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Clemson Energy Visualization and Analytics Center: Using big data to help the university reduce carbon emissions

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There are a lot of factors that determine the carbon footprint of a place – energy usage, transportation, food waste and paper consumption are just a few examples of things that impact the level of carbon emissions associated with a building and its occupants. The Clemson Energy Visualization and Analytics Center (CEVAC) tracks all those factors and more in buildings across the Clemson campus to help the university reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030.

Located in the Watt Family Innovation Center, CEVAC is jointly funded by University Facilities and the Watt Center. It tracks hundreds of millions of data records from buildings across campus, allowing University Facilities to pinpoint problems and identify areas where improvements can be made. What makes CEVAC truly unique is that it not only tracks and collects large quantities of data, but it also presents that data in a way that is easy to understand and use.

“All of this information was available before, but there was too much data. It wasn’t actionable,” said Tim Howard, facilities director for the Watt Family Innovation Center and director of CEVAC. “We needed to put the data into a format that makes sense, to bring it to a granular enough level that we can act upon it.”

One example of the way that data from CEVAC has been used to implement change is adjusting the energy use in buildings based on occupancy level. Currently, most buildings operate on a fixed schedule based on the time of day, assuming the buildings are “occupied” or “unoccupied” during certain times. When a building is occupied, the heating and cooling are running more intensely to maintain human comfort. After the building is closed, it shifts to unoccupied mode, which allows the heating and cooling systems to work at reduced levels. CEVAC software uses activity levels within the building to make a smarter decision about building occupancy. This has enabled a third mode – a “low occupancy” mode that adjusts the temperature control and other energy settings when the building is still open but has fewer people in it. This setting has currently only been implemented in the Watt Center, but could soon be implemented in other campus buildings, such as the R.M. Cooper Library.

CEVAC data has also been used to monitor fluctuations in energy and water consumption. Alerts are generated which help facilities managers find very specific problems in buildings, such as air handlers that aren’t working properly or toilets that are running continually.

The CEVAC framework has expanded well beyond just monitoring energy and water consumption. CEVAC is also tracking data that includes estimates of student and employee transportation patterns, food waste in dining halls, water usage in buildings, the amount of recycling being done on campus and the amount of paper used in campus printers. It is even being used to track all the types, quantities and locations of trees on campus to determine how much carbon emissions are being offset by those trees. All of this data allows CEVAC to support a more complete carbon footprint analysis of the campus.

CEVAC also employs a number of student interns, giving those students hands-on experience working with big data. For Matt Callicott, a senior majoring in bioengineering, working in CEVAC changed his entire career path.

“The experience at CEVAC has been so great for me that it has literally altered my career trajectory. I now want to go into data science because of the work I have been doing with CEVAC.”

Clemson student Matt Callicott

Callicott will graduate with his bachelor’s degree in May and will go straight into Clemson’s master’s program in biomedical data science and informatics. In his job as a data science intern with CEVAC, he works on coding and making improvements to the system, as well as looking for anomalies in the large amounts of data being collected and trying to find relationships among the data. He says the job is particularly rewarding because he can see the immediate impact of the work he is doing around campus.

“We started out with this abstract idea that we wanted to implement this new system that controls the way buildings operate. We’re now seeing it being put into action and the data we’re looking at now is the result of that work. We’re noticing that our changes have made an impact. Our work is actually saving energy and money,” he said.

To date, 40 Clemson undergraduate students have gained valuable experience while contributing to CEVAC.

Moving forward, CEVAC will continue to improve its capabilities and deployment. Future plans include monitoring the energy produced by Clemson’s recently installed solar panels and the resulting carbon reductions and deploying CEVAC to monitor Clemson facilities in Pendleton, Greenville and Charleston. One new capability of CEVAC will provide fault detection of existing air handlers.

The impact of CEVAC is clear – it provides a low-cost, highly capable operational platform to help the University achieve its sustainability goals, while providing a unique, multidisciplinary experiential learning opportunity for students who are passionate about sustainability.

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