Making Your Own Smart Grid?

Thailand's Chulalongkorn University shows us how large, professional smart grids can be built using open source, DIY-fabricated electronics and custom software. 

July 30, 2015 | BIT Magazine The term "smart home" or "smart building" is used often but what does it really mean? Is it within the exclusive realm of large corporations and government? Or can we make our own smart buildings and grids locally? To find out, BIT Magazine and Maker Zoo (a Bangkok-based makerspace) went to Thailand's Chulalongkorn University (CU) in Bangkok to learn about their building energy management system (BEMS).

Chulalongkorn University Building Energy Management System (CUBEMS) includes a main map giving users an overview of the entire project and allows them to select on a specific building, then on a specific floor and room to get real-time sensor data and statistics. 

CUBEMS consists of multisensors scattered throughout two buildings measuring temperature, humidity, motion, and light intensity. The information is sent to a server along with data collected at junction boxes monitoring power consumption using IEEE 1888 protocol. Stored in a database, the CUBEMS team can then use different applications to interpret, display, and use the information.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of CUBEMS is its flexibility. On our tour, both commercial bought and open source solutions made on-campus could be seen working side-by-side. There were also multiple applications using the single database to display and work with all the sensor data gathered. That means that the system can stay online and be used daily, even while updates or even entirely new applications are developed and tested.

CUBEMS uses their own application to automate energy use, store and display statistics, and even notify users via Facebook when their energy consumption exceeds preset quotas. Administrators can adjust these quotas and even change the temperature settings of air conditioner units or turn them on and off remotely through the application.

Throughout buildings covered by CUBEMS are monitors that allow students and teachers alike to interact with the system in real time. Using a Kinect sensor, hand gestures serve as a pointing device to navigate through different screens. 
The application's interface is clean and user friendly and includes a variety of ways to quantify energy use in terms people will better understand. With digital maps of the smart grid, complete with room-by-room sensor data given in real time, it is not unlike a "master system display" for a Star Trek starship. Also not entirely unlike Star Trek starships, there are monitors scattered throughout CU's engineering faculty serving as a sort of "conduit interface," allowing people to directly interact, view, and even control (provided they are administrators) the grid. CUBEMS also has developed an Android application for mobile phones with a simplified system readout.

Science fiction no longer, Star Trek's conduit interfaces (left) and starship master systems displays (right) are now realities in CUBEMS. Similar smart systems integrated into homes and offices around the world will likely feature interfaces and master systems displays to help keep track and make use of all the data collected from an increasing number of sensors. 

The Technology 

Some of the multisensors found throughout the grid were "black box" consumer products. Most of them however were made on-campus using Arduino, Xbee, and common light and temperature sensors used at makerspaces and by hobbyists around the world. The campus-made sensors still were very professional, but cost a fraction of the price of store-bought sensors, up to 4x cheaper. Also, they provided not only additional function, but the ability to be upgraded and expanded whenever CUBEMS team members felt the need to.

Inside one of the on-campus developed multisensors reveals common off-the-shelf sensors and components many makers will be familiar with including a PIR motion detector (center) a XBee wireless communication module (right, blue), a light sensor (bottom right), and a temperature and humidity sensor (to the left of the light sensor). 

Raspberry Pi's served as gateways for certain sections of the grid, BeagleBones controlled air conditioner units, while the junction box power consumption sensors were custom-made on campus like many of the multisensors.

In addition to managing energy brought in from the national grid, there are provisions for CU's solar arrays and even an experimental wind turbine. There are also plans for integrating electric vehicle (EV) charging stations into the CUBEMS project, allowing users to track energy generated, stored, and discharged for different purposes. The CUBEMS team has been working closely with the university's EV team to ensure easier integration of electric transportation within the growing campus smart grid.

A 30kW solar array at CU. While on-campus solar power generation is but a fraction of overall energy use, the CUBEMS team wanted to include different forms of alternative energy and even EV charging stations in the design to ensure the system was able to accommodate increasingly localized alternative power grids of the future.  

The Advantages 

What CUBEMS proves is that a powerful, professional, and large-scale localized smart grid can be made using open source solutions gathered together and leveraged by hardworking, talented makers and engineers. The fact that all the data is kept and used on-campus and can either include or do without commercial solutions is another important aspect of the CUBEMS project.

One of the many aspects of the coming Internet of Things (IoT) that unnerves many is the concept of one's data being in the "cloud" or in the hands of a corporation or government managing your energy use for you. By creating our own smart grids locally where data and its use are completely in our own hands, we benefit from all the advantages of smart grid technology, and avoid many of the unpleasant disadvantages. If and when we decide to share our energy use with others for whatever reason, it would be out of choice, not necessity.

The Success So Far  

The amount of work the CUBEMS team has accomplished in two years is amazing. Everything from sensors to software to interactive monitors using Kinect to allow users to browse CUBEMS stats in real-time in the corridors are already up and running providing a proof-of-concept for a truly localized smart grid the users have complete control over. Solar power, while produced in small amounts, also proves the benefits of a smart grid's ability to track the effectiveness of different alternative power solutions in a larger existing grid.

The Health Pad presents information gathered by CUBEMS in easy-to-understand statistics users might find interesting or helpful. Developers can easily add additional visualizations depending on how people are using the system and what their goals might be. 

But the real question is, has CUBEMS helped conserve energy? Believe it or not, quotas set by different departments have had an impact on energy use. Facebook notifications reminding people of their energy use helps encourage them to shut off unnecessary appliances throughout the day. Air conditioners left on accidentally over the weekend now leave obvious tell-tale signs in real-time, allowing administrators to remotely shut them off where ever they have an Internet connection on-hand.

Before CUBEMS, the best the university could do to identify energy consumption problems was read meters and wait for the monthly electric bill. Now they have real-time data fed in from each breaker in the system. Abnormal behavior can be easily and almost instantaneously spotted in comparison to the trends identified since the project began. Not only does this allow maintenance workers to quickly identify the source of a problem, the information may also help in troubleshooting what that problem may be.

In all, CUBEMS gives its users real-time, room-by-room, appliance-by-appliance resolution of and control over energy management, and it does so using technology and techniques within the abilities and budgets of makerspaces and design houses around the globe. Bringing these systems into people's homes instead of waiting for commercial or government solutions could be the best way to head off many of the privacy issues that concern people regarding "smart grids." And as alternative energy sources become increasingly localized, waiting for commercial or government "smart grids" might not even be an option.

The app lets administrators remotely control different aspects of the smart grid including adjusting the temperatures of air conditioning units as well as turning them on and off. 

With your smartphone in hand, the next time you head off for vacation and wonder if you left something on by accident, your own personal smart grid might be able to not only tell you, but afford you the opportunity to turn it off without having to disrupt your travel plans. For peace of mind, as well as more efficient energy use, and considering how cheap many of the components are becoming, we should not be surprised to see these grids gaining traction in the near future.

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