BRITE Energy Innovators

The Year of the Squirrel: Findings from BRITEhack 2020

Volunteer teams solve energy reliability, efficiency and communication challenges for critical community services 

BRITEhack 2020 is a civic energy hackathon that took place on January 31st at BRITE headquarters on Courthouse Square in Downtown Warren. A hackathon is an efficient, low risk way to encourage innovation, catalyze startups and engage talent. In 2018, BRITE partnered with the City of Warren’s Wastewater Department to tackle their energy issues. The winning team’s proposal resulted in more than $400,000 of cost savings for the City of Warren.  

This year, engineers, developers, designers, students and other disciplines gathered around two problem statements. The first problem statement is that Warren’s St. Joseph’s Hospital is burdened by the challenge of energy costs, reliability and disruption. Management seeks creative solutions for the hospital to reduce reliance on the grid and optimize efficiency. The second problem statement is that the Trumbull Metropolitan Housing Authority incurs large expenses from burst pipes when residents move out without notifying TMHA. The organization asks for the design of a sensor to determine occupancy status across a variety of property types. Approximately twenty people gathered into four teams to develop solutions by visiting sites, reviewing data, providing technical expertise and combining best practices.  

The team around the TMHA problem statement recognized that the organization has over 1,800 units as part of over 400 properties spread out over the county. When tenants move into a unit, the utility is set up in the tenants’ name. Thus, when the tenant moves out and the utility is shut off, TMHA is not included in communication that may lead to burst pipes if there are freezing temperatures and other costly repairs. It is estimated that these repairs are about $60,000 annually. The team looked at solutions including automation, regulation, technology, commercialization and implementation. First, the team recommended policy changes so that both the landlord and tenant are made aware by the utility when an account is opened, delinquent and/or closed. The engineered solution would be a device like a cell phone with a motherboard, sensor and data plan that would be about $60 a unit, or $110,000 for installation across all units. This solution would pay for itself in about one year and a month and be viable for 5.4 years.  

Three teams presented recommendations for Mercy Health and Warren’s St. Joseph Hospital. Currently, the hospital is powered by overhead wires with a single substation being located 1.5 miles away. The facility has three backup diesel generators that provide 80% coverage during failure. The facility wishes to decrease its reliance on its main source of electricity due to reliability and cost concerns. Outages cause delays in medical procedures and can be uncomfortable for patients in warm months. The teams came up with a number of energy efficiency solutions for the facility including replacing windows, adding film to windows to reduce thermal glare, insulting the walls, constructing a new building envelop, adding living roofs and walls, replacing the parking lot with porous pavement, adding a solar canopy, and adding occupancy sensors and building automation systems. The teams then looked at opportunities to alleviate the hospital’s reliance on overheard wires. Ideas included a microgrid, nuclear fission, a second grid-connection point, fuel cells and replacing the existing diesel generators with natural gas. Replacing the diesel generators and using on-site gas-fired generators would pay for itself within a year. Replacement of the generators was supported by several teams, along with mid-term recommendations of solar. The hospital’s footprint could provide approximately 23% of the energy needs and save the facility $67,000 a year. Immediate recommendations that will be considered by management include squirrel proofing key distribution interfaces and center phases and updating the transfer switches.  

This year’s event allowed Warren residents, technical experts, students and others to brainstorm ideas and make new friendships. BRITE wishes to thank the participants of the 2020 hackathon and its sponsors, including the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, Johnson MattheyMercy Health and Trumbull Metropolitan Housing Authority.  

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