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UMass engineer gets grant to research energy efficiency

AMHERST — An electrical and computer engineer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst has received a five-year, $461,434 grant to research energy efficiency in houses and buildings.

The grant awarded to Professor David Irwin comes from the National Science Foundation, UMass officials announced in a news release.

According to UMass, Irwin said understanding how and why individual electrical devices consume electricity is critical to improving a building’s overall energy efficiency. He said he 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 said.

“The purpose of my research is to make a home or building as ‘smart’ as possible in terms of monitoring and controlling energy efficiency,” Irwin said in the news release. “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 said 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 the UMass-Amherst campus that will be equipped with a variety of standard appliances. At those sites, he will be able to 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.

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.

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