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Engineering students create smart grid solution for sustainable living 

Author: Tim Jaques

Posted on Mar 28, 2024

Category: UNB Fredericton

Ben Irvine, Jared Soehner, Yousef Rizk and Cameron Davis

Using a web-based portal powered by a cutting-edge control algorithm, New Brunswick homeowners may be able to take control of their energy destiny.

The NanoGrid NEXUS project is the work of five University of New Brunswick (UNB) engineering students. It will be one of 46 final-year capstone design projects to be presented at the 10th annual Engineering Design Symposium on April 4 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the UNB Wu Conference Centre in Fredericton.

“This project is about energy sustainability and resilience towards climate change,” said Shivam Saxena, an assistant professor at the department of electrical and computer engineering.

“The idea is that as climate change continues to induce extreme weather events, in particular here in New Brunswick, we are quite vulnerable given our climate. We will continue to get power outages,” Saxena said.

“This project investigates the viability of having your own microgrid, which is your own little virtual power plant in your home. You would have solar panels, you would have the home battery, you would have electric vehicles (EVs), and your ability to gain independence from the grid and be resilient towards climate change using those three devices.”

Optimizing the three can be difficult for a homeowner, and this project is meant to address that.

“It is designed to be a sort of energy management system to balance energy storage with regeneration. You can pick and choose how to use your energy resources to give you maximum advantage and resilience, as well as a carbon-free life,” he said.

Homes already exist which have solar panels, a battery and EV charging. What is new here is the controller.

“Right now, the three may not work well together,” Saxena explained.

“You have three resources, probably from three different manufacturers, and so there is an interoperability problem, because how do you get your EV to harmonize with your battery and solar? You need a controller to do it. And then the controller needs to know what your preferences are and establish what your preferences are.”

This is where the algorithm comes in.

“It increases the intuitiveness of what you are doing, it leads to freedom for you to choose your profile and your energy preferences, and it could lead to optimization based on your preferences,” said Saxena.

Saxena is the academic supervisor for the project, and his company, Hero Energy & Engineering Inc., which writes software for smart grids, is the client and project sponsor.

Five engineering students are the developers: Cameron Fiander, Yousef Rizk, Cameron Davis, Ben Irvine, and Jared Soehner.

The group does not yet have a physical home that has these assets. Instead, their model is based on data that Saxena has obtained from experiments conducted on such houses elsewhere.

“My team provided real-world data for integrated solar, battery, and electric vehicles over numerous field tests over the past five years. The students have taken this data and created a web portal for homeowners to visualize this data in real time, then express their energy preferences to orchestrate the energy resources differently, whether eco-conscious, or revenue-oriented,” Saxena said.

The goal of a final product isn’t for a homeowner to sell excess power to a utility - although that is possible where such programs exist - but to reduce the house’s carbon intensity in the grid.

The students are developing a controller to control the resources, telling the car when to charge and the battery when to charge and discharge. If there is a power outage in the grid, then the control algorithm will address that.

Saxena said the controller will be “embedded” in the home.

“That works its way up to a web portal that is hosted in the cloud, and allows the homeowner to log in, express their energy preferences and then see what’s going on with their system in real time,” he said.

“We each have our own strengths and weaknesses,” said Fiander, a fifth-year software engineering student.

“We've had to work hard to identify gaps in our collective knowledge and figure out ways to plug those gaps. I can confidently say our project wouldn't be where it is now without lengthy collaboration sessions, pair programming, and working out our core design challenges as a team,” he said.

Fiander stressed the importance of the project to his education.

“This is maybe the most impactful learning opportunity I've undertaken in my academic career,” he said.

“Tackling a real problem proposed by our client, going through a months-long design process, and working in a team to get it all done is something I've never really experienced in previous courses. It's one thing to learn about project management methodologies in a classroom, but having to actually apply that to a real project has taught me a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses,” Fiander said.

“I hope people can look at our project and take away that managing these resources doesn't have to be this huge, complex thing. By participating in the project, I've learned a lot about the internet of things, microgrid architecture, and how to lead a team building quality software.”

His teammate Irvine, a fourth-year engineering student, said he gained “a lot of first-hand experience” from the project.

“Teamwork has made a huge impact with clearing roadblocks and helping with the workload.”

Davis, a fifth-year software engineering student, plans to pursue a master’s degree working with Saxena on smart grids and green energy systems.

He too thinks working as a team allowed the students to accomplish more than they could have done on their own.

“Teamwork has made a huge difference in the amount and scale of work that we have been able to achieve,” Davis said.

“We all have different technological experiences and through combining those experiences I think we have been able to get much farther than any of us could have gotten on our own.”

Rizk, a fifth-year electrical and computer engineering student, called the project “an absolute staple” compared to his other engineering work.

“The client-developer relationship created a new environment for all of the team members to work in. The project time reflected how much needed to be done, going from design to testing, to feedback to more design, and then to implementation heavily reflects what a real engineering project looks like, and that on its own was extremely valuable,” he said.

“I would love to dive deeper into how our project would be presented in a real home on a larger scale, and how far can we go about improving it with enhanced implementations.”

Saxena is optimistic about the result.

“The controller has been developed based on real-world data and models that have been tested and validated over many years. Initial results from this project are promising and pave the way to keep fighting against climate change,” he said.

Banner photo: Ben Irvine, Jared Soehner, Yousef Rizk and Cameron Davis.