A Different Scale of Energy

Smart Urban Isle is a project looking to change the very way in which we measure energy itself.

Can we measure energy in a better way? “We’re starting to change our mindset on how we think about energy”, Antonio says enthusiastically. Antonio Collado is the Innovation Manager at CARSA, Spain’s oldest Innovation Management Company, and it’s clear he’s excited to tell me all about the Smart Urban Isle project. He starts by explaining that until now we haven’t really questioned the scales we use for measuring energy, “it’s either at the level of a building or at the level of a city”. This is why we talk in terms of zero-energy buildings, zero-energy cities or the aim to make either buildings or cities carbon neutral. In fact, from our conversation it becomes obvious to me that these two units of analysis have become deeply entrenched in the language of energy management. He pauses very briefly and then says, “We wanted to check out something new, something really centred on the citizen and adaptable to every scale.”

Antonio outlines that a Smart Urban Isle (SUI), isn’t a fixed unit of measurement. Actually, it could be several buildings together or it could be just one huge building like a hospital or even a theatre. As I was starting to wonder, why bother? Antonio, sensing the question coming, says emphatically, “We’re doing it to improve energy management”. He puts it into a very simple analogy, “Let’s look at a hospital, it’s probably not producing as much energy as it’s consuming because it is a huge building with huge demands”. He then elaborates,

“If we look at several buildings in the surrounding area, we can see some produce more energy than they actually consume. So, they could easily be donors of energy for the hospital.”

 The analogy makes sense: a hospital needs blood donors because there isn’t enough to go around, in a similar way it also requires energy donors. A SUI identifies where the donors are and redirects energy from them when it is needed. Antonio angeringly responded by saying it’s all about optimising energy flow and adapting it to every single user.

I come to understand that a SUI is a tailor-made energy-measurement system. I intuitively see how this leads to more efficiency. Antonio then makes the point of stressing that the size of a SUI is highly flexible; basically, the area can be determined according to the needs and practicalities of the person designing the SUI. The shape and size of a SUI depends on the planners: If you want to balance the energy usage in a neighbourhood, then you can use the neighbourhood as a SUI. However, if you want to balance the energy system around one heavy consumer, then you can do this as well. Antonio’s explanations make me understand that planners are afforded a high degree of freedom when using the SUI measurement.

I start to wonder about how it’s even possible for a SUI to account for things like climate, geography, user’s behavioural patterns etc? Antonio goes on to tell me that for the project to be successful, a wide variety of partners were needed. The SUI project is a complex collaboration involving several universities, knowledge institutes and energy institutes to refine the idea and create a consortium. The Consortium consisting of CARSA, Spain; Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands; The Cyprus Institute; Middle East Technical University, Turkey; Gheorghe Asachi” Technical University of Iaşi and Software Quality and Performance, Romania; Zurich University of Applied Sciences/ZHAW and Anerdgy, Switzerland; and the European Centre for Renewable Energy, Austria. 

The SUI projects breadth of partners allows for focus on two very important pools of expertise: experts in the design and production of software tools, and experts in bioclimatism (design with a precise integration of climatic and environmental conditions) and energy management. It’s clear from Antonio’s tone alone that the working relationship between all these partners was very warm and productive.

“we wanted to develop a new concept based on the actual view of the final user”

Getting a dizzying sense of just how complex coordinating the project is, I shift my focus to how a SUI is determined; “The SUI implementation methodology is at the core of the project”, Antonio says. He explains that the methodology has three principle components: bioclimatic analysis, energy-balance analysis, and the development of a management tool. These three components help to determine the scale of a particular SUI. The first two components involve looking at a whole range of variables from how to promote cross ventilation in buildings to examining the balance between consumers and producers of energy in a given area. Then there is the management tool, here they really wanted to move beyond existing technologies, “we wanted to develop a new concept based on the actual view of the final user”.  

Antonio went on to highlight what their new concept was. The project was distinct from similar efforts: firstly, SUI uses existing technologies but not in isolation, rather it synthesises those approaches to produce a more holistic methodology. Secondly, SUI uses smartphones in an innovative way; initially the project started only with the use of fixed sensors, but as the methodology evolved the project incorporated the use of smart phones as sensors for the SUI system, “with this approach we are moving from hundreds or thousands of sensors to millions of sensors”, he says. This is a massive increase in the capability to gather data vastly beyond what was possible in the past.

the data could help users to better understand their energy needs, then they can make more informed decisions about their consumption habits

I immediately started to ponder how they could persuade millions of people to voluntarily turn their phones into sensors. Antonio stressed that at this stage they were just testing the process of data gathering itself. He explains that the data about an individual’s activity (walking, running etc.) is collected alongside data about the environment (temperature, humidity etc.). So, this data will eventually be presented back to citizens through an application. Understanding exactly what data was being gathered helps me get a feel for how citizens could use it. I see the potential of how an application based on this data could help users to better understand their energy needs, then they could make more informed decisions about their consumption habits. Antonio points out how they’ve even defined a comfort algorithm for this very purpose. I have a feeling that using SUIs could be a way of democratising information about energy consumption.

I tell Antonio that it must be complicated to interpret all this data. He chuckles and tells me they definitely faced problems along the way. Yet, it wasn’t necessarily knowing what to do with the data, but the technical problems associated with using phones that caused the greatest headaches. Antonio says, “The platform is ready to collect data from millions of smart phones and it’s running really well but sometimes some mobile phones crash and there is a problem with data collection”. Nevertheless, he reassures me that though there were many technical problems along the way they solved them one by one.

This project is aiming to make a really significant change in how we view energy and who gets to view it

Finally, I ask Antonio what they have learnt. He emphasises just how much opportunity there is in using smartphones as sensors for measuring energy usage. “So far we have very positive results”, he proudly tells me. The tool is up and running and the SUI methodology is free for all to see on their website. Eventually, they expect they can export the SUI methodology to every country and every city. Antonio finishes by saying “We would like every citizen in a city using this as a tool”. At the end of it I get the very real feeling that this project is aiming to make a really significant change in how we view energy and who gets to view it.

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