UW Today

January 21, 2010

While current technology is deployed, UW researchers work on next-generation devices

News and Information

Most of the technology that will be installed as part of the UW smart grid demonstration project is commercially available. But UW engineers developing the next generation of smart-grid technologies will use data from the pilot project to advance their research.

Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor in the Departments of Computer Science & Engineering and Electrical Engineering, is developing easily installed devices that measure consumption in real time down to the level of a single outlet. The device uses electrical noise to measure how much power is being used by everything from your coffee maker to your TiVo.

A growing number of gadgets can measure electricity consumption. What is unique about Patel’s system is it consists of a single, low-cost device that can be stuck on the outside of a residential fuse box and record electrical activity throughout the home — no electrician required.

Patel’s device works on the principle that different machines consume power in characteristic ways. Because household appliances are not made to NASA standards, even two identical light bulbs made by the same manufacturer emit a distinctive signature. Electrical signals travel throughout the system and so can be detected at any point, even the outside of the fuse box.

The device has been in the works since Patel joined the UW in 2008. It is one of a trio of low-cost sensors being developed by his lab. Last year his students won first prize in the UW Environmental Innovation Challenge for a project called HydroSense, which uses a similar method to measure water use and alert homeowners to water leaks. Another gadget monitors natural gas by sensing activity in the gas line’s pressure regulator.

Patel envisions that eventually users will be able to log in to a password-protected Web site to see how much electricity they are consuming. Studies show that better informed consumers use less energy.

His device could appeal not just to users who want to know how much electricity their flat-screen TVs are guzzling, but by utility companies that might want to deploy residential monitoring to tens or hundreds of thousands of homes as part of a regional smart-grid deployment, says Ed Cummings, a licensing officer with UW Center for Commercialization.

With other devices, a utility company would have to send an electrician to each customer’s home.

“With this system you can send out the same people who deliver the phone book, and hang the device in a bag on the customer’s front door,” Cummings said. “So the potential for Shwetak’s technology to get much faster penetration at much lower cost is huge.”

The group is in the process of commercializing the technology.

So far, the electric-sensing device has been field-tested in a few dozen homes. Team members hope to piggyback on the campus pilot project to do more user tests.

“This demonstration project could enable us to answer some questions faster than we could by deploying them in a number of homes in Seattle,” Patel said. “We can iterate on a collection of designs, and we can get to people faster when they’re here on campus.”

Return to article on UW campus smart-grid demonstration project.