Irwin receives $461,434 CAREER award from NSF to study energy efficiency in buildings

David Irwin, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has received a five-year, $461,434 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund research on energy efficiency in houses and buildings. The grant is from the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program.
Irwin says understanding how and why individual electrical devices consume electricity is critical to improving a building’s overall energy efficiency. Irwin plans to create a “Wikipedia-style” website to collect electricity use data from thousands of specific brands and models of appliances. It is designed to be an encyclopedic site where visitors can use data or add data about their appliances.
Using the site, Irwin will conduct research that uses models of these devices to develop automated discovery, monitoring and scheduling software to identify wasted electricity in a building, track energy consumption, and program electrical devices to go off or on, according to need. This kind of smart electrical system will be inexpensive, private, reliable and sustainable, he says.
“The purpose of my research is to make a home or building as ‘smart’ as possible in terms of monitoring and controlling energy efficiency,” says Irwin. “Using these methods, consumers could save an estimated 15 to 20 percent on their home’s electricity bill, while also reducing their carbon footprint.”
He says a significant barrier to improving building energy efficiency is that fine-tuned, pervasive monitoring of electrical devices on a large scale is currently expensive, invasive and unreliable.
Irwin intends to develop software that can automatically schedule, control and optimize the electricity use in all the appliances, switches, outlets and circuits throughout a home or building, while at the same time protecting the privacy of occupants.
He plans to set up experimental sites, including places on campus that will be equipped with a variety of standard appliances. At those sites he can run controlled and repeatable experiments.
Irwin will also be working with the Holyoke Gas & Electric Department, which is deploying smart meters in the homes of customers. “The purpose is to figure out ways of using the vast amount of smart meter data utilities are collecting,” Irwin says.
In addition to helping homeowners reduce their electricity bills, one major purpose for the kind of software Irwin is developing would be as a building control system for larger structures. “Right now,” he says, “building control systems don’t manage the electrical usage to this degree of sophistication.”