We've Got An App For That

06.20.2012 | Students, Research, Engineering, Energy and Environment, Hot Topics

A pair of savvy graduate engineering students at the University of Dayton have caught the eye of the U.S. Department of Energy with innovative software that will help homeowners with solar systems conserve energy and save big bucks on their electricity bills.

Mithun Mohan Nagabhairava, a software developer in the renewable and clean energy program, and mechanical engineer Dustin Pohlman won the "Popular Choice" second prize — and $4,000 — in the U.S. Department of Energy's first "Apps for Energy" competition. They'll travel to Washington, D.C., later this summer to demo the app to DOE representatives and utility companies.

The app is designed for homeowners with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems.  Families can save up to a third on their electricity bills as demand and time-of-day pricing become more prevalent, the engineering students estimate.

In all, the DOE doled out $100,000 in cash prizes in the contest, which attracted 57 entries. The proposed apps covered everything from price calculations for plug-in cars to the University of Dayton app that allows consumers to measure their home's electricity usage to determine the ideal size of a solar panel and battery system. The battery would be charged during the daytime, with a controller releasing the stored energy during peak times.

"We were kind of surprised, but thought we might end up in the top five given the responses we had been getting from people," said Nagabhairava, who worked as a software developer in California and his native India before joining the University of Dayton's new renewable and clean energy program. "After we submitted our idea in the contest, we started getting calls from solar companies, including one from Sweden."

In an "American Idol" twist, the University of Dayton team captured second place through an online contest. Their entry attracted around 3,500 votes, primarily through Facebook and Twitter — and mostly from people they didn't know.

Under the contest criteria, developers were asked to create mobile and web applications that will help consumers save money by making the most of their "Green Button" electricity usage data. Spurred by the federal government, this is an industry-led initiative that provides customers with the ability to download their energy use — as often as every 15 minutes, in some cases — and make more informed energy decisions.

As part of the initiative, utility companies in California and Texas have already installed "smart meters" that record consumption of electricity at intervals of an hour or less and wirelessly send the information to utility companies. Nagabhairava and Pohlman used energy data from a home in Berkeley, Calif., to test what they're calling an "innovative solar demand response" tool. They estimate the state's more than 114,000 homeowners with solar installations could reduce peak electricity consumption by 80,000 kilowatts per day through the use of their software package.

Nagabhairava, a native of Vijayawada in southern India, and Pohlman, of Delphos, Ohio, teamed on the project in May, brainstorming ideas between classes, final exams and their work in the University of Dayton's Industrial Assessment Center. Here, they conduct free energy audits for mid-sized manufacturing companies in Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Indiana.

Nagabhairava is turning their software tool into a free web application. In the future, he envisions integrating weather forecasts into the tool to optimize the use of batteries in the system. Under the concept, charge in the batteries can be held back from use on a day-to-day basis, only kicking in during peak demand times like extremely hot days.

"We think this eventually could be rolled out to every house in the country," Pohlman said. "If we can provide this kind of information to consumers, it could incentivize the use of solar PV systems. When you have this kind of detailed information, you realize, 'Man, this is what electricity is costing me every hour of the day.'"

Nagabhairava also would like to introduce the concept to utilities and homeowners in India. "This would definitely help back in India where utilities are facing a hard time keeping up with the growing energy demands of the country," he said.

Developing and promoting alternative forms of energy is a strategic focus for the University of Dayton, which has teamed with Wright State University, Central State University and the Air Force Institute of Technology to offer the only renewable and clean energy graduate program in the state.

On campus, researchers are conducting millions of dollars in sponsored research annually in virtually all areas of energy — wind energy, fuel cells/batteries, algae, coal-to-liquid fuels and other clean, alternative energy research. In addition, the University of Dayton Research Institute is leading synthetic fuel efforts at a one-of-a-kind U.S. Air Force facility that converts biomass and other feedstock into jet fuel.

The University of Dayton is a top-tier Catholic research university and the largest private university in Ohio.

Contact Mithun Mohan Nagabhairava at nagabhairavam1@udayton.edu.