Optimizing energy use through smart meters

Author: William Meiners
Lefteri Tsoukalas has a history of looking forward. In fact, the professor of nuclear engineering sees the most recent financial crisis as more or less a respite from a looming energy crisis that could have far more devastating global effects should the scientific and engineering communities not come up with alternative solutions to oil.

While his career is far from over, Tsoukalas received the Humboldt Award in June (see story on page six of the College side) for his lifetime achievements in science. In short, when he talks about America’s long-range energy plans, people listen.

“Energy is the lifeblood of modern civilization,” Tsoukalas says. “Since the early the 1900s, the collateral for economic growth has been the ability to grow the energy supply. Over the last couple of decades, though, we’ve really started to see the limits of that growth.”

The problem with energy policies, from Tsoukalas’ perspective, is their apparent shortsightedness. Even nuclear power has to be viewed in terms of its long-term benefits. With China wanting to build 50 nuclear power reactors by 2025 and another 100 by mid-century, Tsoukalas believes the Chinese will build the nuclear industry. 

In the meantime—with a big chunk of the stimulus money going to energy initiatives—Tsoukalas sees the focus shifting to renewable sources (wind and solar) and much-needed attention to the power grid. “The last administration looked at energy from a transportation point of view,” he says, “looking to make advances with biofuels and hydrogen.”

Now, Tsoukalas says, we simply need to do more with less energy. Since the mid-1990s, his research group has demonstrated how to bring information technology to the power grid.

“Electricity goes out at the speed of light, and you cannot easily store it,” he says. “But we showed how aligning the grid with Internet technologies and built-in efficiencies could compensate for the lack of storage. Everything that plugs into a wall can have its own IP address, could be on the Internet, and have its own energy management strategy.”

These “smart appliances” could be programmed not to run at peak energy hours. “So you could program your Jacuzzi not to heat up at noon on a hot Tuesday, or not to use your washer if the price of electricity jumps to more than 20 cents per kilowatt hour,” Tsoukalas says. “The goal is to reduce peak usages, stabilize the electricity we use, and thereby do more with less.”

Collaborative investigations

Just as the energy solution will come from a variety of sources, the technological breakthroughs will come as a result of cross-disciplinary, collaborative efforts. Tsoukalas has been working with researchers and students in Purdue’s Division of Construction Engineering and Management on what will become the challenges of building nuclear power plants in this country. And those collaborative efforts go far beyond the West Lafayette campus.

Two colleagues at the University of Illinois—Alejandro Dominguez-Garcia, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and George Gross, professor of electrical and computer engineering—can attest to the creativity and team-building skills that Tsoukalas brings to any collaboration. Gross, who has worked with Tsoukalas for more than a dozen years, describes his Purdue colleague as a “deep thinker who looks at a broad scope of issues.”

Gross and Tsoukalas are usually looking at energy in terms of its symbiotic relationships. How, for example, can improvements in hydro utilization make an energy difference? When it comes to their collaborative efforts on smart meters, Gross suggests, “We’re looking on the demand side, not just the supply side. We’re looking to make sure that consumers have active participation in how they use electricity.”

This may not be as difficult as it sounds, Gross reasons. It’s unlikely that every home would have an active energy manager, but smart appliances would allow them that option.

“The notion of having a smart meter communicating with appliances will bring about some effective deployment of this strategy,” Gross says. “If a meter goes into every home or business and sends messages to a refrigerator to delay cycles to take advantage of cheaper electricity, you can have major repercussions in terms of shifting the loads.”

Gross believes that within 10 years’ time, these smart meters—along with increased consumer knowledge—will be effectively stretching energy and electricity. Test measurements over the next year or two could help predict the long-term success of such a program.

Human and technological engagement

Tsoukalas concurs on the role of the consumer. “We have to engineer an improved technology for human engagement,” he says. Smart appliances and energy credits can get people thinking about their energy usage without asking them to overhaul their lifestyles. But the importance of avoiding an energy crisis calls for an all-hands-on-board approach—and not just from the science and engineering communities.

The energy question is a “showstopper for the developing world,” Tsoukalas says. “They know people are living better than they are and have the freedom of mobility. And they want to have that, too. The increasing problem becomes the lack of resources.

“We have to have a fair system, so every human being has access to the benefits of modernity—to healthcare, education, and good environmental quality. And there are tremendous margins for improvement there,” Tsoukalas says.

So with 5.5 billion of the earth’s 6.6 billion clamoring for those modern benefits, there will be much energy spent on the energy question. While Tsoukalas knows and heartily defends the benefits of nuclear energy, he knows it’s not for everyone. “For countries that have infrastructure, it makes sense,” says Tsoukalas. “But we have to be very careful, and because of this, we don’t have the means to grow the industry quickly.”

While Tsoukalas took his family to Germany in June to pick up his lifetime achievement award, he will likely spend the rest of his career thinking about how to maximize these energy mixes, and no doubt raising more questions. Where does nuclear energy fit into a solar economy? Will there be a hydrogen economy? Or does it all just fit under the heading of an energy economy?

In the meantime, Tsoukalas hopes that connecting the Internet with the power grid and continuous technological headway in the areas of wind and solar will be the beginning of the long learning curve in solving the most pressing problem of our time.