It’s relatively easy to figure out how much electricity your home uses in a given day or track an entire city’s energy consumption for a week or even a year.
But what if you needed to match the generation capabilities of dozens of big and small energy producers with the ever-changing hourly needs of thousands of homes, businesses, factories and institutions? You’d have a seemingly endless number of factors to consider: cold snaps and hot spells, weekday industry and weekend laundry, the vagaries of wind gusts and cloudless skies, sold-out arenas and rain-delayed ballparks.
There’s no mental arithmetic nimble enough to tackle that gargantuan task.
There is, however, a big-data approach led by Western Engineering researchers untangling those wires by helping utility providers modulate the highs and lows of demand and production, while also planning for a greener future.
In 2014, Software Engineering professors Miriam Capretz and research partner Katarina Grolinger began collaborating with London Hydro on small-scale projects. Today, they are working on a $3-millon project with six partners that could transform how utilities around the world predict and share energy use and supply.
Along the way, the Western team has grown larger and more diverse.
Grolinger began working on the project as a PhD student, then as a postdoctoral scholar and is “a key player to this successful collaboration” as professor and researcher. Contributing to residential energy forecasting is Statistics professor Camila de Souza. Four PhD students, two Master’s students and six undergraduates are also working on projects with and for London Hydro – for a total of about 50 Western researchers touching some important aspects of the work since 2014.
At first, London Hydro looked to university partners to help develop tools to provide useful conservation information to customers about their energy use, Capretz said.
“We started to realize that if we saved some energy at homes, their bills will be a little lower but it will likely not have a very large total impact. So then we thought we’d use some data that would make a big impact on a big project.”
Through London Hydro, Budweiser Gardens authorized an examination of its total energy usage as it sought to get a better handle on the real and predicted costs of different events.
A 9,000-fan London Knights game obviously requires more hydro than an hour of shinny in an empty rink. But what about a February basketball game, with compressors still making ice under the hardwood while fans stay toasty warm in the stands? And do monster-truck fans use more or less energy than, say, dance-troupe aficionados?
Capretz and her team provided big-data computations that not only saved energy but helped the facility’s bottom line.
“Playing with data, you can find out things you never could imagine,” Capretz said. One example, she noted, was that events appealing mostly to women use more energy because of higher bathroom use. “We were able to see how much these events cost and then they had a better idea of how much they could charge for future events.”
In 2018, that research grew into a London Hydro partnership with area utilities that became Canada’s first Green Button certification – a program that provides data-driven digital solutions for customers to manage their electricity, natural gas and water. The program enables customers, large and small, to share their data with secure, private third-party apps and better predict and save on utility costs.
The goal is saving money – but there’s also a bigger picture of understanding how to minimize greenhouse gases and use resources responsibly and sustainably, said Syed Mir, Chief Information Officer and Vice-President of Corporate Services at London Hydro.
“We’re trying to tackle the social responsibility aspect of things as well as the environmental piece.”
Added Capretz, “We can make better use of the energy that’s being generated right now. In order to do that, we have to understand consumers’ consumption behaviour. We don’t have to generate more electricity – we just have to use it more efficiently. The goal is to optimize the use of the electricity that’s being generated.”
Hydro-use planning for many of us means setting-and-forgetting the thermostat. For big users and producers, however, planning includes predicting and balancing summer shutdowns of industry; surges in demand for electric vehicles; variable production from green-energy sources such as wind and solar power; and measuring the capacity to store production in massive batteries.
Harnessing all those potential sources and uses has also entailed a new partnership that aims to test and bring a blockchain platform to the energy market – with an end goal of more efficient energy production and distribution.
Western is a key partner in this recent $3-million NRCan grant, as part of an international consortium called Project L2L.
“We are looking not only at London, not only at Canada, but we are building it out to other countries. We are doing some innovative research that is big,” Capretz said.
Each partner in this project has a different specialty – whether it’s the big-data know-how of Western, the battery-storage capabilities of ENMAX, or the secure Green Button data-access and -sharing platform of London Hydro as it becomes a digital utility.
Mir said the ongoing partnerships have been exceptional for all sides, and he credited Capretz for bringing her teams of graduates and undergraduates on site in face-to-face meetings to problem-solve, meet tough deadlines and learn from customer feedback. “It’s a real-life example of taking projects from an idea to deployment,” he said.
London Hydro has also hired several Western Engineering graduates who have worked on these various partnered projects, he said.