Nick Rosen | |
USF prof. making the off-grid world a better place

University of San Francisco professor Sami Rollins thinks better tools could be developed to help people living in off-grid homes — and she’s on a course to create those tools.

It’s one thing for a homeowner to be interested in knowing how much power their solar panels are producing when their home is tied to the grid — because whenever the solar power runs out, there’s electricity for the grid to pick up the slack. But if solar panels are the only means a homeowner has of turning on lamps or a television or running a dishwasher, knowing how much power is being produced is imperative.

Rollins, an associate professor of computer science, and a colleague from the University of Arkansas won a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study challenges that affect off-grid and renewable energy homeowners and to develop tools that can work to address those.

Rollins said the idea for the research came from a friend of a colleague describing the frantic process of running around a house and turning off lights and appliances when the charge of the batteries he uses to store solar power drop below certain levels.

Rollins said she wants to discover more about how off-grid dwellers use and manage energy “and then farther down the road, can we automate some of these processes … and utilize a system that provides them with recommendations for reducing … energy consumptions at certain times or even increasing it when sun is out and you’re generating largest amount of power for that day.”

In the first phase of the research, going on now, they’re looking for people with both on- and off-grid homes to take an online survey that will give the researchers a better understanding of how people use energy in their homes. Then they’ll work to collect information from homeowners that already have data on renewable energy production.

In the next phase, the researchers will study for a year up to 15 off-grid homes in the San Francisco Bay Area or Fayetteville, Ark., and will monitor energy use through an energy management system that includes power meter devices installed in the homes. They’ll use the data they collect to create a database and also to build a smart phone application that will let off-grid users see graphs of energy use or send alerts with recommendations for when people shouldn’t be using certain appliances, for instance.

“How specific we can get remains to be seen, but that’s kind of the goal: To be able to not only look at what’s happening right now and make recommendations to, for example, turn off this lamp, but to look at the history of how often that lamp has been used and see” whether it’s possible, based on its history of use, to turn it off at a certain time of day or night,” Rollins said.

“There are various appliances where you can schedule their use, and others where it’s not likely you can do that,” Rollins said.

Click here to sign up to take the survey about home energy use (open to both on- and off-grid properties) or participate in the year-long study.


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