Home may be where we can make the most difference when it comes to American energy usage — households account for nearly one-third of the country’s overall power consumption according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

A new model developed by researchers at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech may be just the answer to help government and industry leaders alleviate our overworked energy infrastructure. This system provides a detailed picture of how each household in a given region consumes power and simulates how small changes in their day-to-day energy usage can add up to major savings.

“This technology enables us to zoom in to examine individual households, consumers who tend to place above-average demand on the grid, and even individual appliances whose usage creates the greatest load during peak hours,” said Achla Marathe, professor at the Biocomplexity Institute and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “There’s virtually no end to the range of test scenarios we could run to see how energy usage trends in the United States might be tipped in a more sustainable direction.”

The unique capabilities of this “virtual energy lab” were recently presented in the journal IEEE Transactions on Sustainable Energy.

For those looking to reduce their energy footprint at home, installing solar cells may seem like the most efficient solution. But factors like weather and local infrastructure might make this a practical alternative in one region, an unreasonable burden in another. Helping government and industry discover areas that are especially well-suited to solar power development is just one potential use of the Virginia Tech team’s new model.

“We all have a major stake in easing the strain on our energy resources,” said Marathe. “Looking at the big picture of energy use helps us identify actions that consumers, policy-makers, and energy providers can take to smooth out costly demand spikes.”

Initial tests of the Biocomplexity Institute’s model using data on energy use throughout the state of Virginia revealed just how much everyday household tasks are taxing our power grid.

For example, cooking at home between 4 and 8 PM typically causes Virginia’s energy demand to jump up by more than 300,000 kilowatt-hours, enough to power an average home for 26 years.

Dramatic leaps like this also require power providers to bring older, less efficient generators online to meet demand, resulting in significant waste for both corporations and consumers. In 2015 the Canadian energy provider, Opower, reported that periods of elevated demand, which represent only 1 percent of overall usage, may be responsible for as much as 10 percent of total systems costs.

The Biocomplexity Institute research team showed that if only a fraction of the population prepared their meals outside of peak hours it would cut Virginia’s daily energy spike nearly in half.

Similar experiments could be run through the institute’s model to determine effective strategies for reducing our country’s dependence on fossil fuels or accelerating an area’s adoption of sustainable energy sources.

“The strength of this modeling environment is the level of detail it provides,” said Eric Nordberg, a research scientist in the Biocomplexity Institute’s Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory. “We’ve used it to simulate energy use throughout the day for each household in the commonwealth. This virtual representation includes activities such as heating or cooling the home, washing laundry, cooking a meal, or watching TV.”

Using this information, researchers can forecast how changes in household energy consumption will impact demands on the grid at large. For example, scientists can quickly estimate the benefits of using higher efficiency appliances or shifting certain energy activities to off-peak times.

With a “virtual energy lab” that extends across the entire country, Biocomplexity Institute researchers plan to use this tool to guide real-time responses to energy crises and support long-term policy planning.

Innovators in the public, private, and academic sectors looking to untangle complex problems related to energy use can take advantage of this powerful new tool by collaborating directly with the Biocomplexity Institute. Where questions on power usage tie into larger concerns like the environment or economic development, partner agencies will be able to leverage the institute’s rich “synthetic data libraries” and an entire network of related modeling systems.

“As a nation, our household energy usage has climbed steadily upward while updates to our infrastructure have continued to lag behind,” said NDSSL Director Madhav Marathe. “To sustain that growth, we’ll all have to rethink the ways we use energy and work to build a smarter grid. Tools like this can allow us to examine our available resources from every possible angle and offer policymakers some much-needed guidance as to how we can make the most of them.”

Written by Dan Rosplock.

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