Energy Manager

University of Virginia awarded $2-million grant for energy systems research

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Virginia has been awarded a four-year, $2-million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop “smart building” energy systems for residential and commercial buildings. The University says the researchers will focus on reducing energy used by buildings’ HVAC systems, which account for a considerable percentage of American energy use.


The plan is to develop sensors and user interfaces that will allow building occupants to better control the building temperature and enable the building to better sense and automatically respond to occupants, says the University. The team will also be designing new HVAC equipment and building exteriors—or envelopes—to improve the speed and efficiency with which buildings could respond to occupants.


“Right now the prevailing wisdom is that buildings should be efficient in their steady state of operation; if you're going to constantly heat the building, you should be efficient at doing that,” said Kamin Whitehouse, Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and principal investigator for the grant. “We are going to dynamically control buildings, and so we need to revisit that whole philosophy and ask the question, ‘How can we design equipment and buildings to more quickly respond to occupant behaviour?’”


An important goal for the project, according to the University, will be to develop systems that are more affordable than other popular energy-saving methods, such as installation of improved insulation, new windows or solar panels. The University says preliminary data from research conducted on eight houses in Charlottesville, Virginia showed a 28% reduction in HVAC energy use with a $25 investment in hardware. Ultimately, the researchers hope to reduce HVAC energy use by 30% to 50% with a start-up cost of less than $500 per home and a return on investment for homeowners within two years.


To meet the energy-reduction target, the researchers are developing a wide range of technologies, including next-generation wireless sensors, HVAC equipment, building envelope designs and human-computer interfaces. They will use sensors to monitor electric and water loads, occupant motion in buildings, door and window positions, light, temperature and humidity.


Darden professor Andrea Larson is helping the team of technology experts turn the energy systems into an economically viable product for consumers. One aspect of her work, says the University, will be to determine the proper price point for these technologies to gain widespread consumer adoption.


“Technology can be ahead of the market, be hard to sell to its ultimate users and be priced inappropriately,” said Larson. “Early adoption, to be followed by widespread adoption, requires careful selection of first customers and your early supplier partnerships. It also requires a good understanding of the marketplace, including your strategy within the existing competitive context, how you are differentiated, the competition’s likely response, pricing and regulatory issues.”


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September 25, 2010  By  John Gilson

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