Finding a Better Way to Go Green

The California Institute for Telecommunications and Information, also known as Calit2 at UC Irvine, houses various research centers and projects being led by students and faculty.

While the Calit2 building is somewhat tucked away in the engineering end of the campus, the environment is by no means exclusive. Collaboration, according to the Calit2 website, is the “foundation upon which the institute and the building itself are constructed.” The four-story building includes several state-of-the-art labs and spaces for researchers to accommodate projects from all over the spectrums and disciplines.

The Calit2 division at UCI is a partner with the division at UC San Diego, and they are one of four University of California Gray Davis Institutes for Science and Innovation. The goal: develop innovative technology-based products and services that will go toward benefiting society.

The California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug) is among the various research centers located in Calit2. This particular research center was established in 2011 to “improve energy efficiency in the use and design of appliances and consumer electronic devices.”

The suite that houses the research center is open and roomy, with no particular order to the rooms and hallways. In each open room or space, however, is a research lab, running simulation, or tech demo. Each is run by different groups of students within CalPlug, and each falls under the overall goal.

Marta Mendoza, a fourth-year environmental engineering major, said the research team includes anywhere from 30-40 students a quarter — the vast majority of them undergraduates — and they come from many backgrounds.

Dr. Arthur Zhang, the Technology Manager for the CalPlug Center, emphasized CalPlug’s unique, “niche” nature in having a diverse research team that looked not only at technology, but also at its place in business and society.

“We’re not just about electronics and making some cool gadgets to save you energy,” he said. “There are tons of those in the world.”

If one were to search on Amazon, Zhang said, one would find a plethora of “smart” and “green” devices. The issue is not the availability — it is the service.

“How do we provide that instantaneous point of service while saving energy to the maximum,” he asked. “That’s what we’re about.”

Dr. Zhang said consumers are drawn to products that interact with the user intuitively, allowing them to learn quickly and easily. If there is any hesitation, no matter what the engineering solution or ingenuity, the product is not a success.

“To reach out to the majority, you have to make it intuitive,” Zhang said. “You want to change their behavior? No way. Try it. Even a social scientist can’t do that.”

“Their job is to understand the consumer usage behavior so that the technology can grasp that behavior, to provide service only when it’s needed.”

The research projects at CalPlug are conducted with these concerns in mind.

Marta Mendoza’s 1kWhr (one kilowatt hour) Challenge introduces participants to normal household items from televisions to hair dryers and the actual amount of energy consumed. As they watch a movie or use an appliance, the energy consumption is collected and recorded. The “winners” of the challenge are those who complete the tasks with the least amount of energy.

Every single time, Mendoza said participants were surprised about the amount of energy that went into a single appliance.

Dr. Zhang said another important research project involved measuring the efficiency of cable set top boxes, a topic that drew the interest of state senator Diane Feinstein.

While on standby mode, a set top box consumes 10 watts a day. Multiply that by 120 million set top boxes across the U.S., and you get seven power plants just to supply all these boxes, according to Zhang.

The “Wall of Power,” a virtual-physical demonstration, allows consumers to see the energy usage and cost of using various common electronic devices, from set top boxes to televisions and presenting the information in a user friendly manner.

More efficient set top boxes and other consumer appliances would go towards making the average American home into a “smart home” that can adapt to peak times of electricity consumption in the morning and evening and back into standby modes while remaining the most efficient.

A display of test set top boxes in CalPlug labs fitted with their experimental devices show a 50 percent power reduction compared to standard models. Dr. Zhang said these tests will be reference points for manufacturers and carriers like DirecTV.

CalPlug was invited to feature the Wall of Power at International Conference on Consumer Electronics (ICCE) earlier this year. CalPlug joined several companies and researchers in the industry in sharing their approach to promoting consumer awareness. Dr. Zhang said projects like the Wall of Power are culminations of the work of many individuals, as well as an instance of CalPlug’s potential.

“In the beginning we were a little brother, we didn’t have much expertise or experts,” he said. “But gradually we gained support from the state government and local utilities. We’re still young, but that’s good because we don’t pretend that we know a lot of things, because we can’t.”

“The industry people really like us because all the student researchers and professors we have love to work with different disciplines. You don’t see a uniform cut here. This is a community working together to promote that concept.”

Visitors to the CalPlug Center office on the fourth floor of the Calit2 building will be able to see the projects mentioned above, as well as several others that promote energy efficiency awareness and technology.