Virginia Tech project designing sustainable home of the future

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Homeowners may have increased their use of Energy Star appliances and programmable thermostats, but these are only baby steps toward living in energy-efficient homes. More than 95 percent of homes are still powered and heated by energy sources that rely on fossil fuels.

The Center for Power Electronic Systems (CPES) at Virginia Tech hopes to change that. Its Future Sustainable Home project is focused on researching, developing and demonstrating advanced technologies that would create self-sustained homes. Energy in these homes is likely to come from new breakthroughs such as renewable sources, power converter-based loads and a controllable power distribution network.

The project also is intended to raise public awareness. “We are using the Future Home project as a means for us to address the issue of renewable energy in a way that everyone can understand,” says Fred C. Lee, director of CPES. “Basically, we’re looking at renewable energy and energy management in a way that could impact everyone’s everyday life.”

The project, started two years ago with a National Science Foundation grant, features a “living lab” that mimics a 1,500-square-foot home/small office.

The lab — which includes a kitchen, utility room, library/lounge and conference room — is outfitted with next-generation home appliances, high-efficiency light-emitting diode (LED) lamps and home robotics. Everything is powered by multiple renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar panels. The home also relies on plug-in hybrid electric vehicles for use as backup generators or for energy storage. With all these features in place, Lee explains, the home/small office could then act as both a supplier of energy to the local power company and as a user.

The goal, says Lee, is to test the efficiency and efficacy of the various technologies and power sources, eventually including geothermal and fuel-cell energy. Tech hopes “to demonstrate that with these various means we could minimize utility power to a point where the home could be self-sustaining,” he says. 

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