Smarter Than Your Average Building

Professor Andrea Mammoli and solar collectors on the UNM Mechanical Engineering Building

The phrase 'Smart Grid' has been thrown around quite a lot recently. Unfortunately, it isn't clear to many of us what a 'Smart Grid' actually is. Some folks at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque have built and are testing one of the first pieces of the future smart grid - a smart building. The Mechanical Engineering Building at UNM has a newly refurbished solar-thermal energy array that provides 90% of the building's heating needs and 35% of its cooling. The solar system is part of a computer controlled HVAC system that can use cheaper off-peak electricity to provide cooling in the heat of the day. Ironically, this 'smart building of the future' was designed in the 1970's.

The Mechanical Engineering building at UNM isn't likely to win any beauty contests with its grey concrete exterior and small windows. But, that homely exterior gives the ME building good thermal efficiency, which is vital to effectively using the solar array on the roof. The roof-top solar array combines refurbished flat-panel and new vacuum tube solar thermal collectors for a peak capacity of 170 KiloWatts of heat generation. The solar panel system sends a heated glycol solution into a super-insulated storage tank in the basement and then through a heat-exchanger. The heat-exchanger then feeds either an absorption chiller in the summer or the heating system in the winter.

While the UNM Mechanical Engineering building has a sophisticated solar heating and cooling system, the basic design is 30 years old. It is the new, computer-driven and networked control system developed by professors Andrea Mammoli, Peter Vorobieff and engineering students, Hans Barsun, the UNM Physical Plant Department and Energy Control Inc. that makes this a smart building. The control system coordinates rooftop solar sensors with building occupancy and energy pricing data to control digital actuators which drive the heating and cooling systems. This allows the ME building to store water for heating and cooling when the sun shines and/or power is cheapest. As well, the ME building is a teaching tool for UNM engineering students can use when studying solar thermal power systems.

The Mechanical Engineering building marks a first step towards developing a smart-grid. Buildings that 'know' and can anticipate their power use are needed to communicate through the grid to smarter power plants. These smart-grid standards are being developed right now and it's exciting to know that some of the R&D is being done at the University of New Mexico.

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