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Can a dorm make us smarter?

May 31, 2013



“No energy problem can be solved in a vacuum,” says Kyle Bradbury M.Sc.’08, Ph.D.’13, a postdoctoral energy fellow with the Duke Energy Initiative and co-leader of a new Bass Connections project, “The University as an Energy Laboratory.” This is why, he says, it’s key that today’s pressing energy issues are approached with innovative and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

His team, which includes faculty and staff with diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise from the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Pratt School of Engineering, and Duke Facilities Management, aims to establish Duke’s campus as a learning laboratory for understanding energy consumption and the potential of smart meter technology—a relatively new advancement in metering technology that provides real-time information on energy use.

Bradbury and team co-leader Richard Newell, Gendell Professor of Energy and Environmental Economics and director of the Duke Energy Initiative, will discuss this and other Duke energy projects in the “Up for the Challenge: Energy” panel at Duke Forward in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, June 1.

The team will use data gathered from smart meters on Duke buildings to develop “energy disaggregation algorithms” that pinpoint how specific appliances—from computers and refrigerators to heating and cooling systems—use energy. Bradbury hopes the project will further our understanding of energy use in commercial buildings and identify new energy- and cost-reduction strategies.

“The University as an Energy Laboratory” is one of seven Bass Connections Energy project teams launching this summer and continuing into the 2013-14 academic year. Created by a $50 million gift from Anne T. and Robert M. Bass of Fort Worth, Texas, Bass Connections will bring faculty and students together to respond to complex challenges through problem-focused educational pathways in several broad thematic areas, including energy.

Bradbury tells us how Duke’s campus will be used as a learning energy laboratory.

Why is Duke’s campus a good place for an energy laboratory?
Energy disaggregation has been explored at the residential level, but not a lot of work has been done on the commercial-scale building level. Duke’s campus is uniquely poised to look at energy consumption at this level because we have commercial-scale buildings with smart-meter capabilities.

How are you using smart-meter technology?  
Smart-meter technology allows us to measure when we use the greatest amount of energy and which appliances cost us the most to run. With that information, we can now analyze data and disaggregate—or break down—a single building’s energy consumption to understand how much energy a refrigerator or light fixture is using. With this information, we hope to gain a greater understanding of the university’s energy data.
The algorithms we develop will hopefully be able to help individuals and commercial-scale building managers start to unravel some the questions that exist about energy use within their facilities, leading to significant savings in energy consumption and cost.

What buildings make up Duke’s energy laboratory?
Duke’s energy laboratory includes the Duke Smart Home, a large home that is a test bed for a number of different energy management technologies; Duke facilities; and the new Keohane 4E dormitory. As the project continues, we hope to expand to include laboratory space as well as classroom space to look at the challenges between those types of buildings for energy consumption patterns and disaggregation algorithms.

What are your broader goals for the project?
Energy disaggregation provides a lot of detailed information about energy consumption behavior and efficiency improvements. Once we are able to make this data available to researchers, we hope to involve the behavioral science community and answer questions such as: How much data do consumers need to change their behavior? What frequency of data do consumers need?

What advice would you give to students interested in energy?
I recommend pursuing the tools you find interesting. If you’re passionate about the engineering approach to problem solving, pursue an engineering degree. If you’re passionate about environmental remediation techniques, get a degree from the Nicholas School. But, while you’re doing that, keep your eyes open and remember that no energy problem can be solved in a vacuum. Fortunately at Duke, there are so many opportunities and so much encouragement to cross over disciplinary boundaries. Bass Connections and other programs are significant in allowing students within their curricular pathway to engage in a multifaceted energy education.

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