New System Installed in Buildings Allows Collecting Data on Energy Usage

Researchers in the School of Engineering's Electronics Laboratory are developing an energy concept, which refers to a smart grid capable of deciding how best to distribute energy based on cost, availability and customers’ requirements.

Researchers at EPFL have developed a system that can be installed in a building to collect data on people’s energy usage. The aim is then to send this data directly to a smart electric grid that will allocate resources optimally. (Photo credit: EPFL)

They have designed a system that can collect data on people’s energy usage and comfort inside buildings. By collecting data sent from connected devices – like the sensors in electronic appliances and smartphones – the system can attain an overall picture of a building’s electricity requirements by room and over time. It is then possible to pass this data on to a smart grid in order to expect energy requirements and decide how best to allocate resources that are available.

From Individual Devices to an All-Encompassing Smart Building

Buildings are already comprised of systems that can gather data from specific devices. There are, for instance, systems to automatically turn on lights when an individual enters a room, to lower the heating when individuals leave their apartment or to start a coffee or washing machine remotely from a smartphone. However, these interfaces all work separately in order to save energy in different ways or improve the user's comfort. They cannot be used for gaining any precise, overarching insight into the electricity requirements of a whole building or to enhance resource allocation. Furthermore, these devices have completely unrelated applications, with one perhaps being employed for increasing safety while another may control heating, for instance. The interface developed by the researchers will be able to merge all these data and thus cover different energy requirements. The researchers’ findings have been featured in the journal Elsevier Automation in Construction.

A Generic Program Capable of Communicating with Any Connected Device

The program developed in the Electronics Laboratory is capable of gathering data from any sensor.

There are a huge number of smartphones and connected devices available on the market, covering everything from household and leisure appliances to safety. They all use sensors, but the underlying technologies can be very different. Our solution must be compatible with various technologies so that it can be connected to any device. That way, the building and the grid’s energy needs can be managed smoothly regardless of the devices in place.

George Lilis (worked on the interface as part of his PhD)

This interface is extremely flexible and guarantees the best possible data protection, meaning it can be incorporated into any building type. The program has been designed to be as generic as possible, and the computer code employed is open source.

The End Goal: A Smart Grid

This data will have to be sent to and processed by the electric grid so that it can appropriately allocate resources. This is what Olivier Van Cutsem, a doctoral student in the Electronics Laboratory, is presently working on. "The aim of a smart grid is to ensure that users get a top-notch service. This involves managing energy peaks and volatility in renewable energy output while at the same time keeping costs down and ensuring a constant level of comfort,” explains the researcher.

Employing a smart building simulator created by the lab, he is studying the benefits that smart buildings could bring via their energy strategies. “By looking at grid signals or available local output, we can adjust the load at certain times. An apartment could, for instance, be heated a few minutes earlier if the electricity is cheaper at that time or if that will curtail a peak in usage,” says Van Cutsem. “There is also some room for maneuver in terms of the comfort that users are willing to accept. We know that people tend to heat their apartments to between 22 and 26 degrees Celsius, so we could opt for the lower end of the scale when the grid is busy.”

Developing this comprehensive system needs a cross-disciplinary approach with input from researchers in different fields. Some laboratories, for instance, are working on the smart grid, while others are concentrating on data protection and comfort. “Our laboratory brings its expertise in electronics; our researchers are working on how to improve energy metering, communications between connected devices, and data collection and use, in order to enhance coordination between buildings and the grid,” explains Lilis.

This research is being carried out as part of the projects funded by the Swiss program Nano-Tera: engineering complex systems for health, security, energy and the environment, and the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI).


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