100-year-old University of Alberta building to become model of smart energy use

Researchers at the University of Alberta are hoping to make a 100-year-old building on campus a lot smarter by reducing energy use, emissions and operating costs.

A project is underway at the University Commons building to create a “living laboratory.” Existing hardware will be upgraded and additional sensors and smart devices will be added in the building.

The goal for the research team is to figure out how to optimize all the control systems in the building to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, while increasing comfort for those who use the building and saving operational costs.

“We have a much more accurate view of how the building is used, how many occupants there are and what they’re doing,” said Eleni Stroulia, project lead and professor in the department of Computing Science.

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Previously the Dentistry/Pharmacy Centre, University Commons is located on the north end of campus. It serves as a student services hub with spaces for gathering, events and ceremonies. It also houses several academic and administrative activities.

Stroulia said while many modern buildings are equipped with “smart” technology, they are typically not fully optimized. She said a building may have motion sensors that turn lights on and off, but the sensors don’t pick up on natural light levels in the space, leading to the lights being turned on at times when artificial light isn’t needed. This leads to wasted energy.

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The project will also include an app that people who use the building can download. It will provide real-time feedback to the research team.

“When they’re in the building, the app will know roughly where they are and we’ll be asking them questions: ‘How do you feel right now? What’s the temperature? What’s going on?’” Stroulia said. “This is the ground truth that will tell us whether we’re doing well.”

A computational model — or “digital twin” — of the building, its infrastructure, spaces and devices will be created. All the data collected from the hardware and software will allow the team to refine the real-time virtual model of the building.

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“Once the model becomes highly accurate, whatever you do in the model will actually predict phenomena in the real world,” Stroulia explained. “We can use this information to better control the heating, lighting and ventilation systems for the building.”

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The team believes the findings from this project could be transferred to other buildings, finding more energy-efficient ways to control lights than the standard motion-sensing methods currently installed in many buildings.

“The improvement of control will be optimized such that we save energy, save greenhouse emissions, improve comfort and hopefully save costs in the operation of the building,” Stroulia said.

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The research team is also collaborating with Omid Ardakanian, whose research focuses on optimizing battery usage. A collaboration is also underway with Petr Musilek, whose work involves smart power grids.

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Other aspects of the project will look into privacy and data use, the heat exchange between the building and the exterior, as well as how occupants can engage more actively with the building.

The university recently received $649,570 in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leader Fund.

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