueller through 2014, Rowan said that the nonprofit will continue to use Mueller for its research.
“These are real people, it's a real community, it's their real life, it's on a real grid. None of this is hypothetical,” Rowan said.