The Energy Initiative’s broad approach to tackling global energy challenges drew a graduate student more than 4,000 miles this summer to work with researchers at Duke University.
Alberto Pizzolato is studying energy and nuclear engineering at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm, Sweden, in a dual degree program with the Politecnico di Torino in his native Italy. He is due to complete his master’s thesis (focusing on molten salt energy storage for concentrated solar power) next spring and plans to continue pursuing energy research and, possibly, a PhD in mechanical engineering.
Recently, Pizzolato finished a seven-week visit to Duke where he engaged in energy research with the Smart Home program and the Energy Initiative.
He was drawn to Duke University because of its reputation “as an outstanding university at a global level but also as a leading institute in technology innovation,” Pizzolato says. “I was told that research at Duke is considered to be the most valuable academic activity – which is not the case in many universities in Europe – and I was sure an experience here could be crucial for my professional growth.”
Pizzolato (pictured above, at left, with Energy Initiative postdoctoral fellow Kyle Bradbury) focused primarily on investigating techniques for gathering device-level insight from building energy data. The work is foundational research for a larger project on energy disaggregation across Duke – a project that is taking place under the auspices of the Bass Connections in Energy program.
Working alongside energy researchers from the Energy Initiative, the Pratt School of Engineering and the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Bass Connections project team is using building-level electric power readings in conjunction with machine learning techniques to disaggregate building-level data into appliance-level information.
Their work has numerous applications for reducing energy consumption and costs for residential, commercial, and industrial electricity customers; developing new policies and electric utility rate structures; and enabling the development of behavior science experiments related to better understand individual energy consumption choices.
The team is using the Duke campus as a test case, so Pizzolato investigated the Smart Home’s energy data collection systems. He analyzed the Smart Home’s extensive electric metering systems and wrote Matlab code to collect snapshots of individual electrical appliance power signatures. He then tested how well appliances can be classified by these power signatures.
This work will be built upon in the fall as the five students and six co-leaders that make up the Bass Connections project team continue this year-long interdisciplinary project.
“Being involved in a real research project in an institute such as Duke is something everybody interested in research should experience,” he said. “I had to deal with some degree of uncertainty because I did not work on what I would strictly consider my subject. I was given a lot of help that allowed me to bring my own contribution to the project.”
Pizzolato was deeply impressed by the foresight and understanding of energy-related challenges that led Duke to create the interdisciplinary Energy Initiative.
“Most of the time, when we talk about energy it is not just a matter of pure engineering,” he said. “I firmly believe that the energy field is a broad topic that must be tackled laterally, and a multi-disciplinary focus (e.g. engineering, social sciences, policy) is the key to reaching appreciable outcomes. I was glad to observe that this is exactly the direction in which energy research at Duke is moving with its Energy Initiative.”
Each summer, the Smart Home sponsors an exceptional student from KTH Sweden to work on a project related to the Smart Home program. Pizzolato, like other students in the Smart Home program, lived in the dorm/house. Along with his research, he gave tours of the home and its sustainable design features for students in the Duke Talent Identification Program, and he constructed an electric bicycle for Smart Home residents to use.
“The skills I learned here are certainly priceless and I am impressed by the great amount of knowledge I got in such a small amount of time,” he says. “I cannot stop thanking Duke and my colleagues here for that.”