NSF Greenlights Sustainable Building Project


By Mark Dwortzan

BU engineering and MIT architectural faculty are developing a new framework for advanced sustainable buildings.
BU engineering and MIT architectural faculty are developing a new framework for advanced sustainable buildings.

Past efforts to design more sustainable buildings have largely focused on finding ways to reduce their energy consumption in isolation. Now a new, four-year project drawing on engineering and architecture faculty at Boston University and MIT, respectively, promises to deliver substantial carbon footprint and energy cost reductions not only to individual buildings, but also to other buildings and electricity consumers in their neighborhood and beyond.

Funded by a recent $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the project’s collaborators—principal investigator Professors Michael Caramanis (ME) and John Baillieul (ME) from Boston University’s College of Engineering, and Professor Leslie K. Norford and Associate Professor John E. Fernandez from the Building Technology Program in MIT’s Department of Architecture—plan to develop a new method to retrofit existing buildings and design new ones that minimize internal energy consumption and costs, and transact mutually beneficial electric energy exchanges with electric utilities.

The research team envisions equipping individual buildings with the capability to integrate production and consumption of electric energy via a smart micro-grid capable of monitoring and controlling smart appliances, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and other grid-friendly devices, as well as onsite electricity generation from rooftop photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. Each building would also be configured to exchange electric energy with external energy markets, enabling it to not only draw on external power sources but also to sell some of its own power to the grid—and neighboring electricity consumers on the grid—at low cost.

For example, when clean energy generated from rooftop photovoltaic panels exceeds the building consumption rate, the excess will replace fossil fuel-generated electricity consumed by others on the utility side of the meter.

“Our framework will enable advanced sustainable buildings to interact with next-generation electricity markets, including synergistic interactions between the built environment, transportation and urban infrastructures that expand the use of wind, solar and other intermittent, renewable energy sources,” said Caramanis. “We consider this adaptive interaction capability the major contribution of our research toward a sustainable energy future.”

Toward that end, the research team aims to create a two-layer technology platform that will enable a building to continuously optimize its energy consumption under dynamically changing internal, building-side-of-the-meter conditions—including building capabilities, safety requirements and occupant power use preferences—and external, utility-side-of-the-meter factors, such as weather and energy market trends, requirements and costs.

The platform’s first layer, called the Intelligent Information and Execution (IIE) layer, will monitor and control electricity consumption throughout the building, and collect information on utility-side-of-the-meter conditions. Based on that data, the second-layer, the Energy Management Decision System, will return to the IIE a set of optimal actions aimed at reducing energy consumption and costs.

“We are proposing to build an advanced intelligence system on the building side of the meter that can monitor and control consumption, forecast demand and obtain occupants’ power consumption preferences regarding heating, cooling and lighting,” said Caramanis. “This system will create a virtual energy market with humans in the loop on the building side of the meter, and enable the seamless and productive exchange of electric energy with energy markets on the utility side of the meter.”

After designing this two-layered system, the research team will conduct a pilot experiment in a large BU or MIT building with diverse energy uses. The experiment will help the researchers to better understand building occupant and external energy market behavior, and to synthesize an effective advanced sustainable building design framework.

Caramanis envisions that findings from this effort will enhance a parallel project, Smart Neighborhood, which he’s working on with BU colleagues in the College of Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences and Graduate School of Management. Smart Neighborhood seeks to create sustainable neighborhoods by engaging consumers, utilities, government and private sector interests to determine the optimal use of energy, transportation, food, water and green space.