Kane Receives $2.2M Department of Energy Grant for Flexible Building Technologies

Michael KaneI, David Fannon, and Misha Pavel

The US Department of Energy recently awarded three Northeastern professors $2.2 million to create an open dataset characterizing occupant-centric control of grid-interactive efficient buildings. Michael Kane, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering will serve as principal investigator. He will be joined by co-investigators David Fannon, assistant professor of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Misha Pavel, ECE affiliated faculty & Professor of Practice of Computer Science and Health Sciences. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL); ecobee, a leading thermostat manufacturer; and Packetized Energy, an IoT-based autonomous demand-response startup, will collaborate with Northeastern on the project.

Air conditioners and heat pumps are a significant load on the electric grid, yet they could serve as an important tool for balancing the variability of renewable electric generation. By pre-cooling or preheating buildings at hours when renewables are plentiful and continuously adjusting thermostat temperatures for efficiency, the total amount of carbon-based power needed can be reduced. However, current models cannot predict how these devices respond when quickly controlled to follow changing grid conditions. Buildings exist to serve occupants, yet such complex automation for grid-interactive efficient buildings currently confuse occupants and make them uncomfortable, resulting in overrides that affect grid reliability.

Kane and his team are looking to design smarter occupant-centric building control algorithms that learn user behavior, are easy to use, and can correctly predict HVAC performance and power draw. The project takes a novel approach to cost-effectively produce and share a large dataset on characterizing grid-interactive efficient buildings and occupant behavior. Laboratory thermal-chamber experiments of heat-pumps will be synchronized with full building-simulators to test the devices’ performance in different homes and weather conditions. Data collected from volunteers in homes under simulated future grid conditions will help build the occupant thermal comfort behavior models used in the building simulations.

Researchers estimate that usage of occupant-centric grid-interactive efficient buildings could lower peak electricity demand in the US by about 10%, representing a significant decrease in energy spending and carbon usage. In turn, this would cause additional savings through the decreased need for new power plants and transmission lines, or the need to bring online older, dirtier plants to meet constantly changing demand.

The grant for the project was awarded as part of DOE’s Building Technologies Office (BTO) $47.7 million funding provided to 23 projects led by 19 organizations. Focus areas include Flexible Building Technologies, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning), and SSL (Solid-State Lighting) Technologies.

Related Faculty: Michael Kane, David Fannon, Misha Pavel

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering