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Alex Maly, left, monitors the data-collection system, which Shanti Pless (middle) and Ed Hancock (right) helped create. Pless and Hancock work for NREL.





The Lewis Center Measures Itself

By Nora Sohnen


John Petersen occasionally climbs up on the roof to see the solar-electric panels in person.


APRIL 25, 2001--The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies probably never will be completely finished . . . and that's intentional. It was designed to be a structure that evolves and improves its performance over time.

Working with John Petersen, assistant professor of environmental studies, Alex Maly, a junior from Arcadia, Wisconsin, is participating in the center's evolution, including its newest addition: an information-monitoring and display system that keeps track of the flow of energy and cycling of material in the Lewis Center and surrounding landscape. The system has been gathering data since January.

From electronic sensors mounted on the building's roof the system tracks light intensity as well as wind speed, wind direction, and precipitation. It also monitors electrical energy produced by the solar-electric panels on the roof and energy consumed by the heating and ventilation systems, lights, and all other building uses.

The monitoring system includes the Living Machine, where water-flow meters and dissolved-oxygen probes measure how much wastewater the building's occupants produce, and how effectively the innovative wetland technology cleans it.

Eventually, the monitoring system will incorporate sensors in the landscape that measure soil moisture, temperature, and other factors. Those sensors will allow monitoring of the carbon dioxide that the landscape removes from the atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide is a principal cause of the greenhouse effect.)

To develop the new system Maly, an environmental-studies major, and Petersen are collaborating with colleagues at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory for renewable energy and energy-efficiency research, development, and deployment.

"For now we are designing the system to monitor the performance of the building and landscape and then to turn around and display this information to the public," Maly says, "but eventually we hope to use the same information to directly control and improve building performance."

"In a sense," says Petersen, "we are involved in a novel attempt to examine this building and landscape as an integrated ecological system--how is material and energy processed by this system? What changes can we make to increase energy production, decrease consumption, and improve the efficiency of resource use? How does the system evolve over time? To our knowledge the level of monitoring and evaluation that we are initiating at the Lewis Center has not been attempted elsewhere."

NREL has leant its expertise for installing sensors and implementing the monitoring system. But the information flow is two ways: NREL wants to know--as part of its own research--how the building is faring in energy performance and how it integrates natural and artificial lighting.

Besides his work on installing sensors and programming the data-logging computer Maly is involved in independent study this semester to develop a preliminary display system that will be accessible to the public. The work will culminate in a web site with visual representations of the building's energy use and production, heating and cooling, and weather.

"It's exciting to see the building pumping electrical energy back out to the grid in the middle of a sunny day," Maly says.

Soon enough, the rest of the Oberlin community--and eventually, a larger online community--will be able to enjoy that experience as well.





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