Managing Local Power

Multi-disciplinary study examines how individuals make decisions about electric power use in an effort to match demand and supply in campus micro-grids

by Gordy Slack

In early November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its fifth assessment report on mitigating climate change. The report urges world governments to significantly reduce carbon emissions or risk dangerous disruptions to the planet’s climate system, along with side effects such as rising air pollution, energy supply disruptions, threats to food production, and steadily increasing mitigation costs.

An effective response requires the coordination of individual efforts, community action, and broad social and economic policy changes. Each of these levels depends on and influences the others in technological, political, and social dimensions, says Ronnie Lipschutz, professor and chair of Politics at UC Santa Cruz. The equation is complicated by the fact that democracies are often hesitant to compel citizens, corporations, or even public utilities to adopt new norms, particularly in a free-market-oriented economy such as the United States. In the absence of such top-level action, he says, one viable alternative is to guide ourselves and each other toward more self-preserving behavior through education, incentives, and altered norms and habits.

To do that, we must first understand how individuals currently make carbon-costly decisions in their daily lives. Toward that end, Lipschutz and his colleagues Michael Isaacson, professor of electrical engineering at UCSC, and Bryan Jenkins, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis, launched a project with funding from a CITRIS seed grant to examine how some students at UCSC and UC Davis make such choices.

The SEAD plugs learn how we use appliances and can then remotely manage them to help reduce our carbon footprint.

In his lab, Computer Engineering Professor (and Director of CITRIS at Santa Cruz) Patrick Mantey and his students have been developing low-cost instrumentation to enable and encourage consumers to manage their home energy use and increase their participation in energy conservation and “demand-response” programs. The current instrument will track electricity drawn from appliances plugged into it, and also capture details of the voltage waveform seen at each specific plug. Using software under development by Ali Adabi, one of professor Mantey’s PhD candidates, the device wirelessly transmits this data to a processor where it is analyzed for identifying signatures of devices that commonly operate in a home environment. For example, a laptop uses electricity in a different pattern than a desk lamp or a washing machine. With enough data, the system that Adabi calls the Smart Energy Analytic Disaggregation System (SEAD) will be able to quickly identify appliances by those signatures. The SEAD plugs are also able to control appliances remotely and manage them within a demand-response system that discriminates between essential tasks and those that could be postponed or cancelled without causing harm.

For now, though, the SEAD plugs simply allow the researchers to collect data on the what, when, and where of their study subjects’ electricity use, says Adabi.

After the devices are installed in 20 students’ housing units, and their power use is recorded and analyzed, Lipschutz and his students will conduct interviews and administer surveys in an effort to reveal patterns associated with their usage profiles. They will look at socio-economic and regional differences (people from cold and hot regions may have different attitudes about using electric heat, for example), as well as variances by culture and gender. The questionnaire will ask where students get their food, how they do their laundry, how they travel, and how they use electronics, kitchen appliances, and lights. It will also inquire about family size, income, and practices regarding recycling and transportation, says Lipschutz. Participants in the study will be asked to keep a resource diary chronicling day-to-day behaviors that influence energy use.

If the researchers can determine why students use energy the way they do, says Isaacson, perhaps they can also nudge the students toward incorporating some kind of demand-response technology into their normal behavior. A key component of this phase will be understanding what kinds of information about their personal energy usage patterns subjects find interesting and motivating.

The group’s effort to understand how small decisions are made and how they might be influenced is part of a broader research effort to understand how people could learn to use a small-scale local grid. To successfully shift entire nations toward renewable energy sources, smaller subsets of the population must be able to manage their resource allocations in ways that maximize efficiency, says Isaacson. Local resource management also offers a more predictable pattern than larger, less nimble grids.

As local communities increasingly depend on electricity generated by wind, solar, and other renewable sources, they will need to coordinate their peak use with peak generation, which will vary with weather conditions. Coordinating this relationship may require employment of devices like the SEAD plug to help make, or at least inform, decisions about what kinds of energy-consumptive behaviors to conduct at various times in a given day. If peak use can be reduced by turning off or down non-essential appliances, the savings in terms of both carbon emissions and money would be substantial, says Isaacson.

“Once we install SEAD plugs on non-critical loads (washing machines and dryers, for example), a demand-response system can shed these loads temporarily during a disruption in renewable resource generation such as a large passing cloud,” says Adabi.

Education is another key part of the project. Adabi hopes that revealing how simple changes in behavior can radically alter one’s carbon footprint will turn on lights in these students’ minds.

The researchers also run an NSF-funded exchange program with Aalborg University and the Technical University of Denmark. This past summer, ten Danish students spent two weeks in Santa Cruz and two weeks in Davis taking classes, participating in seminars, and going on field trips. In summer 2015, ten UC students will visit them for a month in Denmark.

“The two countries have very different perspectives,” says Isaacson. “The Danish approach to conservation just wouldn’t work in the United States—but for political reasons, not technological ones. In Denmark, it’s the culture to do things for the good of the country. Americans are more independent, more ‘everyone for himself.’ If it’s good for everyone else, well that’s great, too, but that’s not going to be the prime mover,” he says.

Understanding what the prime movers are in the United States will be key to making micro-grids based on renewable energy work effectively, and for coordinating them with larger power-supply networks, says Lipschutz. It will require cooperative behavior that may challenge some independent American assumptions.

“Often it’s not about developing the highest technology; it’s about developing the most applicable and appropriate one, the one that people will actually use,” says Isaacson.