Amy Thompson is always teaching, even when she’s not in the classroom.
As a professor-in-residence at UConn in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, she helps to guide students through the complex, interdisciplinary field of systems engineering and engineering management.
But a large part of her work at UConn is educating students in a completely different way – and, at the same time, educating Connecticut municipal leaders, town managers, and school administrators on how readily available technologies can help guide and improve energy efficiency and sustainability efforts within their towns.
“I always admire the research and the methods that are created here at UConn,” Thompson says. “When I’m not teaching, the thing I’m really interested in doing is getting those advanced technologies and advanced methods into the hands of people more quickly, so that they can make an impact. What you don’t want is a barrier to that, and I feel like our program is an example of technology transfer and knowledge transfer. It’s a great way to support Connecticut.”
Thompson came to UConn in 2017, and brought with her a growing program she created called SmartBuildings CT. Supported by Energize CT – the state’s energy efficiency fund, which is administered by the public utility companies Eversource and Avangrid – SmartBuildings CT primarily works directly with towns to help benchmark energy usage in public buildings.
“Our program is really a technical support, education, and training program specifically to support communities and school districts in Connecticut,” Thompson explains. “We create an energy portfolio for each of the towns and each of the public school districts in Connecticut.”
Building Portfolios for Success
In a residence or small business, it’s easier to see your energy costs – you get an electric bill, maybe a home heating oil or gas bill, and possibly a report from a solar or alternative energy system.
But for municipalities and school districts, energy usage can be much more difficult to quantify and track. There’s the town hall or office building, all the school buildings, public works buildings, police and fire stations, libraries, recreational facilities, and community centers – all with their own electric service and other energy usage factors, all using varying amounts and types of energy depending on their design, the month of the year, and even the time of day.
To date, SmartBuildings CT has worked with more than 70 towns, school districts, and other agencies. More than 2,885 buildings in the state have been benchmarked through the program.
For local officials, a municipality’s energy-use landscape can get really complicated really quickly. Tracking where and how much energy is used can be labor intensive, and it’s often challenging to know how to best invest limited tax and grant dollars to improve energy efficiency in town facilities.
“If you only have one building and you have one electric and one gas meter, an energy portfolio is still helpful, because you can track your energy over time,” Thompson says. “But you can imagine for a lot of the towns that have twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty buildings, it can really help them organize and understand the energy usage and cost for their organization.”
Through the federal Energy Star program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a free tool called Portfolio Manager, which allows anyone to measure and analyze patterns of energy consumption.
Buildings benchmarked through Portfolio Manager also receive an Energy Star score that compares their performance to similar buildings across the country.
The data provided by Portfolio Manager can help target underperforming buildings that might be in need of energy improvements – telling towns where to invest resources and attention to get the best bang for their buck – as well as helping to identify best practices from efficient buildings that can be replicated in other facilities.
Buildings that earn an Energy Star score of 75 or greater through Portfolio Manager may also be eligible for Energy Star certification. Energy Star-certified office buildings, on average, use 35 percent less energy, generate 35 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and cost $0.54 less per square foot to operate.
But setting up an energy portfolio can be an intensive process. Utility accounts need to be linked. Things like oil and propane bills, as well as historical information about energy costs, need to be manually entered for each building. Square-footage and building-usage information, like hours of operation, need to be added to the portfolio as well.
That’s where SmartBuildings CT comes in. Thompson and her team of graduate and undergraduate students partner with towns and school districts to start benchmarking their buildings – at no cost.
“There’s not a lot of heavy lifting for the towns – we’re doing the heavy lifting for them, at the beginning, to get it built,” says Thompson. “And the second thing we’re really doing is making sure that the portfolio is built correctly. You can make mistakes if you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, but we’re checking it to make sure it’s built right, so that going forward they can have some confidence that when it’s telling them information, that information is correct.”
Thompson also provides training to municipal officials so that they can maintain their portfolios going forward, and continues to assist the towns even after they’re set up, troubleshooting any problems they might encounter along the way and offering help analyzing and interpreting reports and energy use data.
“A little bit of support, a little bit of cheerleading – you can do this, you can do the data analysis, you can understand your information,” she says. “The thing I’m most proud of is that we have a program that’s transferring best methods to the towns so that they can make these better investment decisions using some more advanced tools. They’re using a tool that’s really geared toward helping them make better decisions.”
A Sustainable Partnership
“Towns will connect with us and say, ‘We want to work on the energy stuff,’ and we say, ‘Great! Here’s Amy!’ We put them in touch, and she just picks it up and provides the support,” says Lynn Stoddard, the executive director of Sustainable CT, a nonprofit organization that works to support sustainability actions in Connecticut towns in order to grow local economies, protect the environment, offer assistance to towns looking to advance sustainability initiatives, and recognize those that achieve sustainability goals.
