David Irwin of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is one of the researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who are conducting a pilot project with the Holyoke Gas & Electric Co. (HG&E) that will show the utility and its customers how smart electric meters can save money and power. The project is funded by a $200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources. Prashant Shenoy of the Computer Science Department and Irwin are heading up a team of UMass Amherst researchers who will be using information from several dozen volunteers in HG&E’s customer base to demonstrate how to improve electricity use based on their metered use. See Article in the Springfield Republican.

The HG&E project is related to a $461,434 grant that Irwin received in 2013 from the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program. The NSF grant supports Irwin’s research for boosting energy-efficiency in houses and buildings, which represent the largest segment of society’s energy usage. The title of Irwin’s CAREER project is “Model-based Energy Management for Sustainable Buildings.”

Part of his NSF project involves his work helping the HG&E deploy many smart meters in the homes of customers. “The purpose is to figure out ways of using the vast amount of smart meter data utilities are collecting,” Irwin says.     

Shenoy says the key to the HG&E project is the smart meters that give a detailed record of electricity use in a home and allows the utility and the scientists to see what appliances, lights, and heating and cooling equipment is being used during the day. The meters report electronically every five minutes so there is a detailed record from each house that uses the device.

Because HG&E has already installed the meters in the homes of its more than 18,000 customers, the data is already available, Shenoy says. The task will be looking at electricity use for individual homes from the volunteer group and determining where savings can be achieved. The data management task will be done at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke using high-speed computers.

HG&E installed the meters to improve the accuracy and efficiency of its billing system, increase meter reader safety, protect system revenues, and enable automatic detection of power outages, utility officials say. Additionally, enhanced data collection from the system will allow HG&E to conduct analyses and develop strategies relative to load management, network planning, outage prevention and ratepayer incentives.

Shenoy says his team will be looking specifically at a few key sources of energy consumption in the home, with an emphasis on heating. He says many homeowners have programmable thermostats, but may not be using them to their peak efficiency. “Most people,” Shenoy says, “aren’t very good at this. Figuring out the right program can make a huge difference.”

He says, for example, that significant savings can be collected by programming the heat to come on just prior to people waking up in the morning, reducing the heat again when people leave the house for work or school and turning the heat back on just before the family returns in the late afternoon or evening. Refining this program can be accomplished, he says, by looking carefully at the meter data that will show what he calls “occupancy information.” That includes when lights and appliances are turned on. Matching the occupancy information with the heating program can lead to energy savings of between 5 percent and 10 percent in most cases, Shenoy says.

For customers, this translates to direct savings on their energy bills through reducing and optimizing energy needs. But what many people don’t realize is that energy efficiency also results in cost savings to the utility by reducing capacity, transmission and energy charges, as well as increasing equipment lifespans by minimizing stresses.

“UMass Amherst and HG&E present a unique opportunity to demonstrate what smart meters, combined with advanced data analysis, can provide to promote energy efficiency and to optimize the integration of renewable energy,” said Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia. “We look forward to seeing the results of this research and opportunities to replicate the findings in other parts of the Commonwealth.”

Shenoy says HG&E is a forward-looking utility and one of the few in Massachusetts that has installed the smart meters for its customers. “They are a very progressive utility,” he says.

The use of the smart meters has a number of critical uses beyond monitoring household use of electricity, as well. Shenoy says HG&E no longer has to send people to read individual meters and in the case of a power outage, it is automatically reported to the utility. (May 2014)