UC Berkeley students’ energy-efficiency proposal wins ‘Most Innovative’ in Department of Energy competition

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A team of four UC Berkeley undergraduates won “Most Innovative” in one of six categories at the Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Case Competition for its proposal to improve energy efficiency at universities.

The competition was hosted in Washington, D.C., on March 14 and brought together 150 students from 27 universities to develop innovative solutions to energy-efficiency problems in buildings nationwide. Launched in 2012, the competition is part of the Obama administration’s Better Buildings Initiative, which aims to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent in commercial and industrial buildings by 2020.

The UC Berkeley team, Golden EnergTech, consisting of engineering students Nanavati Low, Michael Chang, Daniel Tjandra and Grace Vasiknanonte, chose to address the competition’s “Experimenting with Efficiency” case. This category involved developing strategies to promote increased energy efficiency in buildings on college campuses funded by outside grants. The teams were given about three months to draft a 10-page proposal to present to a panel of industry judges.

“When people think about energy efficiency, they think of home-energy management, but people kind of forget about universities and leave it in the hands of other people,” said Low, the team’s leader.  “Right now, there are very few incentives to encourage universities and researchers to implement energy-efficient policies in their labs.”

Golden EnergTech took a comprehensive approach to addressing campus energy-efficiency problems and developed a series of strategies  around the “policy, technology, grants and education” components of the issue.

Using the Energy Bioscience Institute in Berkeley as a model for a near-“perfect” building, the team found many issues with the older buildings on campus used for research.

“Latimer Hall is one of the worst buildings out there,” said Tjandra, who worked specifically on the technology aspect of the proposal. “They’ve put in so many fume hoods that the building pressure is negative, which sucks everything in and costs a lot of energy to maintain.”

To address the issue, the team proposed using a variable frequency drive connected to a motion sensor to adjust the frequency of fan rotation in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems, instead of the current system in which the fans rotate at the same speed throughout the day. According to Tjandra, HVAC systems account for about 50 percent of buildings’ energy consumption.

The team spoke with energy and building managers during their research, including campus energy manager Charles Frost, who noted the difficulty of promoting energy efficiency in universities while working with the current grant process.

“It’s really a challenge to package this and tie it into funding,” Frost said. “Out of all of the cases at the (competition), this was the most challenging.”

Golden EnergTech tackled issues of how universities implement new energy policies and obtain grants to fund them. According to Chang, a large percent of grant money is diverted from research to go toward facilities and administrative costs.

“If you make buildings more energy efficient, buildings cost less to run, so the percentage that the university takes from research also goes down,” Chang said.

After the competition, the team hopes coordination with the Department of Energy and increased visibility of the project will help its proposal eventually become a reality at UC Berkeley and at other college campuses nationwide.

Contact Kathleen Tierney at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @kathleentierney.