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Engineers map city energy consumption

Engineering school researchers have created a map detailing energy consumption around New York City, which may help urban planners create greener technology and save energy.

A team at the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, led by Ph.D. student Bianca Howard and professor Vijay Modi, measured the amount of energy that buildings consume on every block in New York City, which may provide crucial data for other scientists.

“In terms of energy efficiency, I would say that per capita we are a very efficient city,” Howard said. “We were looking to get a better understanding at alternative ways of supplying energy.”

Previously, it was difficult for building owners to quantify their energy consumption and determine which factors accounted for high energy levels. Howard and Modi calculated the amount of energy consumed by space cooling, water heating, base electric, and space heating within each block of the city.

“The idea was around for a while, since 2008, so work was started trying to figure out how to quantify energy consumption,” Howard said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Howard hopes that the map will help planners and designers recognize elevated energy levels and understand the dynamics within specific blocks and neighborhoods.

“We wanted to have the information available to people to analyze their energy,” she said. “We’re trying to look at the possible reduction and incorporation of different technology, and we’re trying to search the city for places where this may be viable.”

Modi said that although the map is a huge step for researchers, his team is still in the preliminary stages of applying its data.

“This is just the first step—literally I would say we are on page one and we have to go to page 10,” he said. “This could become a vehicle and we are talking to other people.”

Modi also said that although other researchers had previously discussed the idea of mapping energy consumption, Columbia’s ability to fund big projects enabled the research to come to fruition.

“We are a large institution and we can commission a half-a-million-dollar study,” he said. “Another group may not have the money to back a study.”

While outside groups may have struggled to land the funding to map energy levels, they might now be able to use the Columbia data as a springboard for other projects. Architecture professor David Smiley said that the data might lead to policies that create more efficient energy usage.

“From the point of view of planning, it could be inserted into all sorts of incentive programs,” he said. “It’s the incentivized model of getting people to change their behaviors.”

Smiley explained that urban planners could use the research to set thresholds on energy consumption, and that architects and designers could be influenced by it.

“It could help a design firm know that if a building they’re working on has a high energy usage, the architect would need to pursue new methods of getting and conserving energy,” he said.

With the new energy consumption information, building owners might also gain a better understanding of how to be more efficient, Modi said.

“Our hope is that one may find that there are a lot more buildings where energy efficiency is viable,” he said. “And maybe people will start looking at it and say, ‘What can I do about it?’”

jeremy.budd@columbiaspectator.com

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