For the inquisitive minds at REGEN Energy Inc., the question was how to turn "dumb" buildings into "smart" ones.
For Toronto's Centennial College, being wooed to evaluate REGEN Energy's wireless energy-saving load-management devices for buildings was an opportunity to further the school's applied-research mandate.
When the college's Energy Institute and REGEN Energy, a Toronto-based small business with a staff of about 10, were first matched up in 2006, there was no guarantee their investigative fling would go beyond a few months.
But the partnership serves as a glowing example of how industries and colleges can parlay a seemingly fleeting relationship into a long-term bond.
Centennial is among just over half of the approximately 150 colleges across Canada involved in applied research, undertaking $100-million to $110-million in research activity annually, according to Lorna Malcolmson of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
In many cases, hooking up a business with a college for a particular project requires advance work, says Trish Dryden, Centennial's director of applied research and innovation and one of the founders of the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation - a consortium of 10 colleges that works to help business and industry become more competitive.
"What we do at Centennial's applied research centre is be a matchmaker with funding and try to figure out how to go after local, provincial and national grants to put everything together," says Ms. Dryden. "We need to ensure the research is ethical and appropriate, and meets industry partners' needs in terms of intellectual property - all the infrastructure that has to be put into place to try to make it as easy and fast as possible."
And time and resources are scarce, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that make up the bulk of industry members seeking out colleges' applied-research help.
"Most SMEs don't have research and development offices," says Ms. Dryden. "Usually it comes down to a bunch of [company personnel]saying, 'We're really into something, so how do we get the research we need without having the human or fiscal resources to take on this innovation?' Often an inventor who has something they want to get to the marketplace are trying to beat the clock, to move things forward quickly. One of the things colleges can do is we can move quite quickly on things, because of the way we're structured - we are pragmatic and can put together the right teams quickly."
In the case of REGEN Energy, headed by CEO Mark Kerbel, chief technology officer Roman Kulyk and executive vice-president Chris Beaver, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) linked the company with Centennial to evaluate the company's innovative wireless device: EnviroGrid.
EnviroGrids automatically control electric loads like air conditioners, water heaters, lighting systems and battery chargers using what is called swarm-intelligence logic, says Mr. Beaver. Each controller is about the size of a cigarette package - a sort of wireless radio that sets up its own network to communicate with other controllers about when is a good time for an electrical load to run or take a break. Plugged into "loads," such as appliances, and wall plugs, controllers "take a dumb building and make it smart without a massive investment," he says.
Today, the technology is being used in many small to mid-sized industrial and commercial locations, including schools, hospitals and government buildings in Ontario.
But before EnviroGrid was patented and trademarked and hit the wider market, REGEN Energy sought third-party, independent validation.
Enter Herb Sinnock, manager of Centennial's Energy Institute at the School of Engineering Technology and Applied Science. OCE "brokered" a meeting between the college and REGEN Energy in the late spring of 2006.
Mr. Sinnock enlisted the help of Dave Clark, who graduated from Centennial's environmental protection technology program in 2005, and was already working as a project analyst with the Energy Institute.
With help from a $95,000 OCE grant sponsored by the Ontario Power Authority, REGEN Energy asked the Energy Institute to assess the numerous EnviroGrid installations at a four-storey, 40,000-square-foot electrically heated office building in Toronto that serves as the headquarters of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
The controllers had already been in operation for more than two years at the building, and not only were providing customers with savings by reducing their energy consumption during peak demand times, but also helped them save on their overall consumption - a side benefit that was only discovered after Centennial did its validation research, says Mr. Beaver.
The three-month, work-intensive summer for Mr. Sinnock and Mr. Clark began with a work plan.
"We knew we had an existing building with an existing load [electric baseboard heaters that use a lot of energy]" says Mr. Sinnock. "The first thing we had to do was understand how the building and those [space]heaters could operate with no controllers at all. That involved quite a bit of work - figuring out how the building was affected by outside temperature, how the wind was blowing on the building and to some extent what direction the wind was coming from."
After much analysis, Mr. Clark and Mr. Sinnock constructed a mathematical model to determine how the building would react in various situations, such as with no controllers, and then with the controllers, over a period of time.
"Based on several weeks of data, on what was going on with the space heaters, we managed to figure out what would happen [with the building's energy use]over an entire season."
Mr. Clark says the long hours with often no days off were stressful.
"We were working with very quick timelines," he says. "They needed their data verified … so it was a lot of number crunching and data analysis, and it was, 'OK, we need to do this as soon as possible.'
"I'd never been in a do-or-die situation like this, so it was kind of neat to take up the call on their behalf and give it a run analyzing the data."
The fruits of the team's labour was a 70-page report, with 100 pages of appendices, that concluded the EnviroGrids were "very clearly doing what [REGEN]intended them to do, i.e., providing peak demand savings, but we also discovered the controllers could save on kilowatt hours, the consumption of energy, as well as the peak demand - extra savings for the building," says Mr. Sinnock.
"REGEN was thrilled."
So thrilled, says Mr. Beaver, that REGEN Energy is committed to using Centennial's applied research talents over the next two to three years as the company targets other provinces for its EnviroGrids, and strives to give Ontario a competitive advantage in the development of smart grids - electricity-delivery systems of the future that use energy- and cost-saving digital technology.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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