Feature Stories

A Bright Future

Patrick Administration designates UMass Amherst Energy Extension Hub
  • Dave Damery, Prashant Shenoy and Beka Kosanovic stand in Central Heating Plant lobby.

In addition to innovative research projects, a big part of the Energy Extension Initiative is to provide expertise and support to cities and towns investigating clean energy technologies.

As one of the earliest land grant universites, UMass Amherst has been applying campus expertise to societal problems for more than 150 years. At first it focused on agricultural technologies, but now, in today's far more diversified economy, the campus’s extension model has broadened to include regional and national support for a spectrum of issues, including advancing emerging clean energy technologies in the commonwealth and beyond.

To advance this mission, the campus was selected to house the statewide Energy Extension Initiative, designed to mobilize information on the latest clean energy technologies as well as the resources to put them into practice. A $6-million grant from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources will support community-scale test-bed projects designed to identify and mitigate financial, social, political, and technical barriers to wider deployment of energy efficient practices in the commonwealth.

David Damery, environmental conservationist and extension professor, is leading the initiative; big data expert Prashant Shenoy and mechanical and industrial engineer Dragoljub Beka Kosanovic are co-principal investigators. About $2 million of the grant will expand services at the U.S. Department of Energy's Northeast Clean Energy Application Center through the campus’s existing Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (CEERE) while $4 million will help UMass investigators develop an energy outreach and extension-type program drawing on UMass Amherst experts. Damery and the team are issuing a request for proposals inviting high-level researchers working on clean-energy technologies to join in the mix.

“The opportunities are vast,” Damery says. “We specifically structured this initiative to call for these broad research proposals in order to invite the best ideas.”

The $2M for CEERE services will be targeted at combined heat and power initiatives to help provide technical assistance to cities, towns, and businesses looking to adopt combined heat an power solutions. Citing the campus’s own power plant as an example, Damery points out that it primarily burns natural gas to produce electricity but also uses its excess steam to heat and cool campus buildings. "By producing both electricity and capturing the extra heat produced burning natural gas, we are able to achieve very high efficiency levels” he explains. “If you just generated electricity, you’d get a third of the power out of that fuel source, no matter what the fuel source. The remaining two-thirds would be wasted.”

The other $4 million of the grant will more broadly support additional adoption of energy-efficient technologies across the commonwealth. Damery says the Initiative intends to allocate funds for a variety of projects, including some devoted to wind and solar power. Because a significant portion of its funding comes from the commonwealth’s alternative compliance fund—penalties paid by utilities who failed to meet the renewable portfolio standard—the Initiative also supports projects that may help eliminate hurdles to clean-energy implementation. To ensure that the Initiative yields real change, Damery and the team are asking proposers to specifically state how many megawatts of renewable energy they expect their projects to generate.

Damery’s team is in constant contact with the Massachusetts utilities who are natural partners in the pursuit to solve energy issues. Employing big-data analysis and utilizing the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in nearby Holyoke, Shenoy has long worked with local utilities to develop algorithms to provide power more efficiently. He will expand this work to look more specifically at data centers, using the MGHPCC as a test-bed. These centers, Damery explains, are notorious energy hogs: mid-sized ones use about as much energy as a small city. With an increasing reliance on IT, this issue isa critical one, especially in areas like Massachusetts having strong  information economies but high energy costs. The MGHPCC offers several thousand points of instrumentation to collect operational data on everything from HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) to fine-grain server power consumption and energy usage, yet such data currently goes uncollected. Shenoy and his colleagues propose to design an automated system to collect and centrally store all of it on one or more servers to support the design of new techniques to optimize energy use by such facilities.

Another initial test bed project takes a closer look at something that hits closer to home for most of us: perceived comfort in the indoor environment. Led by environmental conservationist Simi Hoque, campus researchers will travel throughout the commonwealth using low-income housing to conduct studies under controlled lighting, temperature, humidity, and air quality conditions. Damery explains that building managers too often adhere to a specific set of energy standards in every climate and season, yet such factors play a huge role in perceived comfort—a role the team will be exploring further. Dry heat during a New England winter, for example, leaves one feeling dry and chapped, while too much humidity during the summer leaves one feeling sweaty and uncomfortable. Also, some people may be more tolerant of a cooler indoor temperature during the winter and a warmer one during the summer than  current standards provide.Damery, Hoque, and their team hope this work yields an innovative model of adaptive comfort that accounts for environmental,  cultural, psychological, and physiological parameters. Such an approach will lead to more responsive environmental control algorithms, enhanced comfort, reduced energy consumption, and the promotion of climate-responsive building designs.

 Helen HillBeyond supporting innovative research projects, a big priority for the Energy Extension Initiative is providing expertise and support to cities and towns investigating clean-energy technologies. Damery explains that many municipalities may not have sufficient funds for preliminary engineering analysis or the expertise required to deploy new equipment, which is where the initiative will have the greatest reach.

In addition to focusing on cities, towns, and businesses, Damery hopes to provide support for projects that help homeowners be more energy efficient. Along with the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (with which UMass Amherst is jointly hiring Initiative staff ), Damery is looking into a project integrating photovoltaic technology into standard roofing shingles.

Damery says that with ever more municipalities, businesses, and homeowners considering energy expenditures, the initiative is gaining enough support to have a real impact.
“The human species did not think seriously about energy use in buildings until 1974, 1975,” Damery says. “We’ve been thinking about it more and more but we might be at a real tipping point in 2014, when these
issues seem to be on almost everyone’s minds.”

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