“We’re trying to support, accelerate, and showcase sustainability action by towns,” Stoddard explains. “We define ‘sustainability’ very broadly. We sat down with a bunch of municipal leaders and other stakeholders for a year to ask, ‘what are the ingredients that make a town a great place to live?’ And one of those ingredients is effective use of energy and renewable energy.”
Thompson and Stoddard joined forces when Sustainable CT launched five years ago as a way to support towns looking to take action toward decreasing energy usage and costs and investing in energy efficiency improvements. Energy benchmarking is one step toward achieving Sustainable CT’s recognition as a Certified or Climate Leader community.
“Understanding your building use, and then monitoring that, identifying opportunities to reduce energy in town buildings – the EPA tool is supported by all of our taxpayer money, and it’s a great tool, but it’s cumbersome,” says Stoddard. “Without Amy’s help, you can probably imagine that’s a lot for a town to take on and get these accounts established and set up and working properly, and with their help, there’s just so many opportunities for energy improvement and cost savings. And as we’ve learned with schools, in particular, and offices – when they’re more energy efficient and comfortable and even using things like day lighting, they are also healthier and better places to learn and work.”
The partnership has been so productive for both programs that Sustainable CT recognized Thompson with its 2022 Partner of the Year award at a ceremony this past November.
To date, SmartBuildings CT has worked with more than 70 towns, school districts, and other agencies – reaching into every county in Connecticut – to benchmark buildings. More than 2,885 buildings in the state have been benchmarked through the program.
And while efforts have been largely focused on public buildings, Thompson is currently working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to pilot an expansion of SmartBuildings CT into privately owned commercial and industrial buildings as well.
“We’re getting these advanced methods and advanced tools into the hands of Connecticut communities,” says Thompson, “and then also, ultimately, through other commercial and industrial programs, into the hands of small and medium-sized businesses, who often don’t have access. They sometimes don’t have the staff at their own facilities who are aware of these tools or who know how to use these tools.
“And so, this is where people at UConn – researchers, professors, and even students at UConn – can really help communities.”
New Avenues for Engineers
Much of the heavy lifting to get nearly 3,000 buildings benchmarked has been accomplished by the students hired by Thompson to work on the program.
“There’s really two main goals here,” Thompson explains. “One is the community service aspect, to serve and support Connecticut communities. But the other is workforce development and training. I think the thing that this experience does for our engineering students is that it broadens their perspective about what fields and types of work they can do.
“A lot of times, engineers come in, and they think cars or planes are things that I can do. But I like this program, because it opens them up – you could be an energy engineer. If you’re interested, you can work on sustainability. You can do things, as an engineer, to help folks lower their energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to sustainability.”
That was the case for Julia De Oliveira ’22 (ENG), who worked on the SmartBuildings CT program while studying mechanical engineering at UConn.
“If you look at the sources of greenhouse gases in the U.S.A. back in 2019, and also 2020, it’s pretty much evenly distributed between sectors like transportation, electricity production, agricultural, and then industry, and then when you further distribute that electricity used by end use, commercial and residential buildings are accountable for around a third of those emissions,” says De Oliveira, who found that the program helped her develop a lot of interpersonal skills while interacting and building relationships with stakeholders in the program.
But it also helped show her new ways that her engineering studies could be applied after she graduated.
“During that period of my engineering studies, I was not sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “I just knew that I wanted to work in something energy-slash-sustainability, and I felt kind of lost because, at the time, I just thought that as an engineer I would have to make stuff and design products or consumables that people buy. And I wasn’t really interested in doing that. I’m really fortunate to have had the experience, because it introduced me to the whole concept and sector of building energy and maintenance.”
After graduating last spring, De Oliveira now works as a plant engineer for Collins Aerospace in Windsor Locks, helping to maintain different utilities around the facility’s campus and also working on energy efficiency projects.
“A lot of my job is working with technical products and data, and then also working with people like contractors and my own team,” she says. “Dr. Thompson herself really supports the students and helps them in their next opportunities, guiding them to what they may be interested in. Where I’m at now pretty much wouldn’t be possible without the program and Dr. Thompson.”
Mohammed Albayati ’23 Ph.D, a mechanical engineering graduate student who worked on the program for about two years, was drawn to the program through his interest in not only understanding how energy efficiency systems worked but also helping Connecticut communities.
“I’m very proud of working on this project with Professor Thompson, and mainly helping Connecticut municipalities and K-12 schools to understand their building energy usage and performance so they can better fund resources for energy efficiency programs and become more sustainable communities,” says Albayati, who not only did benchmarking work but also gave presentations to municipal leaders and supervised undergraduate students working with him on the program.
“The other part I’m really proud of is gaining those professional skills through this program, including learning how to communicate professionally with stakeholders like municipal leaders, directors of finance and buildings, utility employees, and even selectmen and women and mayors,” he says.
SmartBuildings CT is a part of the Pratt & Whitney Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering, located at the Innovative Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park. For more information, visit techpark.uconn.edu